Founders: It’s Time to go on the Offensive and Lead Your Industry into the Future
Our SWOT analysis this year didn’t include a crippling global pandemic that put the entire world on hold. Yours probably didn’t either.
If you told me in January that we would be where we all are now, I would have legitimately thought you were out of your mind.
Yet here we are. Ordered to stay home, wondering what happens next.
Change has been forced on us faster than we could have ever imagined. The plans we made at the start of 2020 went out the window the moment this all became real. These annual plans and strategic initiatives were created based on data from the previous year and assumptions for how 2020 would go.
These plans were made during a period of peacetime but now, every company is at war, whether they want to admit it or not.
In a 2011 blog post, Ben Horowitz introduced this concept of peacetime and wartime companies and how a CEO should operate during each stage. Here’s a short summary:
Peacetime is when a company has a major advantage over their competitors in a market that’s quickly growing.
Wartime is when a company is fending off an imminent existential threat.
The imminent existential threat we all face is the fact that no one knows how this will all play out in the months and years ahead.
Playing defense & retreating
Practically overnight founders found themselves in a situation where their only option was to retreat. Growth may have been their primary objective at the start of the year, but very quickly survival became all that mattered.
As companies retreated, founders were forced to reevaluate their entire business, and were forced to make extremely hard decisions in order to ensure their company’s survival in the short term. From product positioning to staff requirements, most companies faced a similarly painful reality — everything has changed — which resulted in budget cuts, devastating layoffs, and holds on strategic initiatives.
These defensive moves are still happening, especially with bigger businesses with more resources to survive in the short term and more complex operations to reevaluate.
For example, just in the past week, Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft laid off significant portions of their staff.
[Highly recommend reading Airbnb’s letter announcing the layoffs — it’s the ultimate master class in how to communicate bad news with empathy. Henry Ward’s from Carta was also incredibly well done and is a great example of leading during hard times and taking complete ownership.]
But for many startups I’ve talked to, the majority of their initial defensive move-making has fortunately ended. They have fortified their bunker, extended their runway, and have bought their company more time. But they are starting to ask, now what?
The reality we are all beginning to accept is that there is no “going back to normal.” The economy won’t just open back up and everything will be as it was before.
Being able to adapt is key to a company’s success. For those who were forced into playing defense and adapted into this wartime mindset, that was the right move.
But it’s time to seriously consider how long you can remain in your bunker. You need to assess the risks that come from playing defense for too long without any plan for offense.
Sure, you may be safe for the immediate term but at some point, you will have to decide: Should you stay fortified in your bunker and risk starving to death? Or is now the time to leave the bunker, take a calculated risk, and go back on the offensive?
Our belief is clear:
It’s time to go on the offensive
Five years ago I read Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. One thing that really stuck with me was the realization and reminder that a company’s success is determined by the day-to-day decisions the founder/CEO makes.
That’s a big weight to carry, but it’s also freeing in a way. If you make a bad decision, you can ruin your company. That’s never any good. But on the flipside, you’re also one good decision away from changing everything.
Founders right now are on the brink of what could be the most important decision they’ll ever make.
You can stay in defensive mode and hibernate in the safety of your bunker, buying time until there is more clarity on how this all plays out.
Or you can go on the offensive. Accept that there is no returning back to normal and lead your company, customers, and industry through this period of dramatic change in dynamically new ways.
For those of you ready to go on the offensive, here’s our playbook you can use to prepare your own strategy.
Step 1: Pick Up the Phone
Speak with as many of your customers and target customers as possible. Speak with others in your industry. Take as many sales calls yourself as you possibly can. And when you do, just shut up and ask questions — as many as you possibly can. Make it your sole mission to understand your customer at a deeper level than ever before. Get curious and really learn how their priorities have shifted and what matters most now. Absorb everything so you can get clarity on how you can help them.
Step 2: Reevaluate Your Positioning
Based on these conversations, reassess how your solution is positioned in the market to solve problems for your customers that they now face. There’s a chance your original positioning still works, but it’s worth reevaluating because new openings may have emerged.
With all the chaos, you may have the opportunity to define and create a totally new category for your product or service. Category creation is becoming a big buzzword, but in simple terms, it’s all about being the first to really raise awareness around a problem that’s not being solved. As you evangelize the problem, you position your company as the leading solution.
There are many new problems that will emerge due to this pandemic and there could be an opening here for your company that didn’t exist a few months ago (Great article on HBR about category creation).
Step 3: Rework Your Message
The core selling points that previously moved the needle may not be effective at all anymore. Based on the new problems your customers face, rework the 3-5 points that highlight what you do, how you’re different from competitors, and how you can help make your customers’ lives better.
Step 4: Charge!!!!
You’ve had over 2 months now to recharge, rethink, and restrategize. Now it’s time to emerge from your bunker and start taking well-planned and calculated action. It’s time to stop waiting for normal to return.
With your new positioning clarified and your messaging reworked, it’s time to launch the greatest offensive you’ve ever launched in the history of your company. This offensive isn’t just about short term sales and leads. It’s about doubling down on everything that helps position you as the subject matter expert that your customers can trust to lead them into the future.
You can’t control whether or not your market is making buying decisions right now. But you can control how much high-quality content you create, how much outreach you are doing, and how much value you are adding.
This is what your primary objective here should be: Add more value to your customers and industry as a whole than anyone else.
Maybe your B2B customers aren’t buying right now. Maybe VCs aren’t investing (despite the “we’re open for business tweets). But you know what customers, VCs, and everyone else is doing? They are learning. They are researching. And they are getting clarity on the new problems they face and exploring options that will help overcome them.
Now is not the time to be out of sight, safely tucked away in your bunker. Now is the time to lead your industry into the future.
Everyone is asking one thing:
What will the future look like after all this?
People crave useful insights from experts who can help solve their problems, navigate these uncertain times, and prepare them to capitalize on new opportunities that will emerge.
They are looking for a leader they can trust who will step up and lead them into the future. This is the opportunity that you have right now and you will need to make the decision of what to do next.
Otherwise, the conversation around the future of your industry will be owned by someone.
Whether it’s a direct competitor, indirect competitor, or another industry expert, someone will recognize this opportunity. We suggest making sure it’s you.