The Startup Guide To Surviving The Apocalypse

By: Eric Marcoullier and Joseph Logan mentors of Labs

“Apocalypse” might be a little overdramatic, but for many startup founders right now, it feels pretty spot on. So my friend Joseph and I put together a six-step guide to surviving the coronavirus (or any other) apocalypse.

I straight-up admit that this list may feel a bit simplistic. I doubt you’ll read the rest of this post and have your mind blown. But I have yet to talk to a client this month who is going six-for-six on this list. And if you ignore these six things, your chances of coming out on the other side of the pandemic are, frankly, not good.

Because the elements of this list are so important, we’re accelerating this blog’s once-post-a-week schedule, publishing them as fast as we can over the next two weeks. Check back often, as each of the six points below are getting a deeper dive. First, today, a high-level overview introducing all of them.

You didn’t come this far to quit now.

1) Don’t Panic

There is a speed associated with panic, and left to its own devices, panic becomes a nasty, self-reinforcing feedback loop. Without an interrupt mechanism, once you start panicking, you can become paralyzed by a rapidly repeating circular set of thoughts (Because A, B must be true. Because B, A must be true. Panic!). To break that loop, you must slow down, identify the emotions you’re experiencing, and put them on notice.

Just by taking a step back you’ll see how quickly your panic dissipates. Focusing on your emotions (and giving them a name) often creates a long-enough pause that the feedback loop falls apart. This is the difference between having emotions and emotions having you. Investigating the foundations of your fears can also be helpful, as you’ll find that those assumptions are often fundamentally flawed. You’ll often find this works better with a partner, so keep this in mind when we arrive at our third point.

2) Communicate

Remember our very first Obvious Startup Advice post, The CEO Has Three Responsibilities? Never before has “Communicate the Vision” been more important. And it has ALWAYS been really important. At this moment, every person around you is going through the same shit you are. This is not a personal crisis; it’s a crisis for your employees worried about their jobs, your investors worried about their investment, and your customers wondering whether they can rely on you to continue solving their needs.

Everyone wants to know if you’ll still be around in six months (or, six weeks) to provide whatever thing they’re relying on you for. Communicate clearly so they have one less thing to worry about. Even if the message isn’t all sunshine and roses, they will thank you for it later.

3) Reach Out

Many founders have a natural instinct to be the hero who carries the whole world on her shoulders. Right now, you should be making a concerted effort to rely on your team, mentors, friends and coach. If you attempt to manage this crisis alone, you’ll make your job unnecessarily difficult.

Even in the best of times, we forget our support networks. Years ago, I lamented to an advisor over dinner that I had recently accepted some lousy funding terms. He reminded me that I had given him a full 1% of equity in my company, specifically to advise me on fundraising, and asked why I hadn’t reached out. I didn’t have a good answer for him — I simply forgot he existed in the moment.

Don’t ever be me, especially now. This is the time to slow down, take stock of the people who are resources in your life and reach out to them. It will help keep you from being completely myopic and seeing only the problems ahead of you.

4) Focus on your Customers

Here’s one where many of you might read and say, “well, duh,” but I guarantee you, there are plenty of founders out there who need to hear it. And you might be one of them.

This is not as simple as “just make sure they’re still buying what you’re selling.” Even in good times, I can often separate the founders who will thrive from founders that will fail simply by asking what their company does. Founders who are likely to fail will discuss their product, it's features and how they produce it. Successful founders talk about the problems their customers are struggling with, the impact of those problems, and then say “We solve those problems.” They might not even tell you how, they just focus on what they do for their customers.

Now is the time to be that founder (if you aren’t already). Your customers are freaking out just as much as you are right now, so you need to spend even more time helping them. Great CEOs understand their customers’ businesses better than their own CEOs do. In times of crisis, those businesses are rapidly evolving, so you better allocate time to keep up with those changes.

5) Dial in the Fundamentals

While your customers’ needs may be changing, your own company doesn’t need to be. At least, not drastically. Now is not the time to get clever. Now is not the time to start making ventilators. Now is the time to dial in on fundamentals. As Natty Zola, MD at Techstars Boulder, recently said, “pass on growth in 2020, focus on product and customer understanding so [you’re] ready to go fast in the recovery.” While I am not so bearish on growth, Natty and I agree that CEOs should focus on what they’ve already built and continue to dial in the solution to whatever problem they’re working on.

This is where one of Megan’s favorite metaphors provides a perfect visual — be like a duck. Everything you do for your customers is the duck you see floating above the water, looking chill as hell. Below the water, paddling like mad beneath the surface, are all the key things you do in order to deliver to your customers — communicating with your team, managing people well, creating operational efficiency, and of course, profitability. There is no greater fundamental than profitability. Now is not the time to drastically change your paddling motion, now is the time to paddle better than ever before. But if you’re not already doing those fundamentals, get started. Get started now.

6) Take care of you.

This is absolutely critical, and not *just* because we’re in a global pandemic and likely to get sick. Coronavirus itself can give you the sniffles, and it can also knock you on your ass — primarily based on your pre-existing health. Right now, more than ever, you need to focus on the fundamentals of personal health.

If you’re not sleeping, if you’re not exercising, if you’re not eating right, if you’re not finding ways to destress, you’re probably going to get sick, maybe more than once. When you’re convalescing in bed, you can’t work, you can’t be there for your team, you can’t help your customers, and you really can’t take care of your business.

Every day, make time for whatever you need to do to stay healthy while social distancing. Anyone who played with Peyton Manning will tell you he made the entire team better, even the defense, because he showed up every day ready to lead. If he had come to practice tired, sick or hungover, the ENTIRE TEAM, not just the players to whom he was throwing the ball, would have sucked. Now is the time to show up for your team rested, attentive, focused and ready to lead. If you’re not, you’ll cause way more problems than you’ll solve.

Eric Marcoullier has spent 27 years as a tech entrepreneur, starting digital companies in media, games, social networking, big data and travel. His companies have exited for more than $850M in total, including an IPO, three acquisitions and a turnaround. Additionally, he co-owned a software development shop for four years and has worked with Techstars since the very first cohort in 2007. All this to say that he’s seen some pretty successful companies, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of failed companies over the years (including several flameouts of his own). Eric blogs each week at ObviousStartupAdvice.com.

Joseph is a coach and turnaround veteran focusing on founders and teams. He has done exec stints as a CEO and COO, learning about businesses as diverse as data analytics and hemp-derived CBD. In his coaching practice, he has worked in teams in health tech, advertising, social media, behavioral health, and aviation. His work focuses primarily on team performance and operational discipline with a line of sight to profitability and increased valuation. Joseph blogs at theteamsthething.com and josephlogan.com, where you can find his TEDx talk, "The Upside of Crisis".

If you're interested in connecting directly, please ask your Labs Manager for assistance.



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