My life in lockdown

A founder’s journey during lockdown in Italy

(Photo: Matteo Arrotta, “VQ-BDO”, Flickr, Creative Commons)
(Photo: Matteo Arrotta, “VQ-BDO”, Flickr, Creative Commons)
June 18, 2020
Edoardo Montenegro

Edoardo represented Italy in 2017 at Creative Business Cup with his startup, Betwyll, an edtech company. He is currently sheltering in place in Turin, Italy, during the pandemic and agreed to blog his experience for Creative Business Network.

Monday 9 March | Day 0

We land at Turin Airport around 8 p.m. We are the last to leave the cabin. Our little one finds it hard to make his way in our arms out of the plane. He is only 178 days old, but in Helsinki we bought for him a little cart that will help him to learn walking; a crewmember has kindly tied it to one of the many empty seats of the plane.

Here we are, my wife Giulia, my son Lorenzo and me, Edoardo, walking alone through the deserted halls of the airport. We were coming back to Italy after two months, with the feeling that the country we’re going to find it’s not the same we left a few weeks ago.

Loaded with bags, we push Lorenzo’s pram through the medical controls: a military, a policeman and a nurse check our temperature. Lorenzo scores 35.2°C, Giulia and I wonder if it is too low for a little baby. However, it means that we can all go home.

My father is waiting for us on his minivan: he won’t get out and I won’t be able to hug and kiss him. He is wearing a facemask, which my mother made with her hands watching a tutorial on the state TV. While I struggle with the bags a mixture of rage, anxiety and emotion fills my heart.

It’s dark outside; the highway from the airport is unusually empty. Lorenzo is very tired and can’t stop crying; beneath his screams I can hear the noise of a helicopter in the distance. We finally get home, nobody is outside.

A few minutes before falling asleep I read the breaking news: starting from tomorrow, the whole country is under lockdown. At first I would like to share the news with Giulia, then I decide to keep it for me for a few hours. We need to sleep, now. And I need to figure out a way to run my company remotely.

Tuesday 10 March | Day 1

(Photo: Paolo Margari, “mobile”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

It’s 8:30 a.m. when I reach the dermatological hospital. I came here wearing a couple of gloves and one of the PP2 filtered facemasks that I previously used to ride my bike to work in the city traffic. All of the sudden, they’ve become extremely valuable and almost priceless. Sort of like gold.

A group of people crowd the doors, while a bunch of nurses fight to make them follow a protocol that has probably been established overnight. In order to get into the hospital, you need to fill out a form explaining whether you previously visited China or one of the most affected areas, as well as your personal health condition.

If you need assistance for serious reasons, you get it. Otherwise, they ask you to come back later on. They let me in. A year ago I was treated for a serious skin cancer and now I am enrolled on an immunotherapy program, which implies daily pills and a monthly visit to the hospital. The nurses at the door recognize me; they are the angels who healed my wounds during the days following my surgery.

«It can’t be real», I whisper to myself while I pass across this scene which seems to stem out from The betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, the novel that every Italian student has to read and prepare during high school. It tells the story of Renzo and Lucia, struggling to get married during the plague of the XVII century in Milan.

When I meet the doctor, he really looks to me as one of the characters of the book. He and his team are doing as always a wonderful job. As a patient, you soon realize that while working on the front line they’re reshaping every process so that it can fit with the new conditions. He is teaching me something: dire straits are the best condition ever to innovate.

Wednesday, 11 March | Day 2

(Photo: Giorgio Tozzi, “coop”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

As I get into the mall, it’s easy to notice that the atmosphere has changed. The shops surrounding the supermarket are still open, but none is inside them. There are neither flocks of youngsters flooding the fast food nor processions of elders checking out the last new thing to buy.

Panic buying began a few days ago. Walking through the supermarket I can see several employees working to restock the shelves. However, some goods are still missing at all: toilet paper, alcools, disinfectants, as well as some kind of pasta and canned goods. Strangely enough, some brands were left on the shelves, while others disappeared. It probably means that the power of marketing is strong in spite of fear.

«Sorry, mate» – I have to interrupt a phone call with a friend whom with I am working to launch a new project aimed at fostering digitalization in Italian schools – «I need to hurry up since too much people is coming». I was almost alone when I got into the supermarket, but it looks like many others are now gathering there.  

We will get out of this crisis with much more willingness to pay with credit cards and digital devices. It’s something I did experience in Northern Europe, where everybody pays digitally and shopkeepers give you a paper receipt only if you ask of it. Innovation is something, which is nice to have until it doesn’t save your life.

Meanwhile, late at night, we lean that starting from tomorrow all shops – except grocery stores and pharmacies – will be closed.

Thursday, 12 March | Day 3

(Photo: Metro Centric, “Scuola”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

As a startup, at Betwyll we provide reading services mainly to schools and universities. The problem now is that schools have been shut down and no one really knows when they might be reopened. I daresay our team was very fast in spotting the black swan.

Luckily enough, when the outbreak started we had just entered a product development phase. We are shifting from a minimum viable product that was able to impact on hundred of schools to a full software as a service platform which will be ready in autumn. The virus outbreak pushed us to reinforce our plan.

I am used to that. When we see a danger approaching, as human beings, we have two reactions to put into practice: escape or fight. I like to fight. Last year, when I realized that I had a cancer and – a week later – Giulia and I learnt that we were waiting for a baby; I took a year off from the full time job at a bank to focus on my family and my startup project.

It paid off. In July we got married. In September Giulia gave birth to Lorenzo and, meanwhile, Betwyll was accelerated by xEdu, the leading edtech accelerator in Europe. We started the acceleration program in Helsinki a few weeks after my surgery. I learnt to be resilient and now I feel like the coronavirus will make us stronger, in spite of all odds.  

What does lockdown mean for a small company? Some of your revenues are delayed or put at risk, while fixed costs stand there to make you sink: since we provide a social network for reading, Amazon, Google and several other software providers charge us every month via credit card, without delay. And of course, the first ones you think of are your collaborators.

In less than 72 hours we cut several variable costs, starting from our wages. All of the founders will rely on other jobs to make a living until the end of the year, while we will preserve all the planned investments in product development. Why? Because we provide digital services for schools, which are what schools need more now that they’re closed.

Friday, 13 March | Day 4

(Photo: Lorenzo and Edoardo under lockdown in their flat in Turin)

«How beautiful our Youth is / That’s always flying by us! / Who’d be happy, let him be so: / Nothing’s sure about tomorrow» (Lorenzo De’ Medici, 1490).

Today little Lorenzo is 6 months old. During the last year, I often asked myself which kind of world he will be living in as an adult. So far, in Europe, we witnessed the rise of populist goverments, a resurgence of xenophobia and racism, an instable economic situation, Brexit and, most of all, the feeling that wars in Africa and the Middle East are also our fault. 

At the same time, these are such interesting times in which to live. To a certain extent, it looks like we are on top of an unprecedented prosperous era: 75 years of peace in Europe, a slowly and yet effective unification process in place, nineteen countries using the same currency, hundred of thousands of young people traveling through Europe and several disrupting innovations that are changing forever the way we – as Europeans – live and think.

This virus outbreak is a great chance to make a balance of your life. During the last twenty years I have been a brilliant student, a bank clerk, a writing teacher, a cultural activist, an edtech entrepreneur. I always put passion in what I do. But now, all of a sudden, I realize that all I do is meant to leave something – a memory, an identity first of all – to my son. What I would like him to think about his father, once he grows up?

When we lived in Helsinki, I used to have a walk on the Uulanlinna waterfront every day, early in the morning. While walking, I often recorded a voice diary for Lorenzo. Talking to your son as if he were 18 is a great exercise to put your own life into the right perspective. If there is one thing that I learnt and that I would like to pass over to him, this is the idea that courage is not the absence of fear; courage is our willingness to face what you fear.

This is probably the most important lesson I learned from my experience as a startup founder and edtech entrepreneur. And this is why now I can recognize entrepreneurship in some teachers, in some doctors and in many persons that are not entrepreneurs strictu sensu, but who became able to run their lives always assessing risks and taking action to transform problems into opportunities. Hopefully, Lorenzo will learn it before I did.

Saturday, 14 March | Day 5

(Photo: Morten, “RAI”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Giulia and I have been living without a TV since we met. As many Italians, we were both fed up by the influence television – and football – had on our society. However, from time to time we used to look online for fictions, old movies and documentaries by the Italian state television, RAI. Then, as many other young adults living as a couple, we fell in love for Netflix and other content focused streaming digital platforms.

Recently, RAI launched a new streaming portal, which is admittedly similar to Netflix, albeit the content is taken from his current programs and its archive. Actually, one of the many positive side effects of the virus outbreak is that Raiplay’s showcase has changed overnight. While before it was focused on variety shows and easy going fictions, now it puts in evidence baby, teen and learning programs, as well as novels, documentaries and history programs.

It looks like the danger which our nation is facing – as well as the fact that students are now home everyday – pushed the national TV to reaffirm its role as a public institution willing to educate (and not just intertain) citizens. «Ok guys,» I would like to ask them «well done. But where have you been during the last twenty years?».

Unfortunately, I can’t talk to them and they are not listening. But there is one thing we can still do. Giulia and I spend the day watching La Storia, an old TV fiction from 1986, inspired by the homonymus novel by Elsa Morante. Watching this story set during World War II we witness something that now looks more familiar: people queuing for food as well as people who were unable to travel across the country.

Admittedly, we live in a state of war now. Our enemy is almost invisible, but it is everywhere. And it looks like this enemy is keeping the country together now. We are all aware that the many reasons for which the country was divided, just a few days ago, suddenly disappeared or, at least, have been put aside. There is probably nothing new in that, I suppose that it was the same for the Greeks and the Romans, for instance. The price will be heavy, but we’re here to fight.

Sunday, 15 March | Day 6

(Photo: Guilhem Vellut, “Morning fog”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Today I would like to raise my eyes on the map. I feel like needing to look at what is happening from a larger and arguably more objective prospective. I mean that would like to reflect a little bit more about numbers.  

So far, according to John Hopkins CSSE, in Italy the virus has killed 1,809 people. As far as I’m concerned, the number of deaths is the only somehow reliable figure to look at, because the number of confirmed cases depends on the number of tests made on the population.

Otherwise, you would not explain why the Covid-19 syndrome has an apparent mortality rate of 6.6% in Italy, 4.5% in Wuhan (China) and 0.8% in Korea. The higher the number of tests, the higher the number of confirmed cases, the lower the mortality rate.

Italy has the 2nd best healthcare system by population in the world (Korea is 58th). It is 5th in the world for life expectancy (Korea is 9th and China 54th). It is 2nd for ageing population (Korea is 49 and China 64). It is 70th for population density (Korea is 23rd and China is 80). 

Notwithstanding climate issues, the virus might have had a deeper effect here owing both to ageing population and to population density, which is relatively high as well, while the quality of the healthcare system should determine a relatively strong safety net for everyone.

According to a study by Silvia Merler, the virus is unfortunately spreading following the same path everywhere: Spain and Switzerland are 5 days behind Italy, Belgium and France 9 nine days behind, Germany and the Netherlands 10 days behind, the UK 14 days behind and USA 16 days behind.

If these data are correct, we must be prepared for the worst. However, each country is learning from those which were hit first and most (China, Korea, Italy) and containment measures will have some effect to relent the virus, lifting the charge on healthcare systems.

So far it looks as if, as a country, we’ve been doing our best to tackle with the epidemic and nothing has been hidden to the local population and the media. The Economist wonders whether Italy is set to become a role model. I think we should simply learn from each other and I would prefer the European Union to fight this virus together, instead of each country within its own borders.

Monday, 16 March | Day 7

(Photo: Chris Goldberg, “Screaming Statue – Palazzo Nuovo”, Flickr, Creative Commons)

As our days of quarantine pass by, all of us work to tighten our weapons against the virus. Actually, during the first days we were too scared to understand what was happening, since most of us shifted from a «It’s just a flu» mode towards a «This is going to kill us» mode.

So far, we learnt that scarves or homemade face masks are useless. They may help you to feel more comfortable, but they won’t save you. Chirurgical masks are supposed to be thrown away in a few hours. FFP2 and FFP3 masks can be used several times, but you’re supposed to handle them carefully, because the virus can live on their surface for long.

Here comes the doubt that, apparently, no one has solved so far. We’ve been all reading a lot about the virus, but when it comes on how long it survives on surfaces no one has an answer. As for social distance, we all took for granted that 1 meter is ok, even though we read about an unconfirmed Chinese study according to which the virus hits from 4.5 meter.

Some say that it’s very unlikely that the virus can survive for more than half a hour on a surface, while others say that it can resist there for nine hours of for several days. In normal conditions, you would get rid of any superstition just asking the scientists and checking for authoritative sources about it. With coronavirus, you can’t: scientists have the same doubts.

As a consequence, now we’re considering keeping our shoes outdoors and use the same pair of shoes – just one and always the same – to get outside when it is necessary. At the same time, since detergents kill the virus, people spend several hours a day cleaning the house. I have never seen so many people cleaning their balconies during the night.


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