The need to be damn good.
Starting something new can be exciting while at the same time extremely scary and uncertain. Entrepreneurs continue to gravitate toward their profession despite these drawbacks, weathering the storm of newness and uncertainty with an underlying/driving hope -- to emerge on the other side with a successful product or offering. Pre COVID-19, there was a semblance of a process that surrounded tech entrepreneurship:
Breakthrough idea, market opportunity, product build, networking to find team members, sharing your story countless times, peaking interest of customers and potentially investors, selling your product, building a moat of differentiation, surpassing incumbents on a number of factors, and iterating your product alongside customers to ultimately move up and to the right with a fair amount of bumps along the way.
All in all, successful tech entrepreneurship might look something like this in terms of your progression from inception to product market fit to selling at scale...
Now, that’s not to say following the prescribed steps for potential success will grant you success. We know that most startups fail (~90%) and the factors that separate the winners from the losers is a bunch of luck, the team, the will, the market, and, oh yes, the product.
For me as a founder, the allure of working on a passion project in place of a corporate job was too enticing and I had to take the leap. I had my idea, market opportunity, and the loose structure of the process noted above to help me get up and running. Ultimately, however, the uniqueness of each founder’s journey is primarily attributed to luck and factors outside of their control. This feels super lonely.
Founders everywhere face an immense amount of pressure to succeed, to do right by their employees, to return their investor’s money, to make an impact, and to win. This seemed like a tall order to begin with -- and then, COVID-19 happened.
*I won’t directly address the widespread start-up investment impacts of COVID-19, as there are plenty of well-written pieces covering this topic (Here's one). Instead, I will focus on grappling with the new realities of COVID-19 as an entrepreneur/start-up founder.*
Getting into the start-up ecosystem, you know that you are signing up for a wildly uncertain ride -- that’s basically the only thing constant cross-company. There are so many unknowns right out of the gate. As mentioned earlier, there are simply guardrails and a semblance of a process to hopefully guide your progression -- most of the process, however, is extremely random and does not follow a specific template.
You throw in COVID-19 and that certainly adds another element to the ever-growing uncertainty, but we knew the journey was going to be uncertain, right? That’s what we signed up for, right? No one had, or still has, any idea of the long term impact of COVID-19 and, true to form, entrepreneurs have to take it on the chin while figuring out what they need to do to stay afloat and operate in this new environment.
The solution? Be damn good at what you do. (Note: I am by no means proclaiming I am damn good nor do I have the formula to success. See above re: each founder’s journey is entirely unique.)
To be damn good in these uncertain times, as tough as it is, each one of us needs to rethink our business, our strategy, our team and our value proposition. For some of us that means hitting reset and asking yourself, with all that I now know, would I jump back in the saddle? This is a question we all have to ask ourselves. COVID-19 was a match lit under every single business that forced them to act and adapt.
“Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’, even if the plan is horrifying.” - The Joker
I love this quote (and movie), because it’s particularly on message right now. By subscribing to entrepreneurship you have this loose semblance of a process or plan and, so long as there are unknowns within the confines of these guardrails, all is well. COVID-19 was not “according to plan”, but we have to recognize that and react accordingly in order to make it another manageable uncertainty vs. a complete unknown.
Depending on the nature of your business, you likely will need to adapt to current market conditions by altering your product or value proposition. There have been some amazing stories of manufacturers converting production towards PPE, or restaurants volunteering to supply meals to hospital workers. How you act during this crisis will be remembered by your community.
Having the humility to adapt and change course in light of COVID-19 will ultimately be a telling business decision; however, this is par for the course for entrepreneurship where change is constant. If you are able to frame this change as something that is within your control, you have a higher chance of success vs. folding your poker hand to external macro conditions.
The unfortunate part of this is that there will be a higher rate of companies who suffer. Instead of pointing fingers, we have to lean in to support the people and companies we love however we can.
To be damn good and operate at peak performance while maintaining employee motivation, companies need to address the human element of COVID-19. You have to be empathetic to those around you at this time. Your team, your vendors, and your customers are all dealing with the new normal in unique ways and, in order for them to perform, they need to know they have a support structure that will be there for them. Reinforcing empathy requires additional transparency around business health and being upfront about any potential cost cutting measures that might need to take place. Employees deserve to know what is happening and how they are impacted, without finding out from another source.
“Right now, showing empathy is the most important thing you can do for productivity, performance, innovation, retention—for any meaningful outcome.” - Lazhlo Bock