When Things Go Wrong
Things will go wrong. Mistakes happen. Some are small and can be fixed easily; others are serious ones and cause trouble to customers and therefore need to be addressed proactively. And every so often something happens that shakes the very foundation of the business – a life-or-death moment. Those are the ones which keep the entrepreneur always on the edge. If not tackled right, such unanticipated events can lead to setbacks which are hard to recover from.
In my entrepreneurial life spanning almost three decades, I have had many such ‘death knell’ moments. It could be a critical employee leaving, the loss of a key customer, a competitor launching a faster-better-cheaper alternative, an algorithm change done by Google which changes the game completely, a government diktat that upends the state of play, a data hack that leaks sensitive customer information, or a software error that causes a system crash leading to downtime for mission critical operations. In recent times, it was the zero-revenue nightmare caused by the onset of lockdowns after Covid-19 hit. The question in all cases for an entrepreneur is one of business survival.
When many years ago, TRAI jacked up SMS prices by a factor of 10, I was faced with such a life-and-death moment for MyToday. There was no way we could absorb an overnight increase of 10X in the costs of sending SMSes, and so I had no choice but to kill the service. I had not anticipated such TRAI action. If I had, perhaps I could have switched from SMS to email as a mode of communication. In the midst of the war, I did not think clearly and thought that that was nothing possible.
When Covid-19 started spreading in March, I worried about what actions the government would take. I told our HR department to start planning for employees to work from home. That early action gave us a week’s lead time before the harsh lockdown was announced. That week made all the difference – it allowed us to get laptops for people, get key teams acclimatised to working from home, and gave us early learnings on how to make the transition. Had we not planned, the business impact would have been very severe for many individuals and teams, and therefore for our customers.
It is the rare business that does not suffer setbacks. As an entrepreneur, it is important to make a list of things that can go wrong. This needs to be done when things are going well – what I call ‘peacetime.’ During those times, it is possible to think with a calm mind and work out possible actions. When the problem happens, it is ‘war time’ and because the entrepreneur is in the midst of battle, there is a fog which can cloud one’s thinking. Of course, not every eventuality can be thought through, but the more that can, the better one can plan. The focus should be on extreme events. Ask a single question: What can happen to kill the business overnight? List all such things, and what possible steps can be taken to forestall such actions or reduce the fatality from such an action. Thinking through this will let you create the airbags which can help you survive.
The same principle also applies to life. Excluding death (in which case one cannot do anything), can you plan better for extreme eventualities – the ‘Black Swan’ moments in our life? Spend a few hours thinking about this. The hope of course is that none of it will happen, but if anything does, you (and those around you) will be better prepared.
Will be continued soon.