Most entrepreneurs are so convinced that they are the disruptive element, they fail to anticipate that unknown facts or events can and will occur to disrupt their own well-laid plans. While it’s true that there is no way of know specifically what might happen, you need to anticipate the worst, and actually build a Plan B. People who haven’t thought about a Plan B often don’t survive the shock.
In my years of mentoring and working with startups, I’ve seen and read about some amazing disruptions, as well as recoveries, and I’m sure each of you could add your own. For example, you probably didn’t realize that both Facebook and YouTube started out intending to be dating sites, but implemented a Plan B when they found dating had become an over-saturated market.
While thinking about the most common surprises that I have seen with startups, and contemplating how to best prepare for them, I found some good guidance in a classic book, “Think Agile,” by successful entrepreneur and startup advisor Taffy Williams. I will key off his list of situations requiring dramatic plan changes, as well as the best ways to plan for these changes:
- Indispensable people jump ship at the worst possible time. The surprise departure of a key staff member is inevitable, no matter how strong the financial and passion incentive. Every entrepreneur needs a succession plan early on the top three people, with a reshuffle and replacement strategy. Get to know your headhunter or freelancer.
- Your rollout timetable suffers a big setback. You can’t predict big quality problems, funding shortfalls, and viral events that don’t work. You can and should create realistic time ranges around deadlines, and work up “what if” scenarios around your milestones. Don’t succumb to blind optimism, or pressure from investors to go for broke.
- A new market opportunity emerges which you can’t ignore. It’s not just undesirable circumstances that require big plan changes. Natural disasters or economic conditions can create new markets, or an offer to partner or merge may materialize suddenly. The agile way to respond is to research for flaws in the opportunity and test the waters first.
- Your biggest or only customer dumps you. This can happen through no fault of your own, or rapid market erosion you didn’t foresee. Your Plan B should always include a diversification plan you can implement quickly, as well as an emergency “right-sizing” plan to weather the gap to some new customers or services.
- Another disruptive technology trumps yours. What seemed like a winning technology, like RIM with its Blackberry, can quickly be superseded by a new entrant, such as the iPhone from Apple. Every startup needs to build and monitor their list of top competitive risks, and size the cost of a quick direction shift if the worst case happens.
Each of these initiatives has to be led by an entrepreneur who is willing to manage with an open mind, not only during the formative stages of the business but also during the growth stages. Most entrepreneurs start losing their agility with that first taste of success. The best ones are often viewed as paranoid since they proactively look for problems well after the first success.
One of the best ways to increase agility is to focus on specific problems and drive them to resolution, rather than instinctively flailing through several problems at the same time at a high level, hoping that one of your many actions will stick. Scientists have shown that the best creative problem-solving consists of these five steps:
- Learn as much as possible personally about the problem.
- Engage a qualified and diverse team, staff, and advisors.
- Document the ultimate goal, so people can work backward as well as forward.
- Ramp up communication to bring in outliers and spark fresh thinking.
- Step back for a while to let the creative juices flow before making a decision.
These are turbulent times, as well as time for great opportunities, for the entrepreneurs that are agile, innovative, and open to change. Don’t get stuck in the past, or let some early success lead you to competitive lethargy or crippling indecisiveness. Those are the diseases of too many big business executives. You didn’t decide to be an entrepreneur to be like them.