How Ebola taught me a few lessons
Ebola. Most only saw it in the news. I lived (and still do) 150 meters away from the largest Ebola cemetery in the world. I spent the weeks after the 2014 World Cup locked in my house, hearing the ambulances carrying dead bodies in front of my gate and seeing those images live from CNN. This happened every day, every minute of the day, for many, many days. In parallel, I was trying to keep our already struggling social enterprise afloat, with over 80 employees, little cash, no production and no investors in sight. Six year later, our company is still alive and thriving with 200 employees and operations in two countries, and yet once again I see pictures of doctors in PPE on CNN, and body temperature controls and hand washing are back. But this time we are stronger, a lot stronger.
There were many things I learned from the Ebola experience, and so many others I probably missed in the rush of things.
Words for the leader
If you are the leader of a social enterprise, non-profit, or any organization, you are at the top and as such, you carry an extraordinary responsibility. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, charismatic or profoundly boring, your team needs to hear your voice. You need to be visible and provide direction and vision in the midst of chaos, even if you’re feeling anxious and uneasy inside.
From time to time you may feel like the hero of a movie and will want to join your ‘troops’ in the trenches, but you must not become a victim. By preserving some of your time to think strategically and plan out scenarios, your actions will echo a lot longer than if you’re in chaos alongside your team all day, every day.
If you are leading a start-up and trying to raise money, you’ve certainly been challenged with “how much skin in the game” you have, why will you not run away the first time things get hard. And yes, many, actually most, are running away now. This is your chance to show that you care, that you have made this your life-project, and that you will not quit unless there is no way out. After Ebola, I have never ever been asked again how much skin in the game I have.
Words for your team
You might be having a lot of uncertainty, mixed with fear, anxiety, and the added responsibility of having to take care of your family. You may lose your job, your company may fail, and your family may get sick. These are valid fears, but that doesn’t make them a definite reality. Your boss has these fears too. Your job is to stay safe and healthy. Your second job is to help your team and your leader to make sense of it all; to make whatever contribution helps the company stay alive.
To pivot or not to pivot
The good news is that this is not the time to reflect on whether your business model was resilient enough or not. You’ll find out. Very soon. This is also certainly not the time to pivot, to start something new that you haven’t previously executed. You are probably seeing large corporations produce ventilators when they were producing cars before, or plastic face shields when they were manufacturing phones. Well, they are large. They have that operational and financial muscle that you don’t. For now, stay put, survive. And If you do, there will be enough time to pivot, to build new skills and especially to stress-test, to really stress-test your company’s ability to take a hit. When things calmed down, we opened a new business line to provide consulting services to donors and other organizations. This provides a stable and strong revenue stream. This proved to be a great shock absorber and is becoming our source of strength in this current crisis.
Money, lana, the Benjamins. Hold on to it. Big time. Go look for more, every cent you can get. And then sit on it -- release only what is essential. You have no idea when the market will go back to normal and when you will be able to raise risk capital, because, yes, for your information, no matter how cool you are, your company is extremely risky. During Ebola we cut expenses to a minimum while trying to maintain staff. I went to my landlord and begged for a year-long rent holiday, I stopped paying my salary, reduced travel to almost zero, and even cut on office supplies, to keep no matter how little in the box. It took us 18 months more to raise fresh investment capital post-Ebola. We survived through a few small grants and very painful bootstrapping.
Don’t ever forget it. The why is everything, is your essence, your North Star, and it will be your main source of energy when you are way down. Whatever you do, never sacrifice it. If your purpose is to make people look beautiful, don’t change that; you may simply take a break until things calm down. But if your purpose is to fight hunger in Africa, then you really cannot stop producing food.
The future… yes, there will still be one
Who has not heard that this too will pass? And it will, one way or the other. The decisions you make now will haunt you forever, so you better be haunted by something nice. The possible outcomes are pretty obvious. You could go bankrupt. You could pivot far away from your mission. Bad, bad. Or you could survive, and then however hurt you might be, you will have survived, and you will have come out stronger. You will not realize it next year or the next after that, but there will be something inside you that will make you realize that black swans exist, because you saw one. And intentionally or not, it is very likely that you will build something that is as black swan proof as it can be.
So, stay put, stay strong, and above all, stay safe.
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