Founders: how to battle a perfect storm facing your startup

Running a startup is not all clear blue skies and balmy, doing your own thing with a carefree spirit of adventure. There will be many positive, runaway successful days for sure, but founders will tell you it is frequently stormy, a struggle with hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and setbacks. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the turbulence that washes over them.

Most start-ups invariably face hurdles at some point that threaten their existence. Those that survive need to balance optimism with realism, manage risk, build resilience, and manage through the crises. The fickle nature of customers looking for a deal or new competitor offering leaves no respite, the success of a startup hinges on the founders’ ability to weather the storm. Resilience, the capacity to absorb unexpected setbacks and adapt to new challenges, is a crucial quality for entrepreneurs who wish to navigate these tumultuous waters.

A confluence of unforeseen challenges may create uncertainty – customer churn, product instability, hiring gaps – it’s enough to make you feel all at sea. Indeed, the situation facing many startups is not unlike that described in the Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm, which chronicled the storm that claimed the lives of six fishermen and the captain of the Andrea Gail. The storm left a trail of destruction from Nova Scotia to Florida, killing 13 people and causing $500m damage in September 1991.

Andrea Gail departed Gloucester, Massachusetts with six men aboard, for a month-long fishing trip. The boat was a 12-year-old, 70-foot vessel scheduled to return to port after a sword fishing trip to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, 900 miles offshore. But a powerful storm built in the North Atlantic, a storm that came to be known as The Storm of the Century by those in its path, and, simply, The Perfect Storm by meteorologists, who watched it come together.

Unknown to Captain Billy Tyne and his crew, one of the rarest meteorological events of the century was developing. Three separate weather systems were on a perfectly aligned collision course. A Great Lakes storm system (moving east), a Canadian cold front (moving south) and Hurricane Grace (moving northeast) were all headed for the North Atlantic. They would eventually meet where the Andrea Gail was located.

The fishermen knew the dangers, that once in the grip of such a storm, they can only hold on and hope. The vessel encountered an enormous rogue wave. They attempted to drive the boat over the wave, but it crests before it can get to the top and is overturned. The Andrea Gail was never heard from again. In drenched and windswept stories like The Perfect Storm, the forces of the sea complicate and intensify human dramas as the Beaufort scale cranks up. Junger’s book becomes an elegy for all those lost at sea.

No matter how optimistic you are, how good your planning, how skilled your team is, some things are bound to go wrong in your startup. You might miss a crucial launch date, or spread capital too thin, or make a relationship-compromising mistake with one of your best clients. Crises like these are individually preventable – you could have foreseen them and worked to avoid them – but you can’t predict everything, and sooner or later a crisis will pop up to test your recovery skills and put your business on the line. Often, a few come together in your own perfect storm.

Founders choose the life of challenge and hardship, gambling for achievement, so you should expect the inevitability of encountering times marked by confusion, chaos, and disappointment, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made. Founders jump on the roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built. They’d have it no other way, happy going round blind corners and crazy inclines. Having to pick themselves up from setbacks, dust themselves off and go again, is an accepted part of the journey.

A startup needs resilience too, not just the founder. Resilient startups are characterised by flexibility, strong team dynamics, and robust planning. To foster resilience at the organisational level, founders should promote a culture of openness and collaboration. Encouraging team members to voice their concerns and ideas can lead to innovative solutions and improvements. This sense of collective ownership and responsibility is instrumental in overcoming adversity.

But back to founders. Resilience is often mistaken as an inherent trait rather than a learned skill. However, the reality is that resilience is a combination of attitudes, perspectives, and behaviours that can be cultivated and honed. Founders need to adopt an adaptive mindset, viewing setbacks as opportunities to learn and develop, not insurmountable obstacles, equipping them to confront the inevitable challenges that arise.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, shows how to be prepared for knockbacks and be bold and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup. Here are some quotes from his book, which I think say a lot about building your mindset to make recoveries and comebacks.

1. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

2. I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to practice keeping your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best solution at times.

3. No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic and implement actions to increase comeback success.

4. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. Equally, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

5. It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset. Learn that tenacity is self-sustaining. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

6. We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Be prepared for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.

7. The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself. Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort.

8. Don’t let pain stand in the way of progress There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. Pain is a signal that you need to find solutions so you can progress.

9. Own your outcomes. Don’t blame bad outcomes on anyone but yourself . Whatever circumstances brings you, you will be more likely to succeed if you take responsibility for making your decisions instead of complaining about things beyond your control.

10, Be radically open-minded The two biggest barriers to good decision-making are your ego and your blind spots. Together, they make it difficult for you to objectively see what is true about your circumstances. Your blind spots prevent you from seeing things accurately and understanding things. We see things in our own way. Some people naturally see big pictures and miss small details while others naturally see details and miss the big picture.

So, let’s summarise the key takeaways from Holiday’s research, and my own experience.

Takeaway 1: In a start-up, you need to balance optimism with realism On the one hand, optimism is necessary to start a venture, but on the other hand, that same optimism gets founders into trouble by blinkering judgment. Achieving the proper balance between optimism and execution takes one to two business-building cycles. You need to balance optimism and realism, creativity, and execution, as well as vision and grounded practical thinking. You need to have your head in the clouds and keep your feet on the ground at the same time.

Takeaway 2: Crises are inevitable and sometimes unforeseeable Another particularly difficult challenge for founders is navigating black-swan events, like the COVID-19 crisis. This is something no founder could have prepared for. However, some types of risks are known and could be anticipated as part of a risk mitigation strategy. In anticipation of them happening, the founder should have a plan with protocols for handling them that gets triggered automatically, so that mitigation begins like clockwork.

Yes, the organization should always do a post-mortem to see what worked and what didn’t during the crisis. Conscious, deliberate learning and, to some extent, codification of that learning so it isn’t lost are crucial. This deliberate effort to constantly improve makes the organisation stronger.

Takeaway 3: Resilience comes from facing crises, learning to come out of them better than you were before Resilience to me means staying on an even keel, not giving up, taking ownership, inspiring others, and arriving at solutions in a tough environment. maintain an even temperament. Store some of the excitement when you get good news and use that energy to keep going when you get bad news.

A resilient founder asks How can we make the best of it? They just kept putting one foot in front of the other, despite how difficult it is.  You are not born with resilience, you acquire it through effort and life experience. If you see people you think are naturally resilient, take a moment and ask them about their life story. You will most likely learn that they became resilient because of very specific experiences.

Founders arrive at a place of chaos because like real storms, you can rarely predict the exact time, location, and intensity of your business challenges. And when everything appears to be spinning out of control it is essential to see your way clearly, stay the course and move forward. When the ground rumbles, when the waves swell, and the alarm sounds, resist the temptation to watch the waves come in. It is the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.

As an entrepreneur, you need to realise that you can’t win by sailing around the edges of the perfect storm ahead. You have to hit it with an innovative plan, and you need a confident and disciplined team to get you through it. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor says an old English Proverb, and that’s true for startup entrepreneurs too.

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