While it’s been several weeks since a handful of renown venture firms issued dire warnings about the state of technology markets and urged portfolio companies to buckle in for the coming turbulence, many start-up management teams have approached me at conferences and in airport lounges seeming unclear on how best to proceed. While every investor, it seems, has an opinion on what we can expect over the coming months, a far fewer number has followed up with concrete things start-ups can do to improve their bottom-lines and–by extension–their fortunes. Granted, it’s difficult to issue broad pronouncements on belt-tightening strategies for emerging growth companies given the diverse nature of these companies and their wildly differing cost structures. That said, there are some common sense principles and direct actions that start-up teams can take now that apply across market sectors and industries and can have lasting impact.
1. Get Your Hands Dirty.When the proverbial poop hits the air conditioner, some feel it is best to bring in professional turnaround consultants or crisis managers to grab a mop and begin the process of layoffs and other sundry unpleasantness that must accompany the right-sizing of a young company. For the most part, I say that’s overkill and sometimes counterproductive. In my decade or so around emerging growth companies, I can only think of two or three occasions when the circumstances around a company in distress absolutely required the services of an outside consultant. In contrast, I can summon many more occasions when the presence of such a consultant was detrimental to the company–other times, unnecessary, at best.
There is a strong case to be made for start-up CEOs being directly involved with most, if not all, of the painful and unpleasant tasks associated with dramatically reducing cost structures in a downturn. Getting outside advice is invaluable, but executing on that advice should be done by the management team itself. Don’t outsource the dirty stuff. There is nothing more distasteful for an employee that’s given his or her blood, sweat and tears to a new company than getting laid off from said company by some junior flack in human resources or, worse yet, a faceless consultant who will likely pitch tent at another drowning company a week from now. If there are doubts about this, ask anyone who has ever been fired or laid off. It’s an excruciating and cathartic event–even if the employee had sensed it was coming. Having the CEO or, at least, the employee’s direct supervisor break the news to the subordinate provides an opportunity for the newly laid off employee to vent some of his or her issues and frustrations and provides for closure. It also has the effect of preserving the relationship with the employee in the event there is an opportunity to rehire the individual later on when things improve, and it can improve morale among those employees who get to keep their jobs. Witnessing their boss actively engaged in the painful process of layoffs often makes employees respect that boss more than learning that the process was outsourced so the boss could personally avoid the fallout. Getting blood on one’s hands and getting through to the other side of that process is a leadership moment for all managers. Don’t delegate it away.
2. Act with All Deliberate Speed. Whatever your company’s circumstances, make a plan quickly and begin acting on that plan. If a capital raise is being contemplated, get to market as quickly as you can. Capital markets can soften almost daily and time lost can never be recovered. If staff cuts are needed, cut quickly and deeply. Don’t drag it out (see point #3). Your company and staff will need time to recover and move forward.
3. Cut Deeper Than You Think. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, it is often easier to re-hire laid off workers if and when things rebound than trying to keep on idle resources. Moreover, making lots of little staff cuts is a company killer. It wrecks morale. Employees are constantly looking over their shoulder at when the next round of layoffs is coming and can lose sight of the broader objective. An “every man for himself” energy begins to pervade the culture and, when that happens, the company is usually toast. To borrow a sloppy metaphor from the recent presidential campaign, it’s the ax versus the scalpel. In this case, the ax wins hands down. Ideally, you should get out the ax once, cut hard and deep, give the company time to recover from the surgery, and get back to rebuilding the organization.
4. Sweat Every Expense. Yes, I know you’re already doing that anyway; but, this time, insist that every expenditure be directly linked to revenue in some way, however indirectly. Defer everything you can that is not directly revenue producing. No high-end furniture upgrades. No office expansions unless you are literally on top on one another (and even then…). No technology upgrades unless the old laptops/servers are directly impacting performance and, hence, revenue. Also– and this should go without saying — dump all the expenses that you took on when things were crazed and you convinced yourself you did not have time to handle them. An example? Fire the guy that comes every other day and waters the office plants. Do it yourself.
5. Back to Basics. As I’ve discussed in prior posts, entrepreneurs have a tendency to want to boil the ocean, particularly in frothy markets. This is not altogether a bad thing: it can emphasize all the leverageable opportunities for the company and its concept down the road. The key here, however, is down the road. Not now. As such, in a tight market, the company much focus first and foremost on its core business. What is it known for? What do customers immediately associate the company with? What is the company’s key value proposition? Everything else must be tabled.
When I think of companies that recovered from significant past market corrections and deep layoffs to become market leaders in their defined arenas, almost all of them persevered because they did one thing above all else: they focused entirely upon delivering massive value to a core group of customers (even just a handful of customers) and eschewed all other distractions. Their ideas were usually the simplest ones, but these companies stayed on target with their core business proposition and were the beneficiaries when the market pulled out of recession and there was a healthy spike in IT spending and other expenditures as pent-up demand from all the belt-tightening got released back into the system.
Part II (tips 6-10) coming soon…