Despite what you may read as prevailing headlines, running a startup is not all balmy sunny days and clear blue skies. In fact, founder entrepreneurs will tell you it is frequently stormy, a struggle with minimal hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and financial instability. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the sturm und drang that may wash over them.
A confluence of unforeseen challenges may create uncertainty around you – not enough customers, cash flow, product instability, hiring gaps – it’s enough to make you feel all at sea. The challenge facing many startup founders is not unlike that described in the Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book The Perfect Storm.
Junger’s book 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 as it lashed the coast.
In late September of 1991, the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail departed the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts with six men aboard, for a month-long fishing trip. The Andrea Gail was a 12-year-old, 70-foot vessel, scheduled to return to port after a sword fishing trip to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, more than 900 miles off shore.
In late October, a powerful storm began to build 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.
After Andrea Gail endured various problems, the crew struggled to sail through pounding waves and shrieking winds. 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 the boat is overturned. The Andrea Gail and her crew were never heard from again.
Junger describes what it is like to be helpless in the grip of nature. All of the fishermen know the danger, they have lived alongside the sea long enough to know they may not come back, that once in the grip of such a storm, they can only hold on and hope. Junger’s book becomes an elegy for all those lost at sea.
George Clooney plays the role of Captain Billy Tyne in the film version of Junger’s book a grizzled, jumper-wearing fisherman, who loves fishing so much, the playful acquaintance with the gulls, the ‘throwing a wave to the lighthouse keeper’s kid’ as he enjoys the freedom of the ocean, shouting inaudibly into the driving wind and rain. In drenched and windswept stories like The Perfect Storm, the forces of the sea complicate and intensify human dramas and human conflict as the Beaufort scale cranks upwards.
No matter how optimistic you are, how good your ideas are, 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. So how you should you respond to such setbacks, especially when a few come together in a Perfect Storm?
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.
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.
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 and to make the best possible decisions by getting most out of others. Both prevent you from seeing things accurately, and understanding things.
See the world through other’s lens Rather than thinking that you’re right, think about how do you know that you’re right? Recognise that to gain the perspective that comes from seeing things through another eye’s, you must suspend your own judgment for a time, and evaluate another point of view. Remember that you’re looking for the best answer, not simply the best answer that you can come up with yourself.
There are many industries currently facing the disruption of their own Perfect Storm – take automotive for example, a backlash against diesel and carbon dioxide emissions, slumping demand from China, and uncertainty of trade tariffs post Brexit – plus the seismic shift to autonomous and electric cars.
Disruption is now such a familiar term, it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Yet its ubiquity reflects the perfect storm of revolutions – geographic, demographic and technological – that are rewriting the rules of business everywhere dramatically.
You have to deal with a new reality, where the new normal is no normal, where everything is volatile – your business model, the tastes of customers, the calibre of the competition. A startup founder’s perfect storm reveals a serendipitous union of illogical and uncontrollable events that result in the worst of times to test you to the limit.
By definition, a perfect storm is a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors. This type of situation is latent to the very essence of entrepreneurship because where risk is plentiful, volatility can soon follow. So, what are the practical things you can to in your startup business environment to ster through such turbulence?
Team unity: make the team not individuals the focus. In times of turbulence, create an environment where all members of the team feel they are essential, that each has a key role to play. There are no individual superstars with a special place.
Prepare, prepare, prepare: remove all excuses. Winning teams set out to ensure that every element of their business model is known to all and is functioning to the best of their combined ability. Make sure no one has an excuse for failure. That means preparing for things that could go wrong, as well as driving things efficiently that go right.
Balanced optimism: find and focus on the winning scenario. Startups will inevitably encounter setbacks, and need to pivot. The first step is to define ‘success’ – is it more customers, more revenue, more product? Of course, all of these are vital, but everyone needs to prioritise during a crisis.
Relentless learning: build a robust culture of leaning and innovation. The best startup teams learn quickly from experience. That means they take action, reflect on outcomes, and gain insights that help them continuously improve. Innovation and new ideas are the norm, even in times of uncertainty.
Calculated risk: be willing to sail into the storm. Every startup is a big risk, and there is no quick path to success. Winning requires situational awareness, always understanding the critical success factors, and working to stay aware and ahead of current realities around you.
Stay connected: cut through the noise of the wind and the waves. The information blizzard today is just as noisy as the storm outside. Don’t let it cloud your decision making, ensure you have your compass, North Star plotted and your defined dashboard of key metrics.
Step into the breach: find ways to share the helm. In adversity, any team member can be faced with a burden too heavy for one person to carry. A good team draws on each other’s strengths, and shares the load. One captain but every one is a leader in a crisis. Keep an eye out for each other, be supportive.
Eliminate people friction: deal with the things that slow you down. Fix the problem, don’t linger. Confront differences in ability without blame, add coaching; alleviate anxiety and mitigate conflict; provide time to talk about the crisis.
It is the perfect storm of entrepreneurship, the failures followed by immediate highlights of success, that is an underlying reality. Life’s personal challenges, uncomfortable business learnings, struggles and setbacks. It is the distance between where you are and where you desire to be.
The perfect storm that faces every entrepreneur can be likened to the ‘eye of the storm’, where calm winds exist at the axis of your business and blue skies abound, but nonetheless you are in the midst of severe weather. It can also manifest as a storm, so that it seems impossible to overcome the centripetal force that jostles you recklessly, forcing you into uncomfortable pivots and confusing turning points.
But instead of sticking your head in the sand when storm clouds brew, you need to develop the necessary fortitude, resilience and perseverance to weather the challenges. When the ground rumbles, when the waves swell, and the alarm sounds, resist the temptation to simply watch the waves come in. There are no safe harbours in the daily life of a startup.
Entrepreneurs arrive at this place because like real storms, you can rarely predict the exact time, location, and intensity of your 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.
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 entrepreneurs too.