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Lessons for business. From Charles Dickens, start-up founders and Scott Fitzgerald

Over 200 years ago, Charles Dickens opened “A tale of two cities” with these memorable lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
It well describes the times we live in.
Today, there is a lot of stuff floating around on how start-ups will get impacted by Covid19.
Briefing notes from everyone. The masters of the start-up universe.
Lesser experts. Journalists. VCs. Other founders. Consultants.
The word is out. Winter is here. The world will end. It’s worse than 2008.
Listen to everyone and everything, and it’s clear that this is the coming of the Apocalypse, The fifth horseman, the age of Kali, the book of revelation, Fury Road… all rolled into one.
And everyone has a solution, a very simple one.
It is better that founders take an axe to costs, sack employees, use this as an opportunity to trim the fat, preserve cash.
Basically kill everything, kill it now, kill it fast.
It’s ironic.
Last year, these same experts were advocating taking on huge amounts of capital. Blitz scaling. Hyper-growth.
They were telling CEOs and founders to hire Executive coach for themselves and their leadership teams, get a Chief  of Staff, to hire only A-Listers, because they were 10X more productive.
And now, it’s Attila the Hun time.
Indeed, many founders are indeed following this path. Because it is the way of the world. And there is no point agreeing or disagreeing with their stand, because they do what they the world, and they, believe is right.
I will talk about how some, no, many founders are responding more maturely and with courage. Who are bucking the trends. Who recognise that  they need to respond rapidly to the Covid crisis, who are trimming waste, but also doing so responsibly, calmly and sensibly.
Most of them are struggling through their existential crises (delayed revenues, running out of cash, funding drying up, employees leaving…..).
But practically all are choosing to walk the hard path.
Of thinking about their employees, their customers and yes their investors too.
And of themselves last.
These leaders will put many large company leaders to shame, with the thoughtfulness and care they show for the world around them, beyond narrow self-interest.
Here are 4 lessons I’m learning from them:
1. The collective trumps the individual:
Pain is always easier to endure when everyone participates in it. Many founders and their leadership are leading from the front. No, they are not just talking about taking a month’s pay cut from a half a million dollar salary. They are not taking even the meagre salary they get altogether. Hiring and pay freezes are next, stocks in lieu of cash are another option, and employee cuts are being saved for the last.
2. Be swift, be decisive, but above all, be calm:
In the face of pressure to cut everything, and the real danger of running out of cash, swift action is needed. Decisiveness is key. But there can a thing as too much speed and too much decisiveness too early. There is a thin line between speed and rashness, whether it be in driving or in running companies. Many of the best leaders are taking time to think through the  implications of the changes, dividing decisions into 2 horizons: those that brook no delay (safety of employees, open communication to all stakeholders) and those that require some thought. One I know has divided his war plans into: Today, This week, 30 days, 60 days, 90 days.
3. Iterate often, Involve widely:
Some problems cannot be solved in a one hour meeting. They cannot be solved through one person deciding something late at night and operating in a top down command and control model. Some solutions require time, they require iteration. The minds of many employees are not focused on work alone, but on their health and their families. Even senior leaders worry about the impact of organisational decisions on their personal lives (they are human after all). In such a situation, many leaders are brainstorming regularly with their teams, meeting frequently and discussing solutions iteratively to solve intractable problems through an orderly process.
4. One man’s poison is another’s food:
In some cases, cutting costs is necessary, especially for those businesses with flawed business models and poor unit economics. In some businesses, revenue lost may never come back. But in other cases revenues are likely delayed, not denied altogether. In others, the new order may even throw up opportunity. While everyone is looking at cots, many CEOs are asking themselves what new opportunities will arise  from this moment. They are pivoting business models, trying new products or services that they did not have the time or the bandwidth or sometimes simply the courage to try earlier.
Most often, these problems and likely solutions pull founders and CEOs in two different directions. Some of the new ideas require investments, others require staying the course, still others ask for immediate shrinking.
Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
To not just survive, but thrive, start-ups and founders will do well to remember these lines. There will be CEOs who stay calm in the face of adversity, and who manage their short term risks but also focus on the medium and long term opportunity.  These are the CEOs who can go from a meeting where they are cutting costs and handling real employee challenges, to another where they are telling product teams to develop ideas faster, and pitching investors to give them funds now for the rebound that will come…..
These  founders and start-ups are Scott Fitzgerald’s first rate minds.
Who can handle Charles Dickens’ ‘worst of times best of times duality’.
I learn from them. I pray for them. I salute them.

Author avatar
Suresh V Shankar

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