Nuno Oliveira developed a corona tool
Nuno Oliveira wanted to help entrepreneurs with useful advice during the coronavirus crisis. Together with Dirk van den Berg of Tilburg University, he quickly started research and developed a web-based solution for a self-help desk.
‘Also a researcher can offer first aid in the event of crises’
For entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized enterprises, the coronavirus crisis is hitting them extra hard. Their access to financial resources, advice, and politics is usually less than that of large companies. This can make it more difficult for them to recover after the economic shock. While these entrepreneurs are essential to keep the economy going.
Researcher Nuno Oliveira deeply cares about the entrepreneurs’ fate. He himself comes from a family of SME entrepreneurs in Portugal. For years, he has been researching how entrepreneurs adapt to challenges that come their way. No wonder he was immediately on edge at the outbreak of the coronavirus that brought the economy to a standstill. If there ever was a moment when Oliveira could do something, it was now. How? The answer became apparent when chatting to his girlfriend, says Oliveira. "She is a cardiac specialist nurse at a London hospital. Because of the coronavirus crisis, she had to do night work shifts at an intensive care unit, something she has never done. It was hard for her to figure out exactly what she had to do. Oliveira realized that the same applies to entrepreneurs. "I thought: right now you should help them with practical and useful answers to their questions.”
To make Oliveira's idea a success, speed was of the essence. But taking immediate action after a current event is not easy in science. Not only is the research itself time consuming but also finding the means to pay for it. Oliveira came across a great opportunity through his Head of Department (Organization Studies). During the coronavirus outbreak in April, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) made a fast-track call for research proposals regarding the coronavirus crisis. Oliveira applied immediately. "I wrote a proposal based on my idea in one weekend. Although it was my first NWO proposal ever, I hit it off immediately. Beginner's luck, I think." He was able to start collecting data from entrepreneurs near the university as early as the end of April. The research went through three phases, explains Oliveira. “In the initial survey, we took stock of the impact of the shock on the various aspects of the business. In May, we then examined how entrepreneurs adapt to the impact on their businesses. Finally, in July, we asked what could help them." He surveyed over 1,700 entrepreneurs across industries in The Netherlands. The survey showed that entrepreneurs were looking for cheap and cheerful practical advice they can immediately use. "They are not worried about the future, but about today.”
Agile and resilient little bird
Using his first-hand research with entrepreneurs, Oliveira drew up a list of useful tips and best practices. He wanted to make that information freely available to entrepreneurs. He called his project Kolibrie (Hummingbird). It got that name because of the resemblance of this little bird with entrepreneurs’ ability to be agile and resilient. The name also stands for collaboration for business resilience in industries. Why collaboration? "From my previous research, I know that collaboration and sharing knowledge helps to do business cheaply and quickly and to prevent mistakes. Yet openness is not always the main characteristic of entrepreneurs. They have a mentality of ‘I can do it myself’. That makes them less inclined to admit that they need help. Openness can also be tricky for them because someone else might copy their ideas."
For Oliveira, it became increasingly clear what the “gap in the market” was: an anonymous COVID-19 self-help tool that provides entrepreneurs with tailored advice. The problem, however, was that he had never built anything like this before. Fortunately, he could turn to Dirk van den Berg, a business developer at Tilburg University. With his entrepreneurial experience and network, Van den Berg supports Tilburg scientists in making a social difference. Among other things, he helped Oliveira finding a reliable software developer. Oliveira: "Dirk helped me a lot. Initially, we called very frequently, almost every day. He helped me with his network, language skills, and advice on project management. In the latter, we scientists usually do not excel!" Oliveira believes that it is important that the university stimulates entrepreneurship. "Rightly so that people ask: where were you when the coronavirus crisis broke out? Also, a researcher can offer first aid in the event of crises."
The Kolibrie tool is now up and running. Entrepreneurs will find useful suggestions for their company via Kolibrie. Can Oliveira give an example? "Good advice is that of a store owner. In his store, only five people were allowed to enter at the same time because of the social distancing rule. In order not to disappoint customers, this entrepreneur made it possible to make appointments. This has the advantage that customers receive much more attention and service. They now feel that they matter more. In this way, the disadvantage of the coronavirus crisis was turned into an advantage."
The tool is mainly a prototype. Oliveira is working hard to develop Kolibrie further and to find ways to share it freely among as many entrepreneurs as possible in The Netherlands. He thinks that the tool, in an adapted form, can also be useful as a first aid for regulatory changes that have major consequences for entrepreneurs. "Think of laws that force farmers to reduce their livestock to tackle nitrogen emissions. A tool that provides useful advice that fits the the reality of every entrepreneur would alleviate pain."
Nuno Oliveira – Organization Studies
Entrepreneurship at Tilburg University
IQONIC represents all aspects of entrepreneurship at Tilburg University. We help our students, alumni, academics and employees develop their entrepreneurial mindset, enabling them to make a difference in society, by stimulating and supporting creativity and innovation.