As the tide goes out, don’t be caught swimming naked

I’ve always been a keen swimmer. I remember those early 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 foggy. I resign to the fact that they are part of the swimming experience.

In my head, I am an elegant swimmer, gliding gracefully through the water. Until a ten-year old whizzes past me with the grace, speed and poise of a dolphin and the sheer strength of the ancient gods. I wonder why these gods did not endow me with this gift. On good days, I can swim for up to an hour (not that time spent is a barometer for success). This is a long time for my mind to wander, in between worries of drowning or feeling like I could give Phelps a run for his money.

Recently, I’ve met a couple of blokes who are training to swim the English Channel. They are in the sea each morning at 7am as I walk the dog. I admire their commitment and motivation, and marvel at 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 Buffett 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.

Well, the tide has just gone out again, and clues to who’s been swimming naked have begun to emerge, as the financial system is about to undergo its first real-life stress test since the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. While the full extent of the damage remains to be seen, there’s no doubt that the virus will take a serious long-term toll on global economic activity.

There’s no reason to believe that anything of that magnitude of 2008 is lurking within the financial system today, but the financial plumbing is under pressure. All of this is unfolding after years of low interest rates, which have left the Bank of England with little room to manoeuvre. However, unsettling volatility surges into longer-term opportunities. Long periods of economic calm and growth also create the conditions for violent air pockets, as the economist Hyman Minsky research identifies: the phenomenon of prolonged stability breeds complacency as a precursor to instability. 

During turmoil, differentiation gives way to indiscriminate 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 your offering provides more value than others when the context is extremely noisy and volatility is unsettling, so even solid names get treated as ‘lemons’ initially.

There’s lots of talk about coronavirus as a ‘catalysing event’ for startups. For some, COVID-19 may be a jumping-off point that pushes them into an overdue pivot of product, or a much-needed refresh of digital marketing. For others, it will drag them under. So, what are your thoughts, given the challenges you’re facing right now, the tide is certainly out, 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 the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind

Cultivate a capacity for reflection, and then as required, changing your mind. We live in a startup culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having a ‘north star’ and being full-on a hot-gas fuelled journey to success. But in reality, you could be working on hunches or insights, still experimenting based on superficial 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, even to boredom – the best ideas sometimes come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind 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 self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

3. Jump into the water: start, even if you are not sure

I have always thought too much and the in the past borne the resultant cost of being paralysed 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 respond to them is what matters.

Nothing beats the questions, like starting or doing it. 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.

Also, remember why you are there and what you are aiming to achieve. You must be crystal clear on your goal, whether you want to swim 10 lengths or 100 lengths, improve your buoyancy or if you want to swim faster.

4. Focus: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives

The Anne Dillard quote above about how use our time reminds me to ensure we retain the capacity for enjoying what we do, that gives 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. Ours is a startup culture that measures our worth as humans by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that, but this loses sight of learning, 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.

5. Be curious: enjoy what magnifies your spirit

Understand and tolerate 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.

I’ve been reading about musician Patti Smith, discussing her 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, be curious about them and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once your fading momentum has already infected your vitality, but as an ongoing vaccine while you are healthy to stimulate your curiosity and protect your radiance.

6. Push on: don’t be afraid to be an idealist

There is much to be said as entrepreneurs for focusing on the constant dynamic of startup interaction 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 existing customer demands, but the idealist in me says the role of the entrepreneur is to lift people up, excite them with innovation.

On your startup journey, the richest inspiring days are lifeboats, but there are also submarines that descend to us to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the startup soul where our deepest embarrassments and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Idealism is the alchemy by which you should strive to create something new, the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.

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.

Don’t think about using the F-word, triage your startup

Start-ups have always been risky, perpetually hovering with an uncertain future, but the pandemic is turbocharging natural selection and causing a hiatus for many. In just a few weeks, many have cut or furloughed employees, and funding is drying up – startup funding in the first three months of 2020 was on a pace for its second-steepest quarterly decline in ten years, said CB Insights. The virus just nailed it.

The fallout is hitting the highest-profile tech businesses too. For example, Airbnb. valued at $31Bn, has stopped hiring and has suspended $800m of marketing. The coronavirus outbreak is economically akin to a major earthquake occurring for weeks on end. There are no distractions now, there is no coddled. You need to have thick skin and a high adversity quotient.

Start-ups in some sectors – telemedicine, food delivery, online learning, remote work, gaming – are thriving amid the quarantine, but the pain is now deeper and most likely just beginning as investors, already bruised by the collapse of a string of tech unicorn valuations last year, become even more cautious. Indeed Sequoia Capital issued a warning to start-ups, calling Covid-19 the black swan of 2020, and calling on its portfolio firms to rein in costs, conserve cash and brace for capital scarcity.

The coronavirus strikes at a time when many of the tech unicorns were looking ropey. Their perpetually loss-making business models and exuberant valuations were increasingly being questioned. Most telling, the gospel of growth at all cost has gone out of the window. After years of ‘blitzscaling’ being done without much focus on profits, path to profitability is the new watchword. The law of economic gravity has returned, as some discern an echo of the bursting dotcom bubble of twenty years ago. The F-word is out there. Failure. Others are more sanguine. Whoever is right, startup pastures that emerge in the aftermath will look very different.

Unicorns have come a long way since Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Venture Capital coined the term in 2013, to convey wonder and rarity. Post Covid-19, it’s reckoned that a third of tech unicorns will thrive, a third will disappoint and a third will be taken over or die. But the euphoria began to ebb last year. First, Uber’s IPO priced at a 30% discount to what the investment bankers had promised, Slack disappointed, then, in October, WeWork disclosed that it lost as much money as it generated in revenues. Its valuation was cut from $47bn to $8bn. A different F-word there.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week, as I’ve heard a few tech founders use it in the UK, and it’s become part of their vocabulary. Yes, Failure.

We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. So rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments, based on the severity of their condition that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for after death, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn? You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that we won’t make the same mistake twice, but as Jason Fried said, You might know what didn’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can we turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking, that the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

So, what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them. Now is the time to focus on purpose, not revenue.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as a big raise, going public or being acquired, it is a skewed measure of success. How about sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe? You may need to reset your North Star.

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Now is the time to experiment, not being maudlin about failure.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product. Use this time for more customer discovery than you’ve ever done before.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startup founder’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be in control of your emotions, or your team will see through you. Being down-in-the-dumps and muttering the F-word isn’t going to help anyone. Mental toughness is needed now. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. Keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge – but keep shooting for the horizon. Noah built an ark – what are you going to build?

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process. Now’s the time to double down on marketing strategy, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t move slow. Move fast. Moving at a snail’s pace and waiting for the next blow to your business can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting customers first. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward. That’s a better F-word – forward.

There are entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but people generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. But don’t enjoy the scratched knees. Appreciate where you are at each point. Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the dark clouds clear. Keep walking with your head held high, reaching for the sky and not walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles. I forget where I recently read this anecdote, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

For me, keep pushing forward and having a triage mindset to encounter the wounds experienced in your startup life. Failure is not an option, be relentless, be limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. If what you’re doing now is not a viable solution in this new world and in a different economy, then find something that is. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

How to start thinking about tomorrow: hope is not a strategy, but strategy can provide hope.

The COVID pandemic has wrought enormous personal and social damage, upending countless lives. It is serving as a catalyst to embrace the need for greater compassion and solidarity across our society. It is inspiring heroic feats of public-spiritedness and charity, while also providing an opportunity for us to view the competence, morality and ethics of leaders in government and business.

Beyond that, it has unleashed a set of acute economic shocks, laying bare the viability of many businesses, creating the greatest sense of uncertainty ever experienced. Getting our minds around what is happening is difficult, as its effects are paradoxical: it has caused a supply shock and a demand shock.

The pandemic is primarily a public healthcare problem, but one with immense implications for business, and for economic, fiscal and monetary policy. The virus is accelerating powerful existing trends such as digital automation and simultaneously slamming the brakes on trends that had, until very recently, possessed clear momentum, such as globalisation.

Many startups spent the first several weeks of the crisis preparing continuity plans, and assessing the various government stimulus programs. These businesses are now learning to operate in the ‘new normal’ yet continuing to respond to immediate fires. Much of the focus is on implementing tactical steps to preserve business value, including liquidity analysis and operational scenario plans.

Startups need to address vastly weaker balance sheets, steep revenue declines, weakened supply chains and stressed or depleted employee bases. Each of these elements will require triage, and in many instances, attention and resources will be focused on triage for a long time. Of course, some firms will emerge from the pandemic in relatively good shape and thus be in a position to take advantage of opportunities arising.

The central question in every (virtual) startup leadership meeting is how to grapple with the short-term consequences. The challenges are philosophical and intellectual, as well as physical and practical. Simply, we are wondering how to go about restarting, repairing what was broken and readying ourselves to cope with a host of urgent demands as we build bridges to a post-pandemic future for our embryonic ventures.

Ian Burbridge of the RSA has developed an approach to thinking through the measures that we’ve taken in response to Covid-19 in four categories that can help us focus on what’s worked and what can last – stopping activity, pausing activity, temporary activity, and innovative activity – and I’ve adapted it for startups.

1.     Obsolete activity

The crisis has afforded us the ability to stop doing some things, either because we already knew they were not fit for purpose or because the crisis has rendered them obsolete. Emerging post-crisis, the challenge is to let go of these obsolete aspects of pre-existing systems and functions that we know are no longer fit for the new ways of working.

As Peter Drucker said, the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic. Letting go of what we no longer need releases trapped resources for work that is a better strategic fit.

Rethinking starts with the context in which the repair efforts needs to happen, so be ruthless on what you can eject from your business model. Every organisation needs to reimagine the future at both a practical and a conceptual level.

Startups need to be strategic at a time when grappling with an intense crisis and coping with day-to-day emergencies. Redesigning a boat while bailing water from the hull may sound ambitious as you’re sailing in a storm, but it is necessary.

Organisations need to rethink technology strategy, geographic footprints, and business models to make them more robust and to recognise the strong pressures for localisation emerging. They will need to evaluate their portfolios from the standpoint of the products or services needed in a very different economy.

Move your orientation from physical in-person processes into digital or virtual tactics;

You may have a new business sales focus, but this is a time to be our best selves, and customers need more from us. They don’t need to be sold to, they need to be heard and supported. We’re all now in customer support. They need us to put humanity above profitability.

2.     Paused activity

We have had to bring a halt to doing other things in order to divert capacity to the crisis response, but we have to restart these again. Potentially, this is storing up significant challenges for the future, so we need to figure out how to reboot these activities in ways that are relevant to the new, emerging context and are not simply a blind copy and paste of the pre-virus approach.

It will be impossible for our structures and systems to cope with the next challenge if they remain in the same state in which they entered this one. The next step is to quickly begin reimagining and adapting strategy. All this must be done with a keen eye toward understanding trade-offs and building the capacity to navigate the disruptions that are bound to arise in the future.

This is an opportunity to refactor your business model, focused on competitive and collaborative strategies dramatically different from those we might have imagined a few months ago. Rethinking paused activities ensures that startups are repaired in a way that makes them more resilient and more successful by bringing considerations about the future into the present.

Redeploy physical event spend, leaning more heavily into digital and account-based strategies, focused to maximise pipeline generation potential in the short term, mapped out in 30, 60 and 90-day priorities;

Create online content that is informative and responsive to current landscapes, be valuable to both current customers and potential prospects by investing in general customer experience improvements.

3.     Temporary activity

Some things that we have done in responding to the immediate demands of the crisis are inappropriate to become part of the way forward. Ending temporary measures should be a focused endeavour, remove them before they become systematised, and burn valuable resources.

Identifying your own revealed weaknesses unearthed by crisis will undoubtedly have exposed needs for greater preparedness, resilience, agility, or leanness in your business. Those weaknesses also signal opportunities to renew your products and business model and serve customers better. They may also help you understand broader customer needs, since others are likely to be experiencing similar stresses.

On the plus side, you may have adapted new activities that offer future value – for example, reducing customer friction in terms of unnecessary delays, costs, complexities and other inconveniences.

In terms of messaging, shift the focus to emphasise more of the WHY – not just your own WHY as a business, but the bigger WHY for your audience;

Revisit your temporary pricing strategy, you may need to continue to offer more options at lower price points to accommodate customer’s tighter budgets.

4.     Innovative activity

Emergencies will have opened up the need for innovation and rapid experiment as a result of the crisis. These will have shown the imperative for an agile way of thinking and working, removing barriers and inertia, with the demand for instant change. The post-crisis task is to find ways to amplify and embed the most promising changes and innovations into your new business model.

The crisis has put into strong relief the uncomfortable truth that many startups are simply not as nimble or as adaptive as they anticipated. What does this mean in practical terms? To a degree, this means jumping on the trends that have suddenly gained currency in response to the pandemic, including remote working and the localisation of supply chains, but now is the time to become a maverick, a small outlier enterprise that thinks and act differently from incumbents.

Seek out maverick activity. Startups sit on the edges of an industry, and as such can make bets predicated on new customer needs or patterns. Look to EasyJet as an example.

EasyJet, now the fourth-largest airline in Europe, built its business as a no-frills, low-cost carrier by pioneering a novel business model and ignoring many of the industry’s unwritten rules. EasyJet shook up the business model of the airline industry by moving from a hub-and-spoke model with a diverse fleet to a point-to-point model with lean operations and high-capacity utilisation. By removing or charging extra for all noncore elements of the customer experience, EasyJet was able to cut costs while focusing on what customers care about most – flight availability and punctuality.

Organisations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat, but crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a necessary focus on the present should not crowd out considerations of the future. The key questions are what next, and with what consequences and opportunities? The keys to success are to harvest good ideas from every layer of an enterprise.

Don’t just seek to reducing costs to maintain viability, adapt and innovate around new opportunities. Invest in growth drivers in order to capture opportunity in adversity and shape your own future.

Certain back-burner projects will have become more relevant given current events, so shift resources to make these a priority;

Reposition your product from pure revenue growth or churn mitigation to a more defensive posture to focus on helping businesses curtail losses and retain customers longer.

Summary

COVID-19 has provided a rare moment of pause, albeit a hazardous one, an opportunity to make changes that previously seemed too daunting or even impossible to execute. We should not lose the potential benefit of the natural reflection we are going through, but be mindful not to simply recreate the business we had before – consumer-led disruption will have an even greater impact than previously expected.

Stepping out of the crisis will force startup leaders to activate transformation plans, shrink execution timelines and experiment at lightning speed. Some startups are more immune to short-term shocks, such as those with subscription models. This presents an opportunity to further strengthen engagement and loyalty with existing customers, supporting them with attractive discounts or expanded service offerings.

However, for sub-sectors that rely on transactional revenue, the concerns are more immediate. They need to extend their liquidity runway to remain solvent while covering costs, and managing the emotions of their people. In these cases, give emphasis to simplification of all aspects of your enterprise. For example, you’ll need more adaptive digital strategies that can change and respond quickly, and an empowered management team that has greater responsibility and is less siloed. Steadying the ship is only part of the story, you must also look to the horizon.

The open-mindedness, flexibility, and faster clock speed of startups make them showcases of future development when an industry is at a turning point. So adopt the four strategic themes identified earlier, but be a maverick, be an outlier, and look to the periphery, be different and challenge your industry’s core beliefs and assumptions. Create the shocks, avoid being taken by surprise, bet against your existing business model. Think big, act small. Hope is not a strategy. But strategy can provide hope.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.

Notes to self: reflections from my ‘lockdown journal’​

During the lockdown isolation and resultant ‘wash-rinse-repeat’ routine, I’ve noticed three things about my working style and rhythm that have made everything feel a lot less anxious:

– never working faster than a walking pace mentally

– being able to work in a more relaxed routine around my own natural body clock

– letting my mind’s appetite guide my working focus

I’ve been making these and other notes in my ’lockdown journal’ about the experience, and as Thoreau wrote in his diary, It matters not where or how far you travel… but how much alive you are. I like his mindset.

I’ve done ok with this hibernation and disengagement. Yes, I’ve hidden under the duvet – both actual and spiritual – and examined the oppressiveness of the current circumstances, which I admit has encouraged me to outburst of hysterical flippancy at times. But with my world shrunk to the limits of an all too familiar horizon trapped at home, I’ve discovered the vicarious pleasures of You Tube armchair travel and exotic culinary delights, making notes of far-flung places to visit in the future.

For my diary, I started a new Moleskine notebook last week, always a special event. I’ve kept a journal for over a decade now, handy for private scribblings and I was delighted to open a new one and start a relationship with a trusted companion.

The Moleskine is the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries, among them van Gogh, Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse. They became famous in the Montmartre district of Paris with the Impressionists, the entrepreneurial flair of the people, the place. The notebooks became synonymous with creative thinking.

So here is an extract from last Tuesday’s lockdown diary, with some takeaways and personal reflections that I hope you’ll find useful.

6.00am. Woken up by the dog, time for her first walk of the day. Start Me Up! Always think of the great Keith Richards guitar riff.

6.15am. Listen to BBC Radio 4 Today news getting ready to take the dog out. It’s Groundhog Day, horrible numbers on the update for global and UK infections and deaths, heart-breaking personal stories, and tales of pending economic doom.

7.30am. Back. Have conversation with neighbour who stands a careful two yards away. Feed the dog before she eats my leg. My breakfast is tricky decision. Are we closer to running out of milk and cereal, or bread and eggs? Go for boiled eggs and toast.

7.45am. Still with the radio, now it’s Thought for the day, it’s two minutes radio beauty. The Reverend Dr. Sam Wells today, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. He talks about touch.

Lockdown lesson 1: Keep in touch But we can’t currently touch, and the less we can touch physically the more we want spiritually. We’ve become disciplined in distancing and isolating. I’m taking inspiration from the work of the NHS folks, they are touching all our lives. But then Dr. Sam mentions death, disease and debt.

I’m going to keep in touch much more post-lockdown, friends and clients alike. Make my connections have depth, meaning and purpose, and share more thinking with startup founders about their well-being, not just business growth.

8.00am. At my desk. Inbox consists of companies advising me how to cope with the pandemic, others offering virtual conferencing tips. Also loads of restaurants that ever took an online booking from me in the last three years offering vouchers.

8.30am. Scan read the subscribed blogs and daily news feeds desperate for a voice not about coronavirus. Pause and reflect on the day ahead, get a positive, optimistic tone of voice into my head.

Lockdown lesson 2: Focus on purpose and outcomes Taking time to shut out the noise of the outside world and reconnect with your own thoughts in silence can lead to incredible self-discovery. Write down the thoughts of the moment.

I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode jotting down that would otherwise have been lost with the ordinary routine of work tasks compressing the mind. Post lockdown, I’m going to spend more time thinking through purpose and outcomes, not simply process and outputs.

8.50am. Look at my draft blog in the hope it will spark more words. Give up when the abstract turns out to be too, er, abstract. Check Twitter and various news websites on grounds this is ‘research’. Disappear down rabbit hole for 45 minutes.

9.30am. To be safe, wash hands while singing Love Will Tear Us Apart. The first two lines have always resonated just where Ian Curtis’s head was when writing the lyrics – When routine bites hard, And ambitions are low. Those two lines have echoed in my mind during lockdown.

10.00am. First Zoom call of the day, with a fund manager who’s considering an investment in one of our startups. It’s a no.

Lockdown lesson 3: Anything is easy when you don’t have to do it People at startups are inherently curious. They constantly challenge, asking why?, what if?, and why not? But sometimes they don’t have the answers needed from an investor’s perspective, and in this case ‘the numbers don’t work’.

I politely reply ‘but you’ve never run a fish and chip shop, anything is easy when you don’t have to do it’. Decide to only work with investors who’ve previously run their own business post lockdown, they will reflect emotional intelligence and empathy whilst reading spreadsheets.

11.00am. Time to dial into another Zoom meeting. Realise cannot find meeting number or meeting code. Send email to colleague who returns a WhatsApp message with the answer.

11.05am. Finally get through to meeting. Try to contribute. Suggest some really good ideas and then sit back. Realise Zoom is on mute. Discussion has moved on. Mute again to avoid embarrassment. Realise I’m starting to miss regular meetings, a concept previously beyond imagination.

12.00pm. Find myself looking out of the window. I don’t mind my own company, but we’ve all become isolated and I hope, when the time comes, that we don’t see every handshake as a threat, that we can put things in perspective and not remain over-cautious.

Lockdown lesson 4: Zoomgluts and negative oil prices got me thinking – focus on possibilities The oil glut is caused by a lack of demand, the digital glut is caused by overproduction. When lockdown first took effect fitness instructors, chefs, random guys with an idea, all had the same thought: set up a zoom broadcast.

Now we are overwhelmed by choice, facing Zoom fatigue, and a smorgasbord of options, for free. But even at zero cost, we pay with something even more valuable: our time. And, unlike oil, there’s no way to price a Zoom event at negative time. Well, actually, paying people to attend Zoom events does have a name: work.

For me, the lesson is focus on possibilities and don’t follow the crowd. Let your mind’s eye travel to a future state and explore fresh possibilities, don’t waste time simply standing still.

12.30pm: Zoomglut continues. Helping a new startup with investment agreement with a somewhat zealous legal chap. I’m taking a slightly different approach to ‘confrontation’ via Zoom by using silence as my weapon of choice. It’s actually quite effective as the other person knows deep down they are being ridiculous and leaving it hanging there. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.

Lockdown lesson 5: Avoid the anchoring trap: over-relying on first thoughts Your starting point can heavily bias your thinking, initial impressions to ‘anchor’ subsequent thoughts. This trap is particularly dangerous when you’re flying solo. You can solve this by clearly defining the problem before going down a particular solution path. Look at the problem from different perspectives to avoid being limited to a single point of view, expose yourself to contrarian opinions and broaden your frame of reference.

1.00pm. Dinner dilemma. Eat perishable fresh food before it goes off or non-perishable food which could be out of stock in the supermarket again? Settle for ice cream on the grounds that we had too much of it in the first place. Start to watch You Tube music videos for a few minutes as deserved mental break. Singing out loud to The Stereophonics disturbs the dog who reminds me it’s time for the second walk of the day.

1.30pm. Head for local supermarket with my canine companion. I like the social distancing in the shop, happy to keep this space in the future. Shelves resembling scenes from zombie apocalypse a few weeks ago now back to normal. Purchase family size packet of donuts on grounds that the virus poses a bigger threat to my health than tooth decay does.

Lockdown lesson 6: Provide your own positive perspective Sometimes our perception of a situation can blindspot us. Scribbling in my Moleskin helps me to provide perspective in a way that fosters a positive outlook. This allows me to function better and get more done – focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do.

The act of trying to write something down shapes your thoughts. Once it’s down on paper, you can list things in a way that helps you think. Whether it’s because you cross things off, or prioritise them, or shuffle them, you are in control.

2.30pm. Back home and sit in the garden. Privileged and protected, my wife and I enjoy exercise and peace in our garden. The snails aren’t self-isolating. Outside of our little oasis our rubbish is being collected, post delivered and yet NHS staff are dying. I’ve signed online petitions for proper PPE and go outside to clap loudly on Thursdays. In the new reality our attitudes towards a more democratic and fairer society must be the imperative.

2.45pm. Check Google calendar and find after cancellations, there are no meetings for the rest of 2020. Perhaps this is how it is going to be.

Lockdown lesson 7: Don’t fear the blank page One of the effects enforced by working from home is that we are left, much more than usual, with ourselves. Who are we when we are no longer reflected in the faces of the people around us and without all the external recognition? No praise or even rejection. No feedback to define us. This can leave us feeling unsettled. Maybe you’re feeling a little of that?

Being curious about ourselves is how we begin to know who we are. That can be scary. But also, possibly, exciting and freeing. The hardest part? Slowing down enough to actually think.

As with a new Moleskin, don’t fear the blank page. You don’t need to create a masterpiece, you just need to realise how much you see each day. Give yourself time to experiment, play around with your thinking and make a mess. Once it’s out there, it can become a catalyst for other ideas related to your venturing endeavours.

3.00pm. Do my online tai-chi, ten-minute workout.

3.30pm. Think about walking into town and working in a coffee shop as a break from the home office or kitchen table. Remember each and every other coffee shop has now closed for business indefinitely.

Lockdown lesson 8: Take your time, for yourself We really don’t own anything in life. When you’re born, and you come out of your mother’s womb, and you’re kicking and screaming, and you go through your years of life, you think that you own stuff and money, and this, that, and the other. But really, you don’t own anything, because it all disappears, it all goes away, and you die, and there’s nothing left.

The only thing that you ever truly own, is your own time. You have so much time to live. Alive time is your own. It means I only have this much time to live, so I’d better make the most of it, I’d better make it alive time, I’d better be urgent, have a bit of an edge, be aware of each moment as it’s passing and not in a fog.

So that’s my Moleskin diary. Not everything will be okay, but some things will. People are dying. Our leaders are weak. Things are not good. But there’s still sunshine and birds singing, so write some positive thinking ‘notes to self’ and use a journal to make sure you come out of this catastrophe on the right side.

Startups are like a game of chess: what to do now and next?

Startups need to out-manoeuvre the uncertainty hanging over them from COVID-19, but what to do now and next? The containment policies aimed at controlling it have changed how we work. As startups juggle a range of new priorities and challenges, founders must act quickly and lay a foundation for the future.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our experiences―as customers, employees, citizens, humans – and our attitudes and behaviours are changing as a result. Once the immediate threat of the virus has passed, what will have changed in the way we think and behave, and how will that affect the way we design, communicate, build and run our startups?

History shows crises can cause fundamental shifts in social attitudes and beliefs, which pave the way for new thinking, ways of working, and consumer needs and behaviours, some of which persist in the long run. How then can startups prepare for a post crisis world, rather than hunkering down and simply waiting for a return?

Entrepreneurs follow their instinct, driven by curiosity, leading to the conversion of new ideas into new products and services, moving from imagination to impact, from innovation to invoice. For innovation to flourish in these uncertain times, both freedom and discipline must be present – freedom to imagine what is possible and discipline to turn ideas into action. Now if freedom and discipline are to be a duality rather than a dichotomy, how do you get the balance right?

Garry Kasparov, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion shares how he combined disruptive and disciplined approaches to bring him success in chess – a result of calculation, foresight and intuition. His book How life imitates chess is a must read for chess players and entrepreneurs alike.

It’s about having the vision to see your moves ahead, but you don’t need to appreciate chess to enjoy this book. Kasparov highlights long-term strategy, short-term gains, being creative in the ‘middle game’ in terms of chess, and how important decision-making is at any stage of the game. We do need to think ahead in business, if not for ten moves, but at least truly think through options and the consequences – that’s not calculating, it’s common sense.

Chess is really about psychology and intuition because the mathematics get complex very quickly. For me, the main take away of chess to startups is the ability to execute strategy, which can be exploited through practice and repetition. Kasparov illustrates that the subtle and intricate potential moves that lie within the 64 squares of a chessboard are totally applicable to business, and how the game can help you step back and evaluate yourself to identify you strengths and weaknesses and thus better your game.

Kasparov is probably the greatest chess player of all time. His 120 games in a three-year struggle against Anatoly Karpov was one of the most intense head-to-head rivalries in chess history. Nobody has played chess so aggressively at such a high level for so long.

So what are the entrepreneurial learnings we can take from Kasparov’s thinking, to help reboot us from the doldrums of coronavirus?

The first phase in a chess game: the opening The purpose of the opening isn’t just to get through it, it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for startups.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame.

After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived. In business, it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan.

Decision-making: understand the rationale behind every move Chess is the gymnasium of the mind. We all make our decisions based on a combination of analysis and experience. For your startup, take a similar wider view so that we can evaluate the deeper consequences of our tactical decisions.

The best move The best next move on the board might be so obvious that it’s not necessary to spend time working out the details, especially if time is of the essence. However, often when we assume something is obvious and react hastily we make a mistake due to complacency.

Chess is the struggle against the error. More often we should break routine by doing more analysis, not less. These are the moments when your instincts tell you that there is something lurking below the surface, but take a moment to validate.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down my mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Kasparov was a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

Avoid the crowd. Do your own thinking independently. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. For a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you seek to do so, and have the nerve to try them when you find them – but ensure flair doesn’t mean you make fateful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present  Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do; strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do. A chess Grandmaster makes the best moves because they are based on what they want the board to look like in twenty moves ahead.

This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where their fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. They work out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims.

Have a game plan Chess is rarely a game of ideal moves. Almost always, a player faces a series of difficult consequences whichever move he makes. When you see a good move, look for a better one.

Too often we set a goal and head straight for it without considering all the steps that will be required to achieve it. If you work without long-term goals your decisions will become purely reactive and you’ll be playing your opponent’s game, not your own.

In startup life, as you jump from one new thing to the next you will be pulled off course, caught up in what’s right in front of you, instead of what you need to achieve. Have a vision of success, clarity and focus in your strategy.

Intuition & analysis Half the variations which are calculated in a chess game turn out to be completely superfluous. Unfortunately, no one knows in advance which half. Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. 

But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective, and creating long-term positions can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a great attacker is to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

Going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Kasparov reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. In both chess and in your startup, being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

Chess is eminently and emphatically the philosopher’s game, so let’s translate Kasparov’s chess strategies, into a clear startup strategy for the current crisis:

Hope is not a strategy. Create a real plan together with your co-founders and investors and look the truth straight in the eye. Things could get worse before they get better again. Make sure that your team see eye-to-eye on the vision you have and the measures that you will take in the next weeks and months.

Know your exposure Your first step is to identify areas of vulnerability, and decide which of these can be mitigated early. Have a solid financial model and run financial scenarios – think about what happens if your revenue drops 50%. Can you extend your runway? Plan to stay as lean as possible. This will further help you to know when to pull the trigger on major changes as things play out. Stay optimistic but realistic.

Check in with your thinking Make sure you are transparent during times of uncertainty and that you give your team and investors comfort. Do not make decisions without them, even if you can do so from a legal standpoint. Make sure they are part of the process.

Try to stick to the long-term plan Do not lose focus of your long-term goals, you shouldn’t let short-term external forces unnecessarily influence your path. I know, it can be tough when conditions deteriorate, but staying focused on long-term goals can help you with a frame of reference by which to measure short-term decisions.

Stay disciplined This is good advice always — not just for downturns. Use this time to establish a culture of discipline for all conditions. Be helpful, smart, and prudent. With an established culture of discipline, you will be in a better position for any shock to the business and it will bring your team closer together.

This is a challenging time. When people talk about entrepreneurship being tough, this is what they mean. It’s a true rollercoaster ride. But remember, it’s also a time to grow, and shine. Chess is the struggle against the error, one bad move nullifies the previous twenty good ones, the blunders are all there out on the board waiting to be made – as they are in the maelstrom we are in now.

Chess is a mental game, it requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this, take the thinking that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, just what’s needed to move your startup strategy forward in these challenging times.

Startup bets – when going back to normal, when normal isn’t waiting for us

So, what‘s your strategic approach looking to the horizon beyond the current turmoil for your startup? Among all of the nuggets I’ve heard, one word has jumped out at me: bet. I’ve heard people use the words Reboot, Initiatives, and OKRs – but bet captures the sentiment, the interplay between experiments, unknowns, risk, and outcomes.

The reality is, a startup has more in common with gambling than you may think. There’s a random nature to success – only 20% of startups get to a five year anniversary – but learning how to bet is important when it comes to your venture, as there are things you can do to improve your odds. To quote Nassim Taleb in Black Swan: The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and to focus on maximum tinkering and recognising opportunities when they present themselves.

We need to navigate these turbulent times, when it’s hard to imagine an upside, and discover the potential hidden within them. The decisions we make involve luck, uncertainty, risk, and occasional bluff – prominent elements in poker. In both startups and poker, you can’t control the cards, but you can control how you play the game of chance.

A bet can be tactical or strategic. Product decisions are bets. Sales negotiations are bets. Hiring is a bet. In these decisions, we’re betting against all the alternative outcomes that we are not choosing. By calling it a bet, we are admitting that something will happen, and of course, losing is an option. Timeframes matter too, when will we know if the bet has paid off? Placing small bets with a short timeframe enables us to learn information that can clarify the odds for larger bets, and de-risk.

You can make concurrent bets too, but taking too many bets at once can distract. Equally, you can’t win much if you spend all your time at the penny slots – you can’t win big unless you pull up a chair at the high stakes blackjack table. Each time you release an update to your product you’re playing a hand at the startup blackjack table. The combination of funding and your burn rate determines the number of hands you get to play.

The way to maximise your odds is to lose preconceived notions and instead pay close attention to the response to all of your moves. Everything is a test. Every bit of feedback is a signal. You need to look at what’s working and discard what isn’t. When we work backwards from results to figure out why those things happened, we need to avoid cognitive bias traps, cherry-picking data to confirm the narrative we prefer. We will all push square pegs into round holes to convince ourselves at time.

But imagine a startup as a game of poker. During a poker game, a player makes decisions quickly without knowing all of the facts; you don’t know the other players’ cards, you don’t know which cards are going to be turned over next, and you don’t know how the other players at the table will bet or play. Decisions need to be made in every hand in quick succession.

With a poker player’s hat on, we should adopt the betting mindset to determine which scenarios would likely play out in our game of startups. Generally, in every poker hand, thinking about what other players have and what their move could likely be, determines what you will bet and how you will react. Can you do the same for your startup strategy?

Great poker players are thinking not only what their opponents’ next move is, but the four rounds after that. It makes a lot of sense to start looking at your startup decisions and the potential outcomes of those decisions and the effect of each one in the same way. Of course, you end up with competing voices in your head, each saying how they would play it, but information remains hidden and as James Clerk Maxwell, the great physicist said, Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.

What good poker players and good decision-makers have in common is their comfort with uncertainty and unpredictable circumstances. They understand that they can never know exactly how something will turn out. They embrace that uncertainty and, instead of trying to sure, they try to figure out how unsure they are, making their best guess at the chances that different outcomes will occur.

Simply, the future does not exist. It’s only a range of possibilities. The expected value from any activity is the product of the gains available from doing it right multiplied by the probability of doing it right, minus the potential cost of failing in the attempt multiplied by the probability of failing. Every decision commits us to some course of action that, by definition, eliminates acting on other alternatives. Not placing a bet on something is, itself, a bet.

So let’s adopt the poker player’s mindset, how should we make startup bets?

Acknowledge uncertainty Making better decisions starts with understanding that uncertainty can work a lot of mischief. We are generally discouraged from saying I don’t know or I’m not sure, we regard those expressions as vague, unhelpful, and even evasive. But getting comfortable with I’m not sure is a vital step to better decision making.

We have to make peace with not knowing, I’m not sure is simply a more accurate representation of reality. When we accept that we can’t be sure, we are less likely to fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking. When we move away from holding just two opposing and discrete boxes that decisions can be put in – right or wrong – we move along the continuum between the extremes. Making better decisions stops being about wrong or right but about calibrating the shades of grey.

Open your mind to all possible options The startup world is a pretty random place. If we don’t change our mindset, we’re going to have to deal with being wrong a lot. We become focused on the immediate situation such that we overlook the range of possibilities. This can lead us to make rash decisions or miss opportunities because we don’t recognise them.

There is always a context beyond than we initially thought, filled with more possibilities than we envisioned. With a broader mindset we can counter the discomfort of uncertainty with greater optimism. Rather than focus on digging yourself out of a range of worst-case scenarios, recognise we have options based on upsides too.

Think in terms of probabilities, not binary outcomes Human nature means we spiral into imagining extreme outcomes. But the poker player thinks in probabilities. Stop thinking in binary terms – stranded or not stranded – we create anxiety and not options. When we consider the full range of possible outcomes and assign probabilities to them, we see things differently. This reminds me of French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s poignant observation: My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.

Throw the thinking forward Suzy Welch developed a popular tool known as 10–10–10 that has the effect of bringing the future into our in-the-moment decisions. Her 10–10–10 process starts with a question: What are the consequences of each of my options in 10 days ? In 10 weeks ? In 10 months? Proceeding this way reduces the weight of the emotion of the moment and brings more rationality to the decision-making process, considering the outcomes.

Backcasting – work backwards from a positive future When we identify a desired outcome, work backward from there to identify the steps that must occur to reach the goal. That leads to developing strategies to increase the chance this event occurs with a clear focus. Imagining a successful future and backcasting is a useful mental time-travel exercise for identifying what we need to make happen. Working backwards is proved to be a more positive approach when working in a crisis, as we give ourselves the freedom to imagine a favourable result from our bets and achievement of steps along the way.

Pre-mortems give us a balance One approach to achieve success is through positive visualisation outlined above, but the corollary of incorporating negative visualisation is also a useful technique. While backcasting imagines a positive future, a pre-mortem imagines a negative one. It may not feel so good during the process to include this focus on the negative bets, but the balance gives us a contrast to turning a blind eye to negative scenarios.

Less time means less room for making excuses The problem when we have time to plan is that it dilutes the thinking. Our focus needs to be reducing the amount of time we can cheat on our time. Short windows force us to make the most efficient use of our time and make the bets, because there’s no room to make it up later.

Just because we operate in short timelines doesn’t mean we don’t have long term thinking. We zoom out and pick strategy bets, but once the course is set, we zoom all the way back into, OK now what can we do today? A short focus window is about maximising output with zero room for waste. Use bets to make decisions in the here and now. Short windows also force us to set priorities, we’re forced to have a hard discussion about what really matters to us most, which is a very important and cathartic conversation to constantly have.

Balance probabilities with a humanistic approach Painting by numbers doesn’t guarantee a great finished picture. It provides a useful guide but removes creativity. Likewise, in decision making, balance the number-crunching and logic with a humanistic approach – business growth is derived from personal growth and learning too, integrate the two approaches.

Don’t simply execute bets based on what appear to be logical, empirical outcomes, but consider effort, risk taking and perseverance required. Use your emotional intelligence, every outcome is an experience and a chance to share, listen, reflect and learn. Treat outcomes as feedback.

Luck plays a part, like it or not No one has done more thinking regarding the impact of luck on making decisions than Michael Mauboussin. He states that it is reasonable to expect that a different outcome could have occurred. Mauboussin points out There’s a quick and easy way to test whether an activity involves skill: ask whether you can lose on purpose. In games of skill, it’s clear that you can lose intentionally, but when playing roulette or the lottery you can’t lose on purpose.

As the poker player knows, some things are unknown or unknowable. The influence of luck makes it impossible to predict exactly how things will turn out, and all the hidden information makes it even harder.

We need to keep a forward-looking mindset during these turbulent times. We’ll have hunches, insights and intuition about how to approach the post-corona economy for our startup, but going back to normal when normal isn’t waiting for us is going to present some huge challenges.

Much better to put your energy into shaping what ‘a new normal’ could be, a new reality, a new game, a new space. Better to bet on and shape a new future, but not a ‘back to normal’, because normal is not waiting for us. The ‘new normal’ is for creators, makers, innovators, builders. So place your bets.

Startups – get a ‘lust for life’ like Iggy Pop

It’s Iggy Pop’s seventy-third birthday today. Iggy the manic wildman, hair flailing, body convulsing, eyes wild, naked torso as he leaps into the concert crowd is not growing old gracefully, as you’d expect. But that doesn’t begin to tell the full story of this complex, enduring rock icon, with the spirit and flair for innovation like any entrepreneur.

The year 1969 is already half a century ago. That historic year gave us Woodstock, saw the election of President Nixon, a man in the moon and the Vietnam war. All of this might make one think that a simple 12 months could not be filled with any more history, yet the year also saw the debut of The Stooges, with Iggy as frontman.

In a time where music and popular culture in general was occupied with love, peace and flower power, the Michigan band formed by Iggy Pop suddenly introduced a totally new sound. The controversial, dark and aggressive atmospheres that the group conveyed were early signs that Iggy was about to become a significant voice.

The Stooges played their first public show at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, in March, 1968. Iggy had shaved his eyebrows and slathered his face with white paint. He wore golf shoes, a rubber swim cap decorated with several dozen strips of aluminium foil, and a frock described as ‘an old white nightshirt’. The Stooges generated a caustic, demented drone. The P.A. was cranked to inhumane levels.

The Stooges fell apart, for all the usual reasons – drugs, clashing agendas, poor sales. The band’s final performance was at the Michigan Palace, in Detroit, in 1974. In 2003, they reunited, and in 2010, the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Stooges played their last show in 2013. They are now confined to history, as from the original line up, only Iggy Pop is alive.

Iggy now has eighteen solo albums to his name. He is really just a persona he created in order to transmit his ideas more effectively. The shocking primitivism of the early records he made with The Stooges, as vocalist and lyricist, wasn’t just the howl of men possessed, it has a life-force, a personality, and a history, just like you and me. Music can be your friend. Iggy Pop is one of those performers for me.

To me, his approach is one of the reasons Iggy Pop can be seen as one of the most important artists of his time. A minimal processing of his songs, at times even making up lyrics on the spot, combined with a harsh, sharp and shrill sounding guitar, contributes to the rawness of his music. This ties in with Iggy’s infamous stage presence. He embraced the weird, angry, violent side every human possesses, and brings it out time after time during each of his live performances.

I can listen to his songs endlessly. The rawness, the pure human frustration translated into music, decorated by a pinch of humour, never ceases to amaze me. I first found out about Iggy as a 15-year-old. I was already into Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. I embraced the darker side. I found this noise was more suited to my listening. These were definitely people my parents didn’t like – Mum and Dad even cut off my pocket money so I couldn’t buy their records!

I first saw Iggy live in 1977 at the Manchester Apollo. He came on like some kind of demented wild animal. He was bare-chested, a dervish strutting on stage like I’d never seen before. I next saw him at the Factory Club, the pre-curser to the Hacienda. There were pipes that ran all over the ceiling of this grubby club and he sang while swinging off them like a monkey. It was astonishing.

But now over fifty years on, how exactly did his passion for reinvention and transformation manifest itself, and what does it teach us? He showed endless possibilities, extended out into the new spaces, metaphorically and physically. This man can move. Iggy the entrepreneur, the disruptor, the instigator, the craftsman of his own self, manifesting uniqueness and original thought.

What are the traits of this audacious showman that we can reflect upon as genuine entrepreneurial genes? Here are my thoughts.

1. The fearless frontman As the singer and driving force behind The Stooges, Iggy was a one-man whirlwind who revolutionised rock performance through his total physical commitment. Giving no thought whatsoever to his own safety, his antics risked personal injury. He’s credited with inventing the stage dive, although as usual, he was a little too ahead of the curve – late-60s crowds weren’t always hip to his intentions.

As a musical entrepreneur, he’s made clear statements of identity, a proud and profound declaration of autonomy and expression. It might have been over the top, but it never seemed unnatural. He simply made his mark. Like all entrepreneurial leaders, you have to be out at the front and set the agenda. Perhaps not diving into the crowd, but at least getting noticed.

2. Open Mindedness Although The Stooges were decried by critics as musical savages, nothing could be further from the truth. The Stooges’ own brand of howling minimalism was as much of an aesthetic choice as it was a necessity to suit their rudimentary musicianship.

Sure, on stage fronting a band cranking out Lust for Life or The Passenger or I Wanna Be Your Dog and the wildman instantly returns, but there are many more sides to Iggy Pop. His depth of purpose is what’s kept him relevant through the decades. As a punk pioneer in the 70s, an unlikely pop star in the 80s, a godfather of grunge in the 90s, through to a stint as BBC Radio 6 Music host, he’s stayed relevant.

Iggy’s work has always drawn from a huge range of influences – design, film, literature, contemporary art, and of course from music of all genres. His uniqueness is often the product of combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely his own, throwing them together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

3. Collaborative & co-creative It’s fair to say that Iggy Pop wouldn’t be where he is today without the patronage of David Bowie. Iggy had a long collaborative and personal friendship with Bowie, after both musicians relocated to Berlin to wean themselves off their respective drug addictions. Iggy began his solo career by collaborating with Bowie on the 1977 albums The Idiot and Lust for Life, contributing the lyrics – Bowie famously wrote Lust for Life on a mandolin. In return, Iggy also inspired Bowie to make some of the greatest music of his career.

Iggy is apparently also really easy to work with, described as mild-mannered, patient and open to hear other people’s ideas. He listened, he read, he viewed, he engaged, and as a result he constantly evolved – all traits of a great entrepreneur.

4. Restlessness Although The Stooges were never fully appreciated in their lifetime, they have become one of most influential bands in history – they inspired Cobain to form Nirvana, the Ramones got together because they were the only kids in their school who liked The Stooges, and Johnny Marr cited Raw Power as the record that changed his life.

Throughout his career, Iggy is well known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage antics, poetic lyrics and distinctive voice. Not all of his experiments have worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every innovator needs.

5. Innovation and novelty In Iggy’s own words: When we started The Stooges we were organised as a group of Utopian communists. We shared the pursuit of a radical ideal. We practiced a total immersion to try to forge a new approach which would be something of our own. Something of lasting value. Something that was going to be revealed and created and was not yet known.

Iggy’s passion for novelty and spirit of experimentation is a constant presence in his music and vocal style. It’s important to make people feel something he said. He found his voice in large part through his wanderings in America. Sometimes it takes strange circumstances to provide a mirror in which to find yourself.

He had wilderness years when his novelty wasn’t generating commercial success – early works with The Stooges were flops – but they’re still in print and they sell 45 years later. Okay, it took twenty years for the first royalties to roll in, and Iggy didn’t return to the charts until Lust for Life was re-released in 1996 following its appearance in the Irvine Welsh’s film Trainspotting, but sometimes you just have to keep faith.

6. Stay relevant by creating your own future Musical tastes change, new artists emerge – your market can move in a new, unexpected direction. For a while in the late 1990s, Iggy was pushed to one side. But he stayed relevant. The unexpected is, after all, Iggy’s modus operandi. His 18th album as a solo artist, Free, released September 2019, was an incredible feat of subterfuge.

The penultimate track on Free is Iggy reading Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, over moody peals of guitar, synthesizer, and horn. If you can shake off its familiarity the central idea that a person should live vigorously, unapologetically sums Iggy up perfectly.

Of course, ultimately his legacy will replace the future, but the remastered releases of his Bowie produced solo albums The Idiot and Lust for Life in a new box set on 29th May will provide a fascinating insight into the unique creative alchemy that set the wheels in motion for a sound that went on to dominate and shape popular culture for decades to come.

Today, his voice sounds dark and deep, a greasy grumble, weakened by age. Sometimes it growls, like an empty stomach. But instead of mutating into a hungry animal, Iggy haunts like a dignified spirit himself a champion to all contemporaneous weirdos and every iteration of punk to come, the same way sparks of intelligence and smears of stupor commingle beneath all our skulls and fill our heads at any given moment. Or maybe that’s just me then.

The generation of music entrepreneurs that challenged life and shaped us are now being embraced by death and our high decibel tears are burying them. John Lennon, Joe Strummer, David Bowie, Lou Reed have gone. But as we celebrate his seventy-third birthday, this most sublime of artists remains hankering around innovation.

Still moving to a dislocated dance, he gives us ideas above our own imagination, a truly disruptive entrepreneur. Although his body, voice and energy might no longer be of the same quality as when I first saw him in 1977, he will continue to command the world’s attention, and show a Lust for Life that all startup entrepreneurs should embrace.

Startups! Crisis leadership lessons from Jacinda Ardern

In the current coronavirus adversity, being a leader can be harrowing. Managing competing priorities is an uphill battle, mustering the courage to keep going gruelling. You need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted with people, looking outward and take responsibility, leaning into tough situations.

Leadership is the art and science of influencing others, keeping your own head above water in the midst of an on-going fire-alarm. But no matter what tumult is thrown into your path, your response as a leader is to take responsibility. It can feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders, but fixing the problem and wrestling it to the ground, owning and addressing the issue, is the primary role of a leader in a crisis.

As leader, it’s up to you to take a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach, to be the stalwart source of reliability and strength. Put simply, you gain trust by taking responsibility, earning the right to influence people positively and advance your organisation to move forward. People are looking to you. It’s your chance to show them who you really are when the chips are down.

Yet not all leaders step up to be counted. I don’t take responsibility at all, said President Donald Trump on March 13, responding to questions about the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in New York City. Those words will probably end up as the epitaph of his presidency, the single sentence that sums it all up.

Now, Trump fancies himself a ‘wartime president’ fighting the pandemic. How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it had killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory it will kill by late April, more Americans than died in Vietnam.

COVID-19 emerged in China in late December. The Trump administration received formal notification of the outbreak on January 3. The first confirmed case in America was diagnosed in mid-January. Financial markets in the United States suffered the first of a sequence of crashes on February 24. The first person known to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States died on February 29.

By March 20, New York City had 5,600 cases. But it wasn’t until March 21 that the White House begin marshalling a national effort to meet the threat in earnest. What they’ve done over the last 13 days has been really extraordinary, Trump said on April 3, implicitly acknowledging the waste of weeks since January 3.

As late as March 9, Trump was still arguing that the coronavirus would be no worse than the seasonal flu, and on March 27, Trump spoke about reopening the country by Easter. But he finally glimpsed the truth through his mental fog: having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump then claimed he will have done a very good job if the death toll is below 200,000.

Of course, that the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault, but the unpreparedness of the United States is Trump’s responsibility. He spent ten weeks insisting the virus was a harmless flu that would go away on its own. The strategic fault is more widely shared, but leadership responsibility rests with Trump. He could have stopped it, and he did not. He has blathered, bluffed and bullied his way through a test of leadership that has utterly overwhelmed him.

Compare this to another leader, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. When New Zealand had just six confirmed coronavirus cases, Ardern brought in a 14-day lockdown and the toughest restrictions in the world. At the time of writing, they have had just over a thousand cases and five deaths. Leadership matters in a crisis, and Ardern can take considerable credit for this thus far hugely encouraging outcome.

Of course, New Zealand is a small country, but the principles in leading a country of five million people are the same as leading a country with 65 million (UK) 330 million (US). You have to set out difficult choices, make the unpopular decisions, take the country into your confidence about why you are making them at this moment. You have to show sincere empathy for the difficulties your people are facing, show emotional intelligence and take them with you on the journey into the unknown.

Ardern’s public interviews, statements and social media posts are a masterclass in empathy, crisis management and earning the trust and respect as a leader. She gets the big moments right. On the Covid-19 crisis, the two biggest moments for Ardern came two days apart.

On 21 March when Boris Johnson was still resisting a lockdown for the UK, and he and Trump was continuing to send all manner of mixed messages about public gatherings, work, science, schools, and much more besides, she did a broadcast to the New Zealand nation spelling out the strategy for protecting the country. In this rugby-obsessed nation, unsurprisingly, one of the central messages sounded like an All Blacks team talk: We go hard, we go early.

She emphasised the need for firm action to stop the spread of the virus before it really took hold. She set out and explained in detail but in clear, simple language, the four stages of Alert, her strategy, and what each would require of the people, and what the Government would be doing. Her manner was calm, authoritative, engaging and friendly. She talked with the people, not at the people, creating a genuine sense of community all-in-this-togther.

She didn’t use the repeated phrase we hear from the UK Government representatives – we are relying on the scientific advice – thereby ducking absolute responsibility, which you know will come back in the future to deflect failure. Instead, she focused on the human as much as the economic consequences of the changes that would come as the country went through the different Alert gears.

She spelled out clearly how difficult it would be for everyone, making a personal connection. She spoke to New Zealanders’ sense of self-belief – creative, practical, country-minded – and she ended by urging everyone to be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.

Two days later, moving from Alert level two to three, giving the country a further two days to prepare for the lockdown of Alert level four, she delivered this memorable line, which helped frame the public’s understanding: We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once. Admitting she was demanding the most significant restriction of movement in modern history, she set out how lockdown would close all organisations, from schools to businesses.

She said without it New Zealand could see the greatest loss of life in our history and she was not prepared to let that happen. She said other countries had chosen not to go early, go hard, and she was not making that mistake. Ardern gave immediate clarity sadly lacking in the US and UK, and spelled out and shared her plan in a way I have never felt the US and UK leaders have done, which has allowed an impression to develop that they are rather making it up as they go along. Yes, there are unknowns, but show open, clear leadership.

Natural empathy has always been a strength for Ardern – in the current crisis, could any other leader have stood at a Government live broadcast as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times? Ardern is the only leader I’ve seen who seems to be smiling in this crisis, which gives a feeling of positivity to the people. A leader is a dealer in hope.

I’d argue Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership. But how can we assess her leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American Professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. Their model highlights direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy as the three key things leaders must address in a crisis. Ardern’s response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches.

Direction giving In directing New Zealanders to lockdown, she simultaneously offered meaning and purpose to what people were being asked to do. Importantly, her four-level Alert framework was released and explained early, two days before a full lockdown was announced, in contrast with the prevarication and sometimes confusing messages from leaders in the UK and US. She shows empathy about what is being asked of her people.

Make yourself available Ardern’s press conferences comprise a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions. In contrast, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pre-recorded his March 24 lockdown announcement, offering no opportunity for media questions. Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought compliance. Trump just seems to apply bombastic rhetoric.

Lead with empathy, not the argument Ardern’s approach is to use daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention. She has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making – the four stage Alert framework – allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why. Much of her communication has been dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. It’s worked, at a time when we have police in the UK patrolling the streets to enforc social distancing and ‘stay at home’.

When dealing with problems which are complex, evolving and cannot be easily resolved within a set timeframe, leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. It’s clear this has happened in New Zealand. Of course, not everything has been perfect in Ardern’s response, and independent scrutiny of any Government’s response is essential. But expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is unreasonable, when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.

But Ardern has got more right than Trump or Johnson. Watch her Facebook video post from her sofa, answering people’s questions as they come in to her iPad. It is a masterclass of compassion, clarity and calm. She is taking responsibility on behalf of her country, for her country. She cares, and that creates a sense of calmness and confidence. The fact the number of infections and deaths is so slow, is quantifiable evidence she got her strategy right in terms of its implementation and timing.

So the next time you’re in the midst of a crisis, don’t try to deflect or underestimate it. Choose to take responsibility as the leader. Own the problem, take a hard-nosed, decisive approach but reach out with compassion to your folks, present a solution, get to work, build trust, and sort it.

You have to take responsibility for your choices. This is the real test of our maturity and emotional intelligence as a leader. Jacinda Ardern hits the mark for her open, transparent communication that oozes humanitarian concern and asserts ‘the buck stops with me, I am your leader’ responisbility, and if you add the outcome of that single-figure death toll to her performance as a strategist, Ardern is the standout global leader of this awful crisis.

Managing remote startup teams in a crisis

Managing remote teams can be challenging at the best of times, but add in the impact of a national emergency and it becomes even more demanding. The last month has seen the largest and most rapid transition of business moving from traditional office settings to remote work in history. Offices are dark, silent and closed.

Some startup folks were well prepared for the transition, while others hurriedly set up makeshift offices at their dining table and try to mute the sound of barking dogs and family activity. While people grapple with their own fears and uncertainty about the coming weeks, we have moved into the age of remote work – it is no longer a place, but a thing, and a permanent shift for many.

For many startups, work is independent of a physical location, deploying real-time collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom while prioritising the conversations in which they actively participate as their norm. But now in response to the crisis, many organisations need to use a combination of tools to substitute for in-person experiences, and it needs clear leadership to combine the technology, cultural changes and personal impact.

The biggest challenge is that of ‘virtual distance’ – the sense of emotional and psychological detachment that builds up over time when team are apart and become over-reliant on technology to mediate their relationships. Virtual distance changes the way people relate to each other, and startup leaders need to create a communication environment where team members feel emotionally and psychologically connected to one another.

Video calls simply cannot replace face-to-face, and they are surprisingly physically demanding – is anyone else more drained at the end of an hour on Zoom than in a normal meeting like I am? Maybe we feel tricked into the idea of being together, and then we realise we’re not, and there is an emotional deflation when the zoom call ends.

It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence with occasional remote contact. Our minds process so much context and information in face-to-face encounters, the nuances of body language and side interactions, that meeting on video is being a kind of blindfolded. We sense too little and can’t imagine enough, that single deprivation requires a lot of conscious effort of focus and concentration.

The biggest current challenge facing startup leaders is getting isolated individuals to work together as a cohesive unit. Remote teams can’t be treated like collocated teams, where project status, risks and problems are discussed in team meetings, at lunch and over coffee. A leader’s top priority is establishing clear and aligned objectives, as over time the team grows increasingly less effective and productive.

Distance does not make the heart grow fonder, rather it allows room for isolation to seep into the psyche and assumptions to grow and, frequently, human nature and the human mind will naturally create negative assumptions about people or situations.

So what are the key leadership communication strategies and tactics for the current crisis to keep individuals connected, help maintain their well-being and try to keep momentum and productivity in your team?

1. Keep it real In times of crisis, no one wants to hear the sugar-coated version of where things stand. Now is the time to cut to the chase. Imagine that every person reading your email or listening to your conference call is going to assume every word you’re saying may be bullshit, so drop some hard facts. Set a tone of openness and transparency but reality, so that your communications are well-received and effective, and have impact.

2. Establish structured daily check-ins This could take the form of a series of one-on-one calls if your team work independently from each other, or a team call if they work collaboratively. The important feature is that the calls are regular and predictable, and that they are a forum in which employees know that they can consult with you, and that their concerns and questions will be heard.

Communication is a two-way street. While team members need clear, direct instructions from the leader, you also need to know what each team member is up to and whether meaningful progress is being made. To achieve this a feedback process should be established in each check-in.

Encourage your folks to ask you for clarification rather than keeping questions to them. Stimulate them to communicate and organise independently. If your employees share insights and ideas, they might pinpoint and resolve issues you overlooked.

3. Fill the void A mistake many leaders make is assuming that no news is good news. Some remote team members will drift toward silence if left alone. They won’t always tell you if they’re struggling with something. Pose open-ended questions to quiet team members, things like How’s it going? How can I help? and Is there anything you need to do to make your job easier?

Value all team members equally. Each team member needs to feel appreciated. To ensure harmony and cohesiveness, the entire team should be engaged, and each have their time to contribute to discussions. Remove the hierarchy, make everyone share the burden to create a sense of empathy with what other team members are enduring.

4. Support a remote-decision making culture You should also begin work on what will no doubt be a more time-consuming effort – shifting your startup’s culture to be comfortable with remote decision making. This is a big change. When you’re sitting by yourself talking to people on video, where traditionally you have made decisions by having people together for discussions, this is a great opportunity to set up the cultural norms that say:

·     We make decisions on video conferences

·     We stay in touch with our people on video conferences

·     We communicate the status of the organisation candidly and transparently on video conferences.

5. Avoid being the centre of everything Every founder at some point needs to learn to avoid being the centre of everything. You need to empower other people to make decisions, you have to trust your folks in a remote team. Letting go of your own control issues might be the biggest challenge in leading a remote team. It will be tough, but is actually mutually beneficial for both you and your team. To achieve big things, you sometimes need to let small things pass.

Instead of micromanaging your team, put extra effort on making sure communication works. If you’ve managed to hire the right people, you should already know they have the skills required to work efficiently, which means that whether the right decisions are being made isn’t something you should be constantly worried about.

What you should make sure of, though, is that you’ve provided your team with the right tools and mindset of communicating efficiently while in the process of remotely managing themselves.

6. Create Connection You should place an emphasis on individual connection. People suddenly working from home are likely to feel disconnected and lonely, which lowers confidence, productivity and engagement. Under these circumstances it is tempting to become exclusively task-focused. To address these challenges, making time for personal interaction is more important than ever. Effective leaders have an in-person foundation upon which to build, so keep these connections strong even though individuals are not seeing each other face-to-face.

7. Encouragement You shouldn’t feel obliged to constantly pat every employee on the back every time you connect, but it is important to take the time and say how well they’re doing every now and then. This is especially important in a remote team because spontaneous praise tends to naturally happen when chatting in person and in an informal setting – which isn’t often in a remote team.

Effective leaders take a two-pronged approach, both acknowledging the stress and anxiety that employees may be feeling in difficult circumstances, but also providing affirmation of their confidence in their teams, using phrases such as We’ve got this, or This is tough, but I know we can handle it or Let’s look for ways to use our strengths during this time. With this support, employees are more likely to take up the challenge with a sense of purpose and focus – and self-belief.

8. Engage in remote social interaction It’s important to foster and maintain remote team spirit and morale. A way to do this is creating ‘virtual coffee’ sessions, an on-line team meeting dedicated to social content, or a #social Slack channel where employees can run into each other and play out their personal and human sides, trade jokes, videos and family photos.

A study found that 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns within the workplace can be credited to social interaction outside the workplace, so try to sustain this whilst the team are virtually distanced. Being online constantly comes with its own stress, but taking a few moments to chat, laugh, and connect, even virtually, builds culture.

9. Trust your team Now is the time to give latitude to embrace acceptable risk in trying new things. Leaders are going to have to get creative on everything, from creating an engaged work team to meeting clients’ needs in a very uncertain time.

Establishing trust and transparency in your team is important in all directions. As much as horizontal trust (between team members) is absolutely crucial for your team working efficiently together, you should also never forget about vertical trust with the leader. Foster a community mindset without a shared location.

10. Democratise Accountability Accountability is often hard to track in a remote team, and micromanaging tends to make employees feel that their leader doesn’t trust them. This has a negative effect on well-being, productivity and motivation. A remote team leader must show she trusts individuals in their performance, productivity and judgement.

The move to home-based working is a great opportunity for a team to revisit the basics in order to ensure everyone understands the team objectives, their individual roles, and how each person contributes to the outcome. Clarifying roles and accountability among the team helps people understand when they can turn to peers instead of the leader, which prevents the leader from becoming a bottleneck.

In times of crisis, 90% of our attention is on anything but getting stuff done. The things that are eating up the most attention aren’t likely to be synonymous with the things that really need our focus. The startup leader’s role is to rally that anxiety and attention toward a handful of focal points that have the highest and best probability to get us to survive the crisis. If we can do that, everything becomes totally manageable, it gives everyone a collective call to arms, a unifying purpose.

This is a huge opportunity for us to experience remote work first hand that we would otherwise not encounter. This can make our work culture more inclusive, more informal and more friendly at this time, and for the future. This allows us to think more strategically about when, why and how remote work should be approached in the long term – despite the awful circumstances, it may prove to be valuable practice for the future. . The coronavirus exodus to cyberspace is unlikely to be the last. Virtual work is the future of work.

Be considerate to your team. Everyone is stressed and worried about their family, friends, and what the coming weeks will mean. Your leadership now is crucial and defining. Learn to recognise the signs of someone being ‘off’, encourage folks to be open about how they feel by creating a judgement-free environment, and most of all, be there for your folks.