Leading a startup in times of political & economic uncertainty

The current global economic indicators make uncomfortable reading, even before the impact of Brexit is factored in. The UK’s Q2 GDP figures recorded the first quarterly fall since 2012, indicating the economy going into reverse. As investment and exports continued to fall, the conclusion is an economy stalling at best.

Consumer spending and government expenditure are currently keeping the economy afloat, a pattern we have seen for a while. Boris Johnson seems intent on easing the public purse strings, announcing a new commitment to spending money every day on health, education, social care and crime. However, this contradicts his tax cutting promises – you simply can’t have a high spend, low tax financial strategy. His numbers don’t add up.

So we are likely to see a growing imbalance in the UK economy, as rising consumer spending and government expenditure offset declines in investment and exports, and the risk of ‘no-deal’ and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit stalls investment. The Bank of England’s low interest rate policy is exacerbating these imbalances too, by supporting borrowing and encouraging savers to look for more risky investments because the returns on bank and building society deposits are so poor.

A Brexit-driven recession in the UK may be avoided, but there is still little clarity on whether the UK will be in or out of the EU come November, making Brexit the big story for the economy with this uncertainty. Johnson has begun to brace us for a no-deal Brexit, ramping up public spending by £2.1bn on preparations including stockpiling of medicines, and a public awareness campaign about potential disruptions.

Businesses remain largely unprepared for a disastrous cliff-edge no-deal and are in sit-and-wait mode, while the CBI continue to speak out against the ongoing economic chaos. At the same time, inflation unexpectedly rose above the Bank of England’s 2% target in July, putting renewed pressure on British households as the cost of living increased.

Also in July, the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.9% while the number of unemployed rose by 37,000. The number of vacancies – which had been on the rise since 2012 – started falling at the start of the year and continues to fall. This suggests that the UK labour market has started to turn down and that weaker economic growth and the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit could be starting to impact the job market, although the jobless rate remains at the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The average British worker still earns less than they did in 2007. In place of rising wages, consumption is being driven by growing unsecured household debt, which is now the highest we’ve ever seen in the UK. With incomes low, savings drained and debt levels high, a turn in the business cycle will mean financial hardship for families.

Outside of UK specific issues, the global economy is slowing at the end of a ten-year-long weak recovery from the 2008 financial crash. Germany has fallen into negative growth and is heading towards recession. In the US, Trump’s confrontational strategy to a trade war with China is having a negative impact on both countries. Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up the threats of tariffs on each other, dragging down global trade volumes and economic growth.

It all adds up to fearing the worst that the first global recession since the crash of 2008 is just around the corner. Recessions usually happen every ten to fifteen years: business confidence drops, investment declines, employment stalls and demand shrinks. Eleven years on from the crisis of 2008, expectations are that the next recession is unlikely to be a repeat of the last crash, as while there are risks to financial stability, none will impact the economy in the way the collapse of Lehman Brothers did.

So, let’s draw breath on the economic analysis. As a startup entrepreneur looking for meaning in this analysis, the information has contradictions, a mix of emotion, biases and cold-eyed calculation, yet expresses something about both the mood of investors and the temper of the times. Yes a recession is so far a fear, not a reality, but it is evident firms are struggling to get to grips with uncertainty, and anxiety could turn to alarm.

Often danger signals are ignored until too late. America’s decade-long expansion is the oldest on record so whatever economists say, a downturn feels overdue. For me, the portents are evident, confidence is being eroded and the storm clouds are gathering. My fear is that we’ll have a torpid economy at best, that is prone to curtailing innovation, entrepreneurship and startup investment.

There’s just no way to completely prepare for future uncertainty facing your business, simply understand that circumstances change and unforeseeable events occur, and you can make smart choices to prepare well. Not only will this provide you some peace of mind that you’re as ready as you can be, but you’re more likely to respond quickly and more effectively when trouble strikes, so here are some practical tips designed to help your startup prepare for the unknowns.

1. Stay in the now It’s easy to get caught up in your own startup bubble, but that’s a trap to avoid. One of the best ways to combat uncertainty is to stay abreast of economic indicators, as highlighted above. By being aware of the general state of the economy, and how economic forecasts might affect your business, you can put yourself a step ahead of others.

A forward-thinking entrepreneur understands the value of analysis, and not just ‘gut instinct’ intuition. Are you consistently reviewing your business strategy assumptions, value proposition and pricing to ensure they remain valid?

2. Prepare for multiple outcomes It’s wise to stop assuming a single outcome will turn up as the conclusion of a situation. You should prepare for multiple outcomes regardless of what you expect. Foresight enables you to respond effectively. The best way to prepare is to include your team in the planning process, you’ll get fresh, unique perspectives that are more likely to result in critical and innovative thinking.

There isn’t a crystal ball to help you predict the future, and there are many factors completely out of your control. Instead of trying to guess what’s going to happen next, place as many small bets as you can on multiple outcomes that are within your control. For example, focus on product improvements, customer communications, experiment with pricing and new marketing strategies.

3. Build relationships to create opportunities to grow In times of uncertainty, is a spreadsheet going to help you regain solid footing? It’s possible, but unlikely. The best investment you can make for future stability is relationship building to help weather the rough patches.

What are the signals telling you it’s time to be different and bold? Signals to watch for regarding customers are: Are your regular customers asking you for new things? How are new product/new customer sales against forecasts? When your regulars ask for new offerings they’ve shown you the direction where you’re likely to succeed.

4. Know your numbers When you’re dealing with uncertainty, it’s essential that you have a firm grasp of key financial numbers, cashflow and KPIs so you can make the appropriate changes quickly. Also, sit down with your sales team daily. This will help you pinpoint the messages to be taken between ‘lead’ and ‘lag’ indicators.

5. Regain control of your time Evaluating how you and your team spend your time helps you stay focused on the tasks that grow your business. For example, spending time writing content means you must understand what the timing and targets are for following up leads.

What’s more, tracking your time keeps you in control. It’s like weeding your garden; if you don’t stay on top of the weeds, they’ll eventually consume your entire garden. Also you should automate and delegate as much as possible so you can focus on those aspects of the business where you can personally make a difference.

6. Ensure that your passion adds up Passionate entrepreneurs can have rose-coloured spectacles, over-estimating sales and underestimating costs, being positive on the upsides and conveniently ignoring the downsides. In times of uncertainty, to convert your passion into tangible business, emphasise a strategy that makes financial sense based on how the elements of your business will come together. It’s all about the clarity of your thinking and your assumptions. The numbers fall out from this.

7. Attach to the market, not your idea Passion is an essential ingredient, but a successful start-up is rooted outside the founder, in the market with customers. To turn your passion into revenue, always think about your business from the customer’s perspective. Why would they buy from you? What problem are you solving? What is compelling about your value proposition?

8. Develop a sense of timing Waiting for the right moment to take a decision often makes the difference between success and failure. Adopt a ‘So What?’ and ‘What if?’ mind-set, and map out alternative options. It’s a marathon not a sprint, reflection and consistency are as important as innovation in resetting a ‘business as usual’ model in turbulent times. Be alert, timing is everything. You need to say ‘no’ sometimes, and make some bets.

9. Don’t micromanage Getting deep in the weeds gives you little time to get that 10,000ft perspective, you should work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business, you’ll find your greatest contributions come when you pull yourself back. Focus on your vision and North Star – each week ask yourself What have I done to move the business forward?

10. Don’t be too opportunistic, don’t be too defensive Strike a balance. Adopting a pragmatic, balanced approach is likely to maximise the chances of you surviving a period of uncertainty. Recognising that cost-cutting is necessary to survival while also understanding the role investment and innovation plays in long-term growth, is key to steering your business through choppy waters.

A balanced strategy accepts the reality of the present and reacts accordingly, while also preparing for the future. You can not only survive uncertain times, but also learn valuable lessons that will stand you in good stead for longer term success. Judicious investment, proactive innovation, increased operational efficiency, refocused propositions, honed processes and competitive advancement are all possible when it’s tough going, there are silver linings.

So, are you preparing for the potential recession into which your startup maybe heading in the next six months? Don’t ignore how much is beyond your control nor take your focus off of what is within your control. Develop the resilience, flexibility and competitive edge to ride through the rough waters and come out in good-nick, ready and aligned for when sailing becomes smooth.

Strategic readiness comes through a combination of awareness, flexibility, strong navigational leadership, resilience, collaborative working, considered learning, ongoing innovation and agility. Now is the time to act. Make the necessary adjustments to your business now to help prevent it becoming another statistic of an uncertain environment.

Taking risks is what a startup is all about, but you can research and keep your ear to the ground too – the process of planning is important – but in the end you have to work from your instinct and be fearless. When you’re feeling the apprehension about the horizon, that will help you manage the ambiguity of an unknown future and forge ahead in confidence.

For entrepreneurs, the dream of a future lies in the present moment. Great innovation comes from asking what could be. Don’t be afraid to take a risk to see your dream into reality, even if the waters are choppy. Security is mostly superstition. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Insights on negotiation strategy for startup founders from Brexit

The Brexit ‘in-out’ referendum promised and delivered by the then Prime Minister David Cameron on June 23 2016, has caused a huge political crisis, and divided the British people. He was dogged by the Eurosceptics in his party who wanted to cut the Gordian Knot of resistance to Britain’s EU membership once and for all, but Cameron’s referendum promise was folly based on no understanding whatsoever of the consequences.

Theresa May inherited this recklessness when she became Prime Minister following Cameron’s resignation after the referendum result.  The subsequent three years have offered insight and learnings on negotiation leadership, strategy and processes to reflect upon from a business perspective.

From the moment of her succession as Prime Minister onwards, May has had the opportunity and the duty to tell it like it was: to explain that the referendum had been based on false premises, that it over simplified the issue of exit; that no government could deliver a clean Brexit and, above all, that Britain would be worse off leaving the EU than staying in.

Instead, she eschewed the obvious reality. Her strident tones and attitude in setting down her ‘red lines’ at the outset were unilateral, likewise the Chequers proposal, containing provisions which would never get consent of the EU partners. Her repeated insistence that Britain could ‘take back control’ of its laws, borders, and finance free from EU interference, while gaining favourable economic relationship with the EU, was simply misguided optimism, or blind ignorance of the reality.

From the beginning, May completely misjudged the nature and complexity of the withdrawal process. She portrayed the discussions as a negotiation of equals, which it never has been, as the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital, and people – are owned and operated by the collective of twenty-seven countries.

As a way of beginning negotiations, May has made sound bite political gestures and jingoistic statements, than laying down a clear, strong strategy. Trying to start the Brexit process to her own timetable, May was trying to pull a unilateral move stating that Britain, as the country initiating the Brexit process was the dominant party. However, the EU was clear on its realities and process, and has remained strikingly united throughout the Brexit process.

In reality, this sort of power play is rarely constructive. If you come into a negotiation acting competitively you are likely to jeopardise initial rapport and relationship building opportunities, which are essential. May also lacked a clear mandate, clarity in her goals, cohesive team and united support to play it so forcefully, and the disharmony from within the UK Government has been palpable to the EC.

The May deal is now off the table, MPs have seized control of the process, the deadline has been extended and we are no further forward. There is even talk of revoking Article 50 or another referendum, two and a half years after the initial vote. All this work may now be nugatory, so what can startup entrepreneurs learn from the Brexit shenanigans and the importance of conducting effective negotiations?

1. Establish your principles It’s vital that you have clear principles and philosophy on negotiating style, and are not simply gunning for your own agenda. For example,

  • Do not start with unilateral moves in an attempt to try and impress the other party with bravado. Trying to overawe the other side is a very risky strategy, it just gets their backs up.
  • Avoid focusing on personalities and personal ambitions and instead look to the task and issues at hand.
  • Enter a negotiation with a willingness to listen to the other side, build relationships and take people with you rather than force them to accept your demands and pacing.

The UK’s Brexit negotiating stance has so far been positional and assertive, mainly pursuing its own interests. It’s characterised by Theresa May’s statement that no deal is better than a bad deal. It signifies confrontation and aggression. This mindset assumes any deal that is acceptable to the EU will be bad for the UK, implying a combative, competitive situation and failing to look for trades that could deliver and expand a win-win.

In a business context, this isn’t the foundation for any meaningful collaborative dialogue.

2. Understand the context of the negotiation The negotiation of differing ideas does not take place in a vacuum, the context is woven from previous experience, competing agendas and immediate needs.

The UK made the decision to leave the EU, yet we seem to be embroiled around what the EU should be offering. In reality, the EU does not need to agree to any of our demands, which has absorbed the time of negotiations, and it is understandable that patience is wearing thin.

When you negotiate ideas, you don’t want to get so caught up in your own red lines that you frustrate the other party, and this is exactly what seems to have happened. We can all get overly attached to our favourite ideas, and relinquishing even a small part of the whole is a psychological challenge. But it’s a necessity where compromise and iteration are inevitable and indeed desirable.

In business, going into a situation with a fixed idea of what you want could result in total rejection. Prepare to adjust and co-create, and yours may still be the idea that wins out. Compromise often brings new insight and a different perspective on understanding each other’s position.

3. Set expectations and objectives Preparing both sides for the need to adjust their initial positions is a key tenet to any negotiation situation. It’s rare for an idea to come out of a discussion unchanged, so exploring the mutual aims of both sides will benefit the process and facilitate a way forward.

So in a business context:

  • Allow everyone time to air their opinions. Listen and ask questions to clarify positions and gain understanding of what’s influencing their thinking.
  • Open up individual issues for discussion. Go through discomfort, opening expressions of feeling and don’t rescue the conversation until it becomes stuck.
  • Identify the relative importance of different issues to guide the direction, and generate options where possible.

Today’s geopolitical world demands investment in relationships, both sides’ interests and concerns are too important to be unilaterally compromised.

Likewise, a competing approach is rarely productive within a business negotiation because agreement usually requires several people to work together over a period of time, now and in the future.

4. Create trust The best negotiations rely on the parties involved trusting one another. Britain was off to a bad start from the outset, because people leading the negotiation were not looked favourably upon by the EU. Boris Johnson was a particularly bad choice. The belief was that he would be tough and represent the seriousness of the leave position – but he lacked gravitas due to his flawed personality and outlandish statements.

Both sides in a negotiation want to make a good deal from their own perspective, but you have to trust the other side to actually do and mean what they say. Boris Johnson divides opinion and has said many memorable things that turned out to be false, some offensive, often simply hollow rhetoric or bravado, or extremely difficult to verify, or simply genuinely unhelpful. While this may have made some people chuckle, it undermines credibility, respect and trust.

Britain has also put forward a revolving door of lead negotiators in terms of the Secretary of State for exiting the European Union – a position held initially by David Davis, then Dominic Raab and now Stephen Barclay – further undermining consistency and familiarity. Contrast this to the EU, united behind the solid, sober and serious leadership of Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator.

In business, it’s always about people – the respect, rapport and relationship. We would not enter a business arrangement with people we don’t trust.

5. Avoid negotiating under self-inflicted time pressure. Teresa May did not have a clear plan when she initiated Article 50. This gave Britain just two years to negotiate a deal with no starting framework.

Negotiating under a deadline is a recipe for poor decision-making. If you don’t give yourself time to construct a deal, consider your options, to develop trust, to understand the downsides, then don’t expect a favourable outcome.

May’s primary tactical error was to issue the Article 50 letter, activating the withdrawal process, in March 2017. She was under pressure to start the process and to get a move on, but the letter was sent too soon, because she had no formulated strategy or plan for Brexit. Once the letter was sent, the clock started the countdown to automatically leave on 29 March 2019, with or without a deal. The ticking clock put the EU in a very strong position.

In business, there is always benefit to continuing a commercial exchange and open dialogue with transparency, even when there isn’t full agreement, especially not working to an unrealistic, pressurised deadline.

6. Negotiation is a process, not an event Exiting a contract is a process in which the departing entity holds very few cards. So Brexit was always going to be an unequal dialogue, and our position was undermined from the outset as the Government was divided.

Throughout the talks, the UK has done little to earn goodwill, and it is hard to predict what the next stage of the rollercoaster will be. The best negotiating strategies are to act in a considered, open thinking manner, while continuing to develop a relationship and building agreement sensibly and on solid foundations, seeking consensus.

Had May and other politicians acted with a sense of reality, being honest with each other and the public, they should have recognised that for the EU Brexit was not a negotiation, rather a process for a member state to leave the organisation. Instead, May chose to convey messages rather than try to establish dialogues.

In business, we recognise negotiation is a process, and are prepared to ask for what we want, but then reciprocate. You have to be willing to make the ask for what you want. You have to be first to place value on yourself. You have to go in with your goal, and know where your fall back is going to be and what your alternative strategies might be – it is a process.

Brexit is turning out to be a tragic example of bad negotiation. It is complex and complicated for sure, but then so are many business negotiations. Nearly everyone has an opinion on Brexit, but no one can tell the future.

In my experience, no business situation would be so unanchored and lack direction, so volatile and so adrift after such a period of intense and prolonged discussion, such that it offers many lessons on how not to conduct a commercial business negotiation.

Mitigating the risks of Brexit for your tech startup

It took Theresa May eighteen months to reach a deal with the EU, but it Parliament less than a month to throw it out by a wide margin, most MPs believing that her imperfect compromise is worse than the status quo. The paralysis is such that the government has largely given up arguing that its deal will be good for the country, instead insisting that it is what democracy demands.

May’s ‘progress’ in negotiations has been a pantomime of democracy. Neverendum. The risk is real. Britain faces years of trade negotiations with the EU, involving more painful trade-offs between prosperity and control. All the while, the country will be falling further behind its potential.

Voters were swept off their feet by the promises of the Leave campaign, only to discover that the future relationship was that promised. Those with long-standing delusions about what Brexit would mean have been forced to swallow a dose of reality. It’s chaotic. May has appointed her third Brexit secretary as her own backbenchers are feverishly plotting to bring her down. Labour’s position is hopelessly unclear.

With negotiating time almost up, Britain has the imperfect deal that it was always going to get. Promises of having cake and eating it have given way to a less appetising offering. Yet among Brexiteers, one hopeful fantasy lives on: the idea that, if all else fails, Britain can prosper outside the EU without signing a deal at all.

If May wonders how this dire outcome has come to be more popular than her deal, she should start by re-reading her own speeches. Her mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ was supposed to persuade the EU to give Britain better terms. It didn’t work. But it struck a chord at home.

The draft withdrawal agreement of 585 pages will guide future talks. Will we agree a Norway-style relationship or a deal modelled on Switzerland or Canada? In truth the EU27 will be in control, with Britain having few cards to play, and the process of ratifying a deal with Britain will be tortuous.

What we do know, is that the ongoing uncertainty and rhetoric of Brexit heading into 2019 will create volatility in sentiment, confidence, investment decisions and currencies, that will influence both business and consumer spending and buying power. So how will this impact tech startups?

Whether you’re a Eurosceptic or a Europhile, the UK startup environment has a supportive investor tax regime, a good intellectual property regulations and amazing talent from across Europe, but there are challenges ahead created by Brexit.

Everyone is looking for the headline that everything is fine or everything is catastrophic, and actually it’s somewhere in-between. At a high level, the potential winners will include those startups that are exporters, whilst potential losers are importers and foreign workers in the UK.

While Brexit is a ground-breaking event in the history of Europe, geopolitics, and global economy, modern agile companies have long ago surpassed the constraints of state borders and work permits. However, lets’ look at four key challenges from Brexit for tech startups, and mitigation strategies

Workforce

It’s already tough to hire good developers and engineers. While UK tech startups do create jobs for British citizens, part of the skills shortage has been filled by European immigration. We could potentially lose a large part of the startup workforce if regulations make it tough for EU nationals to stay in the UK.

Around one in five tech workers in the UK are from the EU. It’s likely that the current freedom of movement that allows EU citizens to work in the UK with few limitations will come to an end after Brexit. That’s going to make it harder to attract staff from the EU, and to keep workers who are already here.

Talent is the life blood of start-ups. You cannot build a startup if you cannot attract the best talent. While Brexit could be frustrating we might have a larger talent pool to choose from – a lack of European migrants doesn’t necessarily mean a complete migration halt. Brexit will open doors to non-EU countries, and whilst overseas talent is important, we have to invest more in terms of home-grown talent too.

Finance

The adjustments the financial services industry must undertake arguably pose a bigger challenge than the immediate geo-political uncertainty casting a shadow over the labour market to startups.

Startups looking for additional funding or support may have a harder time when pitching, but there are still plenty of options for growth.  While UK investors are cautious, EU investors are taking advantage to promote their own economic stability. This may mean a drift to Berlin and other cities offering greater entrepreneurial incentives.

As the UK exits Europe, businesses will lose access to funds that come directly from EU membership. The European Investment Bank, for example, has invested over €31.3bn in the UK economy of which 17% funded innovation and SMEs. In the tech and life sciences sector, the European Investment Fund is a key source of finance, supporting 27,700 SMEs.

A weakened pound and higher inflation after the final Brexit terms are agreed could lead to higher costs. A holistic view thus gives a perspective of many uncertainties arising from Brexit regarding finance for startups.

Regulatory environment

Services make up about 80% of the UK’s tech exports, and the EU is its biggest export market, however, the UK Government is more focused on trade in physical goods. Without even a vague plan in place, tech companies can’t be sure about the rules that will govern trade. That means, for example, they could end up being required to comply with two sets of regulations – one to sell in the UK, one to sell in Europe – with different VAT and thus cashflow implications.

Another area of concern is data protection. Data of all sorts flows to, from and through the UK as a part of daily life, everything from IoT devices to cloud computing, and all of this data is currently governed by EU law. After Brexit, a new deal on data protection is needed otherwise those data flows could be disrupted or even stopped, with predictably chaotic consequences.

Market access

The UK has traditionally traded extensively with Europe, and access to European markets is crucial, it’s a two-way trade. Although many startups are still moving forward with their plans for Europe, loss of Single Market access could be damaging, so startups need to be looking at other parts of the world, which might be more financially viable.

Across the tech industry the picture is mixed. Those tech companies that mostly deal with US customers or suppliers are largely unaffected by Brexit, and if a mooted UK-US trade deal happens these companies may even see significant benefits. However, uncertainty on both demand and supply side is currently impacting many startups.

What can tech startups do?

The key to surviving the Brexit haze is flexibility and contingency planning as new rules are created. In the current uncertainty it can be difficult to plan, but that’s exactly what you need to do. It’s the act of planning, rather than the plan itself, which is the key. Robust, well-thought out business plans, showing that you’ve calculated upside and downside scenarios, will be crucial.

Whilst it can seem that every time you hear the news or open a newspaper, there’s more reason not to act, the fact is that if you have an innovative idea, the experience to see it through and the ability to make a robust business case for it, the UK remains one of the world’s most favourable environments for start-ups.

So what should a startup tech company be doing right now, with only a little information to guide them? It appears the advice, in classic British style, is a modified version of keep ‘calm and carry on’.

On one hand, startups are probably the most equipped to navigate whatever is yet to come, being adaptable, innovative, and nimble in their mindset. Every day brings with it a new challenge that small business owners never thought they would have to deal with.

On the other hand, entrepreneurs often have the least amount of experience and resources. Then there’s the emotional side of it. I have heard many entrepreneurs talking about the uncertainty of Brexit and saying they don’t need an additional gamble at the moment.

So here are some thoughts on how to navigate the future, pending our exit in March.

1. Understand your runway, and create a clear plan

The place to start is your current plan – and don’t create one of those fake plans aimed at investors, that won’t help you, craft a plan for YOU with realistic assumptions and meaningful goals.

Make a decision based on cash runway and velocity. Make decisions based on a new plan, not based on the plan you had before. This is probably the toughest thing you’d need to do as a founder, but there are times where you need to do it. Do it sooner rather than later, do it with respect, and ensure there is a balance of optimism and realism – hope is not a strategy.

2. Financial targets – be scrappy

First is the cash in the bank, and the second is the cash you expect to get from your customers. How certain are you in your revenue forecasts? Look at the number of customers, pricing, volumes you know are confirmed, and you sales funnel, pipeline and lead conversion times.

In general, switch into a scrappy mode, embrace that mentality. Review your costs – what can you cut? There is always extra stuff. Just get into the mode of cutting things that aren’t critical – activities that don’t add value to customers.

3. Review your hiring

Review your hiring plan. This is easy to control in times of uncertainty and whilst it means that you will grow slower, and the current team will have to do more work, it keeps fixed costs and demand on management time on hold.

Whilst I’m an advocate of continuous recruitment in terms of always being active in the market rather than seeking to hire for a specific role at a specific time, taking a three-month recruitment sabbatical at times of heightened uncertainty takes the pressure off making what are high-risk decisions.

4. Get customers faster and for longer

This may sound odd, because why wouldn’t you close customers faster anyway? The point is, think about friction points, anything that slows down your sales? Think about offering a price incentive for an annual payment versus monthly payments, and offer different price structures for longer contracts.

“‘Uncertainty’ and ‘opportunity’ are the two words I most closely associate with Brexit. However, on the back of uncertainty rides opportunity, which is where genuine entrepreneurs thrive. Now is not the time to hunker down on innovation, build rapport and relationships with new and existing customers alike with renewed zest.

Next steps…

At Disney, the shared understanding is that ‘nothing hurts the mouse’ – risk assessment and management is a key leadership focus, and so it should be for startups.

Precisely quantifying Brexit vulnerability is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce uncertainty. The goal is to develop ways of understanding key drivers and possibilities so that surprises aren’t so surprising. You have to hedge your bets, don’t put all your eggs in one basket and reduce decision making on the fly – take steps to minimise potential damage long before a crisis unfolds.

Many of the details of the policy and regulatory issues remain very unclear, but recent endorsements from tech giants Apple, Google and Facebook demonstrated that the UK is still an attractive location for tech business.

So, be steadfast in your resolve. Don’t take a wait-and-see approach, relying on being nimble to respond to however Brexit turns out, waiting for Brexit isn’t an option. Look at the four potential levers highlighted above – runway, finances, hiring and customers – and start making your plans today.

Brexit and the oxymoron of political leadership: why should anyone be led by you?

On a recent Friday morning, I awoke shocked like many to find that UK electorate had chosen to exit the EU. As an advocate of Remain, I am still struggling to come to terms with the idea of a ‘divorce’ from what I regard to be a positive relationship with our fellow Europeans on social and economic issues. On the surface, Brexit has all the flavours ranging from nostalgia of self-rule to xenophobia.

Some have attributed Brexit to a political error by Cameron in holding a referendum, poor management of migration policy by the EU and downright misjudgement on how inflammable the issue of migration into the UK has become, such that it became the single-decision issue for most Leave voters.

It is worth reflecting on what caused this surprise result and what we can learn from it from a leadership perspective, as for me, the leadership vacuum on both sides of the debate is my overriding takeaway. As a consequence, the subsequent fall-out from the leading voices in both the Remain and Leave campaigns has left us with some dramatic short-term adverse and unexpected challenges.

The fallout is huge. The Prime Minister resigned with haste and no obvious successor, and the Leave campaign leadership exited themselves with equal undue haste, opting to save their own skins. Multiple Tories crept out of the woodwork murmuring their leadership credentials, whilst the Shadow Cabinet is in open revolt in an effort to oust Corbyn, struggling to survive a coup yet stating he’s under no pressure.

Meanwhile, the ‘rerun the referendum petition’ reached over four million signatures seemingly overnight, and the pound hit a 31-year low against the dollar. And there is talk in Scotland and Wales of total secession. It has been a painful experience to watch events unfurl on such a seismic scale, the like of which we have never seen before.

In business, when something happens of such significance – loss of a major customer or project, a strategic shift in the market, or a factory closure and a round of redundancies, we expect a clear sense of authority and direction to be communicated by the leadership. Someone steps up and reassures us that all will be well, and that this moment, like others before it, will pass. Heads come up, we face the challenge, we adapt, shrug our shoulders and move on.

In the case of Brexit, weeks after a vote demanding a significant change of direction, there remains a total leadership void. Precisely no one has stepped up. Neither side advocating their point of view had a clear game plan in the event of victory or defeat.

If you take one constructive lesson from Brexit, it is a stark reminder of the absolute imperative of genuine leadership. The political turmoil of the last few weeks offers many lessons about how to fail and succeed as a leader. Here are my thoughts on the leadership takeaways from the referendum.

Focus on your people first and second It is clear the Remain leaders failed to create engagement, and build trust. Employee engagement is one of the defining issues in current management debate. With the impact of the millennial generation joining the workforce, more people are simply showing up to pick up a paycheck, while their passion for the business and commitment has waned. They are cynical about business and are more focused on ‘what’s in it for me?’

To turn around these attitudes, business leaders need to stop trying to please their investors, who will never be satisfied, no matter how strong the results, and engage and inspire their people. They should invest in them through training, creative and flexible benefits packages, and create an empowering culture.

Business leaders who ignore their co-workers’ emotions and sentiment do so at their peril. Discontented employees lead to disengaged, fractured workplaces, poor customer experience and consequently mediocre results. The lack of engagement delivered by the Remain campaign showed in the results.

Spend face-to-face time with customers There is no greater place for learning what is going on in your business than being in the marketplace with customers. Leaders who apply all five senses to customer interactions learn more first-hand than they do from reading reports or looking at PowerPoint presentations.

When he became CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman asked his leaders ten questions to see how much time they were spending with customers. Their responses were so embarrassing that Polman challenged them to refocus their entire strategies on customers. This type of customer engagement signals to the entire organisation that the company puts customers first.

Remain discounted the apathy of the millennial generation, which favoured Remain, but only 36% voted. The lack of direct contact, creating real opportunities for listening and sharing concerns, was a weakness.

Think, act and behave with transparency In today’s digitally connected world, anything less than complete transparency creates a lack of trust. Employees expect their leaders to keep them informed about what is going on, no matter how negative the news. When they are not treated with this respect, they turn to external sources and internal rumours for information, which undermines leaders even more.

For example, following staff layoffs, Zappos founder Tony Hsieh wrote to employees: ‘Remember this is not my company, and this is not our investors’ company. This company is all of ours, and it’s up to all of us where we go from here.’ Hsieh’s communications are authentic, transparent, and informal. Honest conversations helped to heal issues. Rather than frowning on problems, Hsieh used them to come up with solutions.

Emotion beats logic, and hope beats fear This is a headline I saw in response to the way in which comments from Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, were dismissed. Carney, like those of us with a technical background, default to logical argument an analysis of the risks that might be faced. However, the Brexit campaign showed how little influence this approach carries with many people.

Since Aristotle’s time, effective leaders have recognised the power of emotional appeal (pathos) as a complement to rational argument (logos). The Leave campaigners focused their message at voter’s hearts not their heads, on patriotism, freedom and fear. The Remain campaigners peddled Aristotle’s third way (ethos) to win an argument, citing the expertise and credentials of their advocates.

However, voters ignored the experts. The underlying point here is that whilst we need to rely on the knowledge of others, in instances like Brexit where the arguments are complex and it becomes unfathomable to determine true ‘facts’, people give up trying to get to the truth, and fall back on gut feel and beliefs overcome conflicting evidence.

Indeed, both sides of the debate offered various ‘facts’ to support their arguments. The pile-up of competing promises and predictions left the public confused at best, cynical at worst. The Leave campaign won over by speaking to the anxiety and pain of people who felt ignored. In the end, it didn’t matter to working class voters that Johnson attended an elite Eton School, what counted was that Johnson’s statements resonated with their own grievances and anti-establishment sentiments

The implications for business leaders is that developed expertise and analysis only gets you so far, if you want to bring people with you, you also need emotional conviction and harness intuition effectively. People care less about facts per se than the implications of these facts to their well-being.

It does no good to deny that humans are emotional as well as rational. A campaign that elicits both emotional engagement and intellectual understanding has a huge advantage over one that appeals mainly to rationality.

A leader is a dealer in hope The importance of being an authentic leader – with alignment of thoughts, actions and feelings as enabling trust to inspire collective action – was clearly shown. Leaders advocating change must speak with sincere heartfelt conviction rather than using rhetoric to demand an obligation.

For me, the leading personalities on both sides were frequently manifested as double-dealing hypocrites, masking their ambivalence about the EU for their own self-promotion and careerist convenience. Credibility and authenticity are closely linked, and people are aware and sensitive to the slightest suggestion of hypocrisy.

Both sides of the debate engaged almost solely in fear-based leadership and scaremongering, reminding us constantly of all the short-term problems and issues associated with the opposing campaign. The Leavers focused on problems and issues with immigration and bureaucracy while the Remainers focused almost exclusively on speculating about the economic fallout from Brexit.

Be a positive, visionary leadership Leadership on both sides failed to provide any positive, coherent vision for the near or long term future of staying or exiting the EU. Their performance lacked vision, cohesion, passion and confidence.

To fully appreciate the power of a unifying vision, recall the powerful example provided by the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, who unified the country with his vision of a ‘rainbow nation’ for post-apartheid South Africa. He never resorted to the tactics of scaremongering and fear of change, rather retained an optimistic and positive vision of a future for all, replacing the dogmas of the past.

To deliver change, leaders need to create trust by addressing the real challenges and dilemmas in a positive, transparent and solutions-focused manner. Leaders should deliberately adopt a more intentional approach about their words and actions and how these impact their business.

Why should anyone be led by you? Formal authority counts for almost nothing in those moments of truth. Leadership is a function of what you say and do that attracts others to follow you. Farage had influence but no authority, following Brexit Corbyn has a formal mandate but no influence within the parliamentary Labour party.

The lesson for business leaders is clear, as recounted in Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones book Why Should Anyone be Led by You? It is a question all leaders should all ask themselves – do people have any reason to follow you, above and beyond what their reporting line tells them to do?

Watching Boris Johnson deliver his speech on the Friday morning exiting his challenge for Prime Minister, you could see from his body language that he was starting to wonder what on earth he had done. He had treated the campaign like an Oxford University debate – clever arguments and put downs, with no cares for the consequences – and now he reaped the rewards.

He once famously said he was in favour of having cake and eating cake as well, but despite being an attractive leader to some, eventually people saw through his ‘style over substance’ approach, at which point, a large chunk of his support dissolved away. He simply lacked credibility as a leader.

The leadership lesson here is stay true to yourself and stay on good terms with those around you. If you become too opportunistic, or if you start making empty promises, you will pay for it later. You aren’t a leader is you don’t have any followers.

‘Political leadership’ is an oxymoron by any measure – enduring and woeful unethical individual behaviours driven by self-interest, the absence of a credible ideology and rhetoric underpinned by convenient metrics just to name a few issues where there is no long-term vision that I’ve seen.

Leadership success always starts with vision. John Kennedy famously dreamed of putting a man on the moon. Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities. Compelling visions can truly inspire people. But there is actually nothing mystical about vision, simply, a vision is a picture of what an organisation could and should be.

A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel that what they do matters – Kennedy’s vision for the space programme was ‘We choose to go to the moon . . . not because it is easy, but because it is hard’.

Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their thoughts. A powerful vision, well-articulated, attracts people, motivates them to take action toward progress, unites them to a common purpose and drives breakthrough business results.

A leader’s core vision provides the glue that holds an organisation together through time, consisting of core values and core purpose, ideology shaping the vision, the raison d’être. You discover core ideology by looking inside, and connecting with sincerity, humility and authenticity. You can’t fake it.

What Brexit showed what is needed in our political leaders is this big commitment to emotional and intellectual transparency, and robust validation, such that when people see what their vision is, there is almost an audible gasp, creating an emotional connection to sharing the vision.

Brexit should be a wakeup call for all business leaders. The result and feedback showed Britain’s leaders were out of sync with its voters. Could the same thing be happening with your workers in your business? Are you connected and in touch, creating engagement, creating and sharing a vision? Or are you too intent on achieving your own personal agenda and progress? Ask yourself, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’