Facing Up to Failure: An Open Letter to Entrepreneurs During COVID-19
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Enterprise in the Time of Coronavirus,” which explores how the business and development sectors are responding to the pandemic. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to useful resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
Leading a startup is hard.
Leading a purpose-driven startup is harder.
Leading a purpose-driven startup when a global pandemic shuts the entire economy down while posing a deadly health risk is almost impossible for many – if not most – of you.
I wish I didn’t, but I know the dread that those of you who fall into this category are feeling right now.
Your staff look at you like dead people walking. They avoid eye contact for fear of the inevitable announcement when you will tell them they no longer have jobs. You would love nothing more than to announce that you can ride out the crisis, but you know deep down that this is not true. Or maybe you already shared an optimistic view of your company’s prospects earlier on to keep staff morale up, and now you feel the additional guilt of being called out as a fraud when you revert to the truth.
You would love to tell all of your suppliers, many of whom you have built strong relationships with, that you can keep paying them. You stare at your cash flow trying to make the numbers work. But they don’t. You have to consider cash flow trade-offs that a month ago seemed unthinkable.
You may even see the opportunities that the crisis has created, if only you had the capital to go after them. You enthusiastically speak to investors and they agree with you, but they tell you to come back to them in a few months when things have settled down. If you’re lucky and have some runway, just maybe you can pivot and capitalize. But even then, you worry about how long the crisis will last, and whether you should protect your cash instead of trying to prepare for growth after the pandemic. If you are unlucky and don’t have the runway, you are envious of this dilemma.
Your personal life is strained. You don’t remember the last time you slept through the night. You are truly socially distant around your families and friends, on top of the enforced physical distance we’re all experiencing. Nobody asks you how you are doing. Nobody seems to care how you will make financial ends meet after the voluntary salary cut you took – or if your business ultimately shuts down.
Your dreams and goals for building a huge company that changes the world have been shattered. You’ve long since downsized those goals, and now you’re scared of failing outright.
The last thing you need right now is another letter or forwarded article from people telling you what you should do and how they are there to support you. You appreciate the sentiment, but you know that you (and maybe your co-founders) are alone in this. You are responsible, the well-wishers and advice-givers are not.
By writing this letter, I realize that I am one of those advice-givers.
However, I am not going to tell you that everything is going to be OK. It might be, but it might not be. What you’re going through sucks. It’s stressful – and it may well get worse. It will change you forever.
But there is a silver lining. Whatever the future may hold, this crisis is your opportunity to define yourself as a leader. A wise Harvard lecturer, Tim O’Brien, once taught me, “Leadership is about mobilizing others to confront and make progress on a difficult reality that they (and probably you) would rather avoid.” Leadership is not about the outcome – it is about the process. It is about accepting your new reality and mobilizing others to confront the challenge head on. For some, this will mean shifting priorities and soldiering on, finding some way for your business to survive. But for others it will mean giving up on your dreams and shutting down. It’s important to realize that both of these decisions can be acts of leadership.
You will feel an insatiable desire to do everything possible to save your company and keep moving forward. Fear of failure is a powerful motivating force. But you must accept that with this crisis, there are bigger forces outside of your control.
How can you know which course of action is right for you and your enterprise? Take a step back and make an objective diagnosis of your company’s situation, as if you were a doctor and your business were a patient who just came into your ward. Remove your fears and ego, your emotions and attachment from the equation and make a clear-eyed assessment of the patient’s prognosis. Then prescribe the treatment if it is available, and provide comfort if it is not. And repeat after me: “I am more than my company.” Because you are. And as generations of founders who’ve come before you have discovered, the path to entrepreneurial success is littered with failed startups. Your chance will come again – perhaps sooner than you think.
It might not feel like it now, but one day you will look back on this crisis and the dilemmas you faced with a new perspective. You’ll draw on those feelings of stress and despair as sources of strength. You will take the knowledge and fortitude this crisis has given you, and apply it to new challenges and new opportunities. You will feel inspired again.
In the meantime, be kind to yourself and others. Act with integrity. And always remember: The best you can do is to do the best you can.
Photo courtesy of JeongGuHyeok.