Surviving The Apocalypse, Step 1: Don't Panic

By: Eric Marcoullier and Joseph Logan mentors of Labs.

Over the coming weeks Eric and Joseph will dive deeper into each of the steps outlined in their first post The Startup Guide To Surviving The Apocalypse.

If you’ve ever read The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know the phrase, “don’t panic.” If not, put it on your quarantine reading list. And grab a towel.

If you’ve ever read Letting Go, by David Hawkins, you know that identifying emotions as they occur can help control and dissipate them. There’s way more to it than that, so add him to your reading list too.

The #1 step in surviving the apocalypse (startup or BigCo) can be boiled down to a phrase Joseph’s father used to tell him — “when you recognize you are digging yourself in a hole, stop digging.” When you panic, you’re digging yourself a hole. A really big hole. Without some way to recognize and interrupt the digging, you might find yourself so deep you’ll struggle to climb back out.

The challenge here is that panic is built on speed, and left to its own devices, panic becomes a nasty, self-reinforcing feedback loop. Once you start panicking, you become paralyzed by a rapidly repeating circular set of thoughts (Because A, B must be true. Because B, A must be true.).

The best way to stop panicking is to simply slow down. Take a step back, breathe deep, and take a few minutes to check in with yourself. Identify the emotions you are experiencing. Give those emotions a name. Often, that alone will cause the panic feedback loop to fall apart. Remember the keys of conscious leadership and step above the line — be open and curious about your feelings, committed to exploring why you feel that way. If you spend too much time below the line (i.e. closed off, defensive and focused solely on being right), you’ll find yourself on autopilot, headed straight down the bottom of that hole we just talked about.

Check in with yourself several times a day. It doesn’t have to be a whole convoluted process, just a momentary pause. “How do I feel at this moment?” If everyone did this once an hour, the world would be filled with some very chill people.

Also, don’t just practice this alone. Identifying your emotions is often easier with a trusted partner, so find a friend, mentor or coach (hey!) to talk to when feeling especially anxious. Better yet, set up regular check-ins with someone. An unbiased listener can far more quickly identify the fundamental flaws in your panicked assumptions and talk you off the ledge. And lastly, voicing your concerns out loud to someone else forces you to slow down. There’s that phrase again, “slow down.”

When Eric first started going to therapy years ago, the shrink diagnosed him with off-the-charts ADD and a fun little mood disorder. The two combined in such a way that, after having children, he was angry mostly all the time. The therapist prescribed medication and was very clear about his goals.

“Medication will not solve your problems or fix the underlying issues. It will, however, slow you down long enough to give you time to respond, rather than just react.”

This is really what we’re going for. Taking in data, processing it and then choosing an appropriate course of action. The opposite of panic.

If emotions are the short circuit version of everything you’ve ever experienced, then panic is a quantum computer that collapses everything about your personality down to the one state of highest probability. For better or worse, whatever is most heavily hardwired in your brain is you’ll behave. If you have existing challenges with your leadership style, decision making, communication, etc., expect those deficiencies to show up in wildly inappropriate ways when you’re panicking. We may have recently had a client tell their trusted executive team “if I haven’t seen [a specific document], it doesn’t exist.” That was probably the panic talking.

To end this post on a high point, we recently spoke with a woman who, after self-quarantine was announce, fielded non-stop emails and calls from her business partners, each of them asking for drastic changes to their company — lay off everyone, change the business structure, massive pivot… you get the idea. She could tell that none of them were in a good place, so she convened a group meeting to talk through the requests.

She started with the partner who wanted to fire everyone and asked him a series of questions — essentially the “five whys” in action. Why do we need to fire everyone? Why would we not be able to meet payroll? Why would we lose all our customers? And so on. She listened to him, made sure he felt heard, and slowed his ass down by making him clearly articulate his concerns. After doing so, he didn’t feel so worried. And once he was sorted, she did the same thing with the next partner, who was already much more calm than when the meeting started. She did this with every partner in the group. Leadership in action, ladies and gentlemen.

If you are feeling panicked, by all means, first see if you can deal with it on your own. That’s an important skill to develop, even in calm times. Starting a company is hard. Really hard. But, you don’t have to carry the burden by yourself.

If you’re a single founder, find a mentor or, better yet, a coach, with whom you can be vulnerable. If you have co-founders, now is the time to leverage them. Tell them what’s going on, and ask them to guide you back to sanity. We guarantee you’ll be doing it for them soon enough. No one should work through a crisis alone.

— Eric Marcoullier and Joseph Logan

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 with these mentors directly, please ask your Labs Manager for assistance.

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