Don’t get caught swimming naked when the tide goes out

I’ve always been a keen swimmer. I remember those early school lessons, squeezing into my trunks, a pound for the locker, a rubber wrist tag for the locker key and my weird fitting goggles. To this day I have not mastered the art of goggles – they are either too tight, let water in or go foggy. I’m resigned to the fact that they are part of the swimming experience.

In my head, I am an elegant swimmer, gliding gracefully through the water, with the power of an ancient Greek god. Until a ten-year old whizzes past me with the speed and poise of a dolphin. On good days, I can swim for up to an hour. This is a long time for my mind to wander, in between worries of getting a cramp and drowning, or feeling like I could give Adam Peaty a run for his money.

Recently, I’ve met a couple of blokes who are in the sea each morning at 8am as I walk the dog. I marvel at their commitment and motivation – and their sheer bloody-mindedness as they get into the water each morning, regardless of the weather, as I stay safely on shore. I am in awe of their tenacity and ambition for their challenge ahead.

All this talk of swimming allows me to introduce the Warren Buffet quote, Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. It’s a very apt idiom for the current business climate for startups. There’s little evidence that Buffet skinny-dipped himself as the motivation for the quote, rather he is referring to the more mundane tendency of companies to overextend when times are good, only to regret their imprudence when the tide eventually (and inevitably) turns.

What he meant by that is when business conditions in general are favourable, most participants look good. Flawed business models/practices temporarily show decent profits. On the other hand, when business conditions worsen, it is much easier to see who truly has a good business model versus who is just getting lucky during the boom times – meaning, you don’t really know how well or how poorly a company is doing until it’s faced with a major challenge.

And as fears of the new Omicron variant build, I fear the tide could be on the turn as uncertainty gathers on the horizon with a winter potentially disrupted again by Covid. We’ll then see the clues as to who’s been swimming naked emerging. The recovery in the second half of 2021 was encouraging, but the financial plumbing is under pressure as unsettling volatility surges into near-term thinking.

Faced with the prospect of further lockdowns, closed borders and nervous consumers, investors have reacted by selling shares in airlines and hotel chains again. The price of oil has slumped by $10 a barrel, the kind of drop often associated with a looming recession.  As scientists analyse the data in the coming weeks, the epidemiological picture will become clearer, but the threat of a wave of illness spreading from one country to the next is once again hanging over the world economy, amplifying economic strife.

During turmoil, strategies focused on differentiation give way to indiscriminate, short-term action, as explained by the market for lemons theory put forward by George Akerlof, and by the work of Nobel Laureates Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz. It becomes very difficult to signal that your offering provides more value than others when the context is extremely noisy and volatility is unsettling, and even the most startling creative strategies get lost in the maelstrom initially.

But let’s not get too deep into being dragged into the shadows of negative thinking of what may or may not be for early 2022, you’ve still got to grip your own startup thinking and be focused. Simply, view this latest COVID-19 variant as a jumping-off point that pushes you to an overdue pivot or a much-needed refresh. Be energised whilst others stagnate.

So, what are your thoughts, given the challenges you’re facing now and your view of the early months in the new year? The tide is certainly ebbing, what are you going to do to ensure you’re not caught out swimming naked in an outgoing tide? Here are some of my thoughts as you prepare to test the water.

1. Swim against the tide: allow yourself to change your mind Cultivate a capacity for reflection, and then as required, changing your mind. In reality, you could be working on hunches or insights, still experimenting based on early impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction with customers necessitates.

We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to shape our own version of reality. We can simply be wrong, or kidding ourselves. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, I don’t know, but ultimately, it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right, even if that means changing your mind about a strategic belief, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

2. Pace yourself: build pockets of stillness  Read poetry. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming and essentially not working – the best ideas sometimes come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the brain into manifesting and let the fragments of ideas float around our unconsciousness in order to click into new combinations.

Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most importantly sleep, as besides being a great creative aphrodisiac, also impacts our every waking moment, our social rhythm and our moods. Be as disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of entrepreneurial badge of honour that validates our work ethic, but it really is a profound failure of priorities. Build pockets of stillness and press pause.

3. Jump into the water: start, even if you are not sure Here’s the alternative. I have often thought too much in the past and borne the resultant cost of being stuck by the noise and not doing anything. I have found many reasons not to swim, many excuses – other things to do, it’s a cold day, I’ll go tomorrow –  you get the drift. However, the questions do not go away unfortunately, they are always there in some form or the other. How you face them up and respond is what matters.

If I need a reminder of making a start, I re-read the Elon Musk quote on innovation: There was a time when only those with the largest mouths could enjoy potatoes. Thanks to the invention of French fries, now they will fit pretty much anywhere. 

4. Focus: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives The Anne Dillard quote about how use our time reminds me to ensure we retain the capacity for enjoying what we do, to give startup life some highlights amidst the graft. The cult of productivity has its place and getting stuff shipped is important, but presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Our startup culture measures our worth as humans by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that, but this loses sight of having our own definition and perspective of success, and our purpose.

The tide will turn, and expect anything worthwhile to take a long time. It’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that, as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning post-Covid. The allotment doesn’t go from seed planting to blooming crops in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the process of the weeding, nurturing and growing. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny in a startup badged with our own identity.

5. Be curious: enjoy what magnifies your spirit Understand the difference between where you are and where you want to be, and then make it a habit to ask questions and be curious, even when the answers to those questions are uncomfortable. At the core of curiosity is understanding that you see the world through a particular lens of your own experience and ambition.

Curiosity is at the core of what drives the entrepreneurial spirit, the belief that you can solve problems with unique solutions and innovate on the status quo. Building a company relies on curiosity about testing different hypotheses and continuously iterating. This might be frustrating and you want to simply move forward, but I always tie this trait back to recognising the value of feedback. With the uncertainty potentially creating a thicker mist as the tide goes out, testing and feedback linked to your own fire-in-the-belly is a good tactic.

I’ve been about musician Patti Smith’s creative influences. She talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit – it’s a beautiful phrase and notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and revisit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once your fading enthusiasm has infected your vitality, but as an ongoing vaccine while you are healthy to stimulate your joie-de-vivre and protect your radiance.

6. Push on: don’t be afraid to be an idealist There is much to be said for focusing on the constant dynamic of startups we call immediate progress. But which side of the fault line between nurturing and doing are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to customer demands, but the idealist in me says the role of the entrepreneur is to lift people up, excite them with innovation.

Back to the outgoing tide analogy. In your startup the richest inspiring days are often made by lifeboats, where we make a series of great recoveries. But there are also shadows and currents in the deep seas that descend upon us from the darkest and most disquieting places to the unfathomed trenches of the startup soul where our deepest vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be.  Idealism is the engine of buoyancy that keeps you rising again and again toward the light once more.

A rising tide floats all boats, only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked. Buffet’s quote has long resonated with me, but the flip side of that is many successful businesses achieve their gains during low tides as they win market share from the naked swimmers.

I feel that ‘nakedness’ lies ahead in some form. The tide is going out, and the next wave hasn’t yet come in. We stand on the wet sand, being swept hither and yon by the seemingly capricious currents of Covid. We exhaust ourselves swimming against dangerous riptides that try to pull us out too far from land and a sense of groundedness. We are in the choppy waters of 24×7 busyness.

We’re just standing here on the beach. Finding our ‘sea’ legs. Waiting for the next wave. Wondering what the next wave will look like. Wondering about that next plunge into the sea. What will it be like? Different, for sure. But how?

The sea, the green sea, the scrotum tightening seas – the words of James Joyce in Ulysses captures the reality that the sea doesn’t like to be restrained, it has a serene brutality, filling the wet, briny air. As Buffet highlighted, you can’t be caught swimming naked as the tide goes out, you need to set sail and not be tied at anchor, and sail not drift. Whatever the imagery, prepare yourself for the coming challenges by being thoughtful, balancing thinking and doing, but don’t be left standing with the water waist high, waiting to be embarrassed.

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