Just as in your personal life, circumstances can take a sudden turn for the worse, challenging all your conceptions and shaking the foundations of your beliefs, no company is too large to fail when the world changes dramatically.
So what can business leaders do to minimise the damage caused by unexpected eventualities? Several years ago, Andy Grove of Intel wrote a book entitled Only the Paranoid Survive. This may indeed be one way to cope – worrying constantly about what could happen and the unknown risks that lurk out there – but personally I think this is an unhealthy way to live your business life, and your personal life for that matter. I prefer to think about building entities that are robust and able to absorb whatever is thrown at them.
Rather than worrying about what could happen, you should develop the skills necessary to be able to deal with whatever will eventually come your way. A team that is close-knit, values all the roles that each member plays and communicates well in times of stress is crucial.
The CEO of one of our businesses once called to tell me that the ‘business was on fire’. I had seen his recent board report and knew that the business was performing well so I congratulated him.
He replied: ‘No, our warehouse has burnt down.’ What followed was a truly amazing demonstration of leadership, communication and passion, as all the employees, management and investors rallied round to help the business survive what could have been a fatal event. The company was up and running again within a few days, thanks to the heroic efforts of all involved.
Here, quick leadership, team spirit, a shared passion and clear communication were vital. But what about other issues, such as a sudden change in market conditions, or the arrival of an aggressive competitor? In my experience, these things rarely do happen overnight, and there are often signs in retrospect that these “sudden” events were likely to happen.
An organisation must be attuned to what’s happening in its market. Being plugged in to your customers, suppliers and partners can offer you some of the best protection. As in health and personal life, if you miss the clues along the way then surprises can take you off-guard and cause irreparable damage.
However, by listening carefully to what’s around you and being sensitive to subtle changes, disruptions can often be handled successfully. Businesses are stronger if they are close to their market and the needs of their customers.
As venture capitalists, sometimes we will consider investing in a business that wants to copy another one. This might be someone looking to replicate a successful US company in Europe or seeking to be the second or third mover in a fast-growing new market.
Invariably, what we find is that the business that copies another – and ignores the unique requirements of its customers – is not as strong or as valuable as expected. It is more valuable to develop your own offering in any market and finely tune your product or service by listening to what your customers want and what your market is telling you.
Quite often, we will also encourage our portfolio companies to develop additional legs to their model in order to build a more robust platform for survival. New products, wider geographical distribution or differentiated business models can all add to the durability of a business. Not surprisingly, investors or acquirers value such companies much more highly.
Regardless of how switched on you are, sometimes there are no warning signs, and an event can occur that comes out of the blue and challenges everything. The strength of an organisation is truly tested at that point, and you will never be prouder of what you have achieved than when you get through the crisis.