When I was working on building my first startup, Really Bad Things(TM) happened on an alarmingly regular basis. I was in my early 20s and living in Birmingham, Alabama (where there was no startup ecosystem at the time). So, when something happened that we thought would quite possibly kill the company, one of us (I had a co-founder) would freak out. Sometimes, both of us would freak out. Sometimes, we would freak each other out. Then, we would ultimately decide to take the Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With The Wind) approach — “I'll think about that tomorrow” and get back to work. After all was said and done, things worked out quite well. But, there were so many “near fatal” events, that we lost count.
I've since done two more startups and spent time with many, many entrepreneurs — often in some of their darkest days. I have one piece of advice that's going to sound trite (because it is):
Don't Freak Out.
The reason I advocate not freaking out is that it doesn't help —and often hurts. What you want to focus on during these trying times is ensuring you don't go into a tailspin (often, when you panic after something bad happens, you cause more bad things to happen). More on this later.
Before we continue, just to set some context, here are some of the kinds of things entrepreneurs freak out about. See if some of them sound familiar.
1. Your lead investor in a funding round backs out in the final stages. (By the way, when this happens, you're almost never going to hear what the real reason is).
2. You get a certified letter in the mail from some big law firm you've never heard of (nobody's heard of law firms, until they they do). The envelope the letter came in is the nice, creamy, heavy-stock kind. It's more expensive-looking than the one you used for your wedding invitations. The letter uses a lot of words to basically say “you're being sued”.
3. Your lead developer leaves. This is about half way into a project to rewrite your product in Scala, which he convinced you to do.
4. A very big customer deal you were just about to close falls through. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, except that you spent a bunch of time and money trying to get this deal done. Time and money you couldn't really afford to waste.
5. You were about to be acquired, and now the acquirer has “gone dark”. Despite your best intentions, the team and you have been making decisions based on the impending acquisition. “It would be silly to do X, Y and Z when we're going to be acquired next month…”
6. The production system that hosts all your customers came crashing down. And that live backup system you thought you had isn't all that live.
7. One of your competitors just went and raised a ton of money. They're blanketing the industry with PR, marketing, fancy new booths at tradeshows, local events involving a winnebago and taking out ads, seemingly all over the Internet. Potential customers, investors, friends and even your mom ask you about this big, bad competitor. You get tired of saying: “But their product sucks!”
8. Co-founder takes a job somewhere. Feels really badly about it. Promises to help out nights and weekends. You don't have the heart to say: “Yeah, but it's the emotional support I'm going to miss the most…”
Remember, if the pain doesn't kill you, it only hurts a lot. A lot of the time, near-fatal events are often just that — near-fatal. They don't quite kill you. Startups are vulnerable, but generally resilient.
Your natural reaction when something really bad happens is to think about the worst-case scenario. But, that's usually counter productive. Think about the most likely scenario and solve based on that.
Try and make a realistic determination of how important it is to respond quickly. Often, when something really bad happens, entrepreneurs make the mistake of assuming they have to respond immediately. In many cases, that's both unnecessary -- and risky. For example, if someone threatens legal action, resist the temptation to respond immediately
What you don't want to do is start compounding a bad event with panic-induced mistakes. It's important to remain calm and give yourself time (and sometimes distance) to make plan a thoughtful response. I know, that's easier said than done. If it makes you feel any better (it should), know that most entrepreneurs (even the successful ones) have near-fatal events happen.
What do you think? Have you had a near-fatal event recently?