Thursday, 9 April 2020

What if we could start from scratch? What would we build?

Dear friends,

The EGX, DFM and Tadawul have all given listed companies extensions of one form or another on their 1Q reporting deadline, so I’m going to kick back part two of how to handle earnings season and instead ask you all to think about the future.

Yes, it’s time to think about the future. For more than three weeks now, we’ve been coaching CEOs, entrepreneurs and investors through the IR, internal comms and strategic implications of the crisis in the near term. But in every conversation, we’ve tried to take a few minutes to zoom out — to look beyond the current crisis to the other side of the chasm.

This is particularly important right now while we’re at an inflection point (or pause point, if you will) in MENA as we wait to see whether the worst will come to pass. The decisions you make today about your short- and medium-term course will have a massive impact on where you wind up. They become railroad tracks on which you inexorably move forward when you suddenly find yourself heads-down in a crisis tomorrow or next week or on the first day of Ramadan, focused only on the minutiae and not the bigger picture.

The future is coming, and you need to look months (even years) ahead. Are you actively shaping yours? Or letting it happen to you as the default pathway?

Three quotes are shaping how we’re thinking about this. The first is from Stewart Butterfield. You may not have heard of him, but you’ve probably heard of Slack, of which Butterfield is CEO. Butterfield created Slack out of the ashes of a failed computer game — and after founding and selling Flickr to Yahoo (back when Yahoo was still a thing). On a recent podcast with the inimitable Kara Swisher, Butterfield said:

I’ve always liked the expression, “Never waste a crisis.”

The pandemic is a portal to another world: From Butterfield flip over to Arundhati Roy, the Indian author. The beautifully written piece for the FT (The pandemic is a portal) by the author of The God of Small Things was about covid-19, India and intolerance, but her closing paragraphs should resonate with any business leader:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. 

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Finally, enter the good people at JPMorgan, channelled in a tweetstorm by CNBC anchor Carl Quintanella. The bit that resonated with me most:

Every recession typically accelerates pre-existing trends, such as work-from-home or a preference for online retail. This will increasingly challenge traditional business models.

Some measure of pain is coming your way. It’s coming to all of us, even those you think are making out like bandits at the moment selling essential goods and services. You’re going to have to make difficult decisions — do so with an eye on the type of company you want to run and / or own 12-18 months from today.

Ask questions that are appropriate to where your company is in its life cycle. What’s keeping startups and young companies awake should be materially different than what’s bedeviling middle-aged firms and the olds among us. We’ll dig deep into those questions next week.

In the meantime, why don’t you try this:

1- Block off two hours of alone time next week to think. Some of us around here do this with whiteboards. Others with pen and paper or a blank word file. Among the questions you’re going to need to ask yourself:

  • What’s your business model? What are its weaknesses?
  • What are the trends changing / reshaping your industry, whether you’re on the right side of them or not?
  • Do you have the right product / service mix to make sure those trends are winds at your back and not headwinds?
  • Do you have structural weaknesses in your company? Are the right people in the right seats? Do you have good internal controls? Internal reporting?
  • Do you have the cash to get you to the next stage?

Knowing what you know now about your business and your industry, the ultimate goal is to answer one question (shamelessly stolen from the team at Actis): What if we could start from scratch? What would we build?

2- Write / draw / bullet-point your answers.

3- Ask the same questions of the people in your organization you trust most. Make sure you include that one person you know is going to ask annoying and difficult questions. Have them write / draw / bullet-point their answers. 

4- Circulate everyone’s answers and give everyone a day to read everyone else’s input.

5- Only then do you have a video call to discuss and debate. Clear the afternoon or the morning — operational crises can wait.

Have a lovely weekend, everyone, and please feel free to hit “reply” to this note and let me know what’s on your mind, how you’re making out, whether there’s something you’d like to see addressed in a future note — or to just say, “Hi.”

Best,

Patrick

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