Co-founder and CEO of Flyability, a specialist in indoor drones for professional use, devices designed to enhance efficiency while also improving the safety of workers when carrying out inspections on industrial sites. Under the management of Patrick Thévoz, Flyability has grown from a staff of two to over 80, and has acquired in excess of 450 clients. Prior to founding Flyability, Patrick Thévoz was a strategy consultant specializing in the launch of products for the life sciences sector. He is a graduate in engineering from EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne).
As we emerge from the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, our journey towards a new normal begins. EY asked various thought leaders and decision makers to take stock and share their insights into what’s next. Patrick Thévoz, co-founder and CEO of Flyability, talks about the potential scenarios for the future development of the economy.
Can you remember the precise date on which the COVID-19 crisis first affected your company?
I recall two occasions in particular: at the end of February, we began to worry about our Chinese suppliers before finding solutions outside China, and viewed the virus as essentially an Asian problem. We underestimated the speed with which the problem would reach us. The second occasion, just before our annual skiing weekend—which was scheduled for March 13 and which we intended to go ahead with up until the day before—was when the health crisis hit. Overnight, nobody set foot in our offices anymore. We had to face up to the double problem posed by a health and an economic crisis which, as an employer, had to be managed, while also considering that the entrepreneur is responsible for safeguarding activities and protecting the health of his or her employees.
How would you describe the environment in which we currently find ourselves? Is there still an underlying sense of fear, of the unknown?
Fear is a very personal feeling. I believe the health fears are behind us, above all in Switzerland, “the safest place in the world” from both an economic and a social perspective. However, the potential scenarios for the future development of the economy differ greatly: will the impact last for several years with a snowball effect on employment and a long recession, or, conversely, will everybody return to work after four months at home as if nothing had happened? As a start-up, we have to face numerous uncertainties anyway, but we cannot exclude any scenario here. On an economic level, it is the long term that is worrying. I am not particularly afraid of a second wave of infections.
And what are your thoughts concerning the SwissCovid app?
As an EPFL engineer, I think the track and trace app has been developed extremely well, with the maximum possible level of data protection, but it has perhaps come too late and more people must be encouraged to download it. I worry that it may remain a little anecdotal.
What were the challenges for which you were the least well prepared?
Personally, what I fear most are the psychological effects on employees in the medium term. They have coped very well with the effects of the emergency and the panic, but I worry that certain of them may break down in a few weeks’ time. Having progressively increased the number of persons permitted to come to work in the office, we do not wish to compel anybody to do so. Today, anybody can return with advance notice, but some prefer to remain at home. We are attempting to move from a world in which the office was the norm to a world in which remote working will become the new norm, with the understanding that this could have negative effects on some employees who would function as consultants and could result in an “Uberization of the workforce”. In addition, we have invested in superb offices with a terrace and a view of the lake. We have integrated some new arrivals during the lockdown, and assimilating the corporate culture is not as easy from a distance.
Beware of the psychological effects on employees in the medium term.
What have you done in order to preserve or strengthen your personal resilience? How has the lockdown changed your own way of working?
I spent the lockdown in a two-room apartment in Lausanne with my partner who was also working remotely via telephone conferences. I myself initially had more of a directing role with our staff in order to establish the rules. I wanted to set a good example. My co-founder, Adrien, pays more attention to encouraging the creativity of the staff, while I have a more supervising approach, and this balance really does work very well. In addition, working from home means eating better, exercising more and being less stressed, because you are not constantly being interrupted.
What do you miss most about the pre-crisis era?
For very international people like us, it is agonizing to accept that you cannot leave the country. In the short term, you adapt very well, but if you are an explorer at heart, not being able to cross borders is anxiety-provoking.
If your video conference tool had a “time machine” function, what key message would you send yourself in 2019?
We all knew that the situation would not last forever and that it would become more difficult to raise funds, for example. We were expecting more of an economic crisis. But I would not necessarily leave a message, and if at all, it would be a message of encouragement: “Go on, you can do it.”
There is a saying that every crisis is a time of opportunity. Do you agree?
Yes, the world has changed. Marketing methods have been turned upside down: no more trade fairs, people have been averse to telephone calls because they were at home, but at the same time, long articles and webinars have been very successful, as these forms of communicating with clients have been used ten times more than normally. Our portfolio was already aimed at enhancing the safety of workers while at the same time reducing costs using robotics in particular—and after all, we are responding to needs that are of even greater relevance now than before the crisis. Put simply, projects with some clients will take longer. Nevertheless, we hope to register slight growth in the 2020 financial year.
Marketing methods have been turned upside down.
How would you describe the “new normal?”
I would say that we haven’t discovered it yet. But the things that have enabled us to get where we are now will not be driving our growth in the future. My three pieces of advice would be: 1) Take nothing for granted; we need to constantly reinvent ourselves. 2) Adapt very quickly and continuously to new challenges. 3) Being able to call things into question fundamentally is something that we must retain.