Through the use of interactive videos and artificial intelligence, Lifelike SA, based in Chiasso, is a pioneering company worldwide in the field of digital learning and behavioral development. The standardized and bespoke simulations developed by the Ticino-based SME open new horizons in practicing relationship skills for employees in a company and are used specifically in both the corporate and, surprisingly, the health sector.
"New technologies are essential in this sector," states CEO Andrea Laus during the interview conducted as part of the current study on SMEs. "The pandemic has shown us two things: on the one hand, the importance of having doctors and nurses who are ever better prepared in the art of providing emotional support through conversations with their patients and, on the other hand, that, although it may sound drastic, traditional training methods that require classroom attendance are in dire straits.”
Despite its focus on digital products, the company was equally affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown. First, due to travel restrictions, regular personal contact with foreign customers who represent a large part of the SME’s customer portfolio has been lost. In addition, for several months in 2020, there was an interruption in video recordings, which are essential to create the product, and this delayed the delivery of many projects that had already been planned. “Customer uncertainty has also affected our company,” says its CEO. "Overnight, many customers suspended activities as they awaited certainty in the news to contain the general panic.” Many projects, even those already planned for a long time, were therefore suspended and rescheduled.
This obviously meant reworking the budget. “Since we are operating in the online sector, we knew that our solutions would still be the first to be re-implemented and therefore we didn’t need to panic,” explains the CEO. "And in fact, just in the last quarter of 2020 we saw a gradual recovery in demand. Of course, this situation has caused a lot of inconvenience but it is encouraging to see that we weren't wrong.” A sign that, in the medium term, the company can benefit from the changes brought about by the pandemic. Because, as Andrea Laus states: "We are entering an era in which remote meetings will increasingly become the norm and learning to have better conversations will be even more essential with less physical proximity. That’s our job: helping people communicate better. So, in hindsight, maybe our product will be even more useful than before.”
The CEO is optimistic about the future. Digital training courses will not completely replace in-person ones, but will complement them, says Andrea Laus. However, digital technologies, such as Lifelike SA's artificial intelligence-based learning simulations, make learning more efficient, both in schools and universities, and especially in continuing education in the corporate and healthcare sectors.
The company has defined two key points on which it wants to focus in the future for its main target market, the United States. “The first focus is training courses related to social inclusion,” explains the CEO. "This involves teaching people to overcome their own 'unconscious biases' – that is, unconscious wrong assumptions about other people and to do it through better conversations.” The second point of focus is the "managing without authority" area. In other words, when co-workers take on coordination tasks within teams while being at the same hierarchical level. "This situation requires excellent communication skills," emphasizes Andrea Laus.
To successfully manage a crisis, an entrepreneur must be a little paranoid, says the CEO, and always think the worst while striving to achieve the best. "Also, they must never give up and must be able to foresee difficulties and pass on a sense of security to their employees."
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only brought challenges for Andrea Laus, but it has also allowed him to learn certain lessons. “First of all, you can work well even without the daily ritual of going to the office. And, second, there was no need for a pandemic to understand this.” The crisis gave him the opportunity to question deep-seated beliefs and try to follow new paths. History teaches us that we come out of dark periods even stronger, says Andrea Laus. "But to succeed, you need to have the strength, the courage, and the will to accept change."
When many of the projects in progress for 2020 were unexpectedly put on hold, the client quickly turned its attention to controlling and containing costs. In the meantime, to meet financial needs, Lifelike SA had access to a long-term government-backed loan and, to a much lesser extent, to short-time working measures. Fortunately, the long-term relationship with some major customers allowed them to fast-track payment receipts for other projects. The mix of these strategies allowed the company to cope with the temporary and unexpected financial crisis.
In the main, our support took the form of the re-scheduling of payments for the credit line, which led to the postponement of the 2020 payments. Also, we were able to quickly and efficiently manage the COVID-19 credit request. Our already excellent collaboration was intensified during the most difficult and uncertain periods. In particular, we had almost daily contact with the CFO, Ms. Arianna Laus.
The first piece of advice I would give is to ride the wave of digitalization and face the epochal change taking place with a positive mindset. Furthermore, I would advise SMEs to provide adequate and continuous training for their own employees, allowing them to experience digitalization in the best possible way. Finally, depending on the business sector, it might also be appropriate to evaluate whether the new digital solutions can be integrated into the company structure in the interests of efficiency, quality of services and products offered, and cost optimization.