Crisis Framework – Applied

Crisis Framework – Applied

I attended a Board Meeting last week for Guidant Financial, a company I’ve been working with for 14+ years. As one would expect, we reviewed the company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and its interim plan. This was not Guidant’s first crisis.  The company successfully (although not perfectly) navigated the collapse of the US economy in 2008. My assessment is that the company has (near) flawlessly implemented the Bain framework and put themselves in a place to weather the pandemic and emerge a better business.  Bain and Company has put together a great post on A CEO Plan for Coronavirus: Actions to Take Now. It’s a great read.

First, a note on what Guidant Financial does:

  • They help new business owners find the capital they need to buy or start a small business or franchise. They help individuals access capital through SBA loans, unsecured credit, and Rollovers as Business Startups (ROBS). ROBS allows an individual to invest up to 100% of their retirement assets into business without taking a taxable distribution or getting a loan.  
  • Last year Guidant helped nearly ~2,000 companies, in all 50 states secure ~$350M dollars to invest in their own businesses
  • About 40% of these businesses are franchisees (i.e. UPS Stores, Orange Theory) and the remaining are starting or buying a local business like breweries, coffee shops, and supplements stores.

I’m definitely an insider for the company – but not on the executive team or an operator. So I have a bit of an arms-length perspective on their process. I wanted to write about my observations of how the company applied the Bain framework. My goal is to help you as a Startup Founder implement the framework and connect it to the tactics you can apply it to your startup.

Many of you have made these tough decisions already. Some have more hard decisions ahead. I’m a fan of the frameworks, they provide sidelines and endzones as a guide. 

Protect our team

Guidant split this strategy into two categories: physical health and emotional well-being. 

Starting with the physical, they made sure they created an environment that ensured the team knew they were a priority.  The office initially stocked up on hand sanitizers and increased cleaning frequency and communicated the need for washing hands and keeping distance.  They quickly elevated their measures to include a self-imposed “shelter in place”, implementing a travel ban early on (even while much of their industry was continuing on as if little was happening) and increasing work hour and location flexibility (it seems kind of quaint now in retrospect) but at the time, they primarily operated out of Seattle, WA, and Boise, ID. The message they wanted the team to see and hear? We value you and your family above all else.

Emotionally, you need to communicate, communicate, and then communicate again. The team implemented an all-company Zoom call twice weekly led by the CEO. This is very important because absent of directly addressing important topics — your team will fill in the blanks if you don’t. The Guidant team was able to quickly and consistently review important data, get caught up on important initiatives, set expectations for the next 48hrs, and answer questions on the team’s mind.

Thoughts for founders:
In a crisis, you must communicate with great intention. My mentor told me, “it’s not enough to tell people what something is, you have to tell them what it’s not.” 

Stress test our financials

The team at Guidant was able to analyze data from the 2008 downturn and build assumptions using current trends.  They created a model that allowed them to play with key levers and historical data to estimate the impacts of different scenarios. This proved to be a very important step, as well as other previous years of data. 

Once they had their “best guess, worst cases scenario” they established a system to bring visibility into the key metrics that proved or disproved assumptions as things unfolded. Then they took decisive action.

Defend against significant revenue declines

Based on the new model the team knew they must reduce expenses – the question was the philosophy from which they wanted to approach. David Nilssen, a co-founder, and CEO was very clear on the strategy, “we were going to protect our tribe.” No one knew how the pandemic would initially affect the business nor what the lasting impacts would be.  They knew that cutting hard and deep was a must – but we were going to prioritize our people and save jobs first. This would also help Guidant continue to best serve our customers in a time when they would be under significant pressure. They aggressively reduced nonessential expenses, canceled perks, eliminated bonuses, implemented a hiring freeze, canceled underperforming lead sources, and more.  As part of the hiring freeze, they repurposed many individuals internally into many open positions as a measure to save jobs.  Nilssen said, “in 2008, we had to let people go at a time where we knew they weren’t going to be able to find employment.  It was the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. So this time, we were hell-bent on avoiding that.”  

They also implemented temporary compensation adjustments that disproportionately impacted their highly-compensated individuals (starting with the founders who chose to cancel 100% of their compensation) and protected those below a certain threshold. The entire company had full visibility into the changes and more importantly their why: move aggressively and decisively now to protect the tribe — our clients and team members.

Thoughts for founders:
The average US SMB has 27 days of cash if sales went to zero. If you just completed a round of funding, congrats! But don’t gloat, if you were that good at the timing you would have picked the market and you’d have retired already on your own island.

I’d also suggest the timing that you are going to evaluate making changes back to normal. Your team needs to budget for those changes. One other company I’ve “met” with pushed a 25% decrease into variable compensation based on company performance.

Defend where you can defend. Optimism is your enemy here. Look at everything that is not essential. Then, challenge everything that you “believe” is essential.

For another company where I sit on the Board, the company has mostly enterprise companies as their customer. That’s good… however, some of them are in the retail vertical. The day after we talked about the CEO’s lack of concern for churn, one of the larger contracts called to cancel. They are a subscription business, so he offered that they could pay in 90-120 days but they could keep the service (it helps to drive revenue). If they survive, he’ll have a customer. If not, their loss will be minimal. 

Stabilize operations to a new norm

In one of their all-company Zoom calls, Guidant literally ripped up the annual plan. They clearly communicated that the plan didn’t exist any longer and instead – they would start to operate hyper-focused, on a rolling 30-day basis.  The key areas of focus:

  • Urgently support our customer’s near-term needs.
  • Enable team success in a decentralized environment.
  • Broadcast with impact to our key stakeholders (team, clients, partners, prospects).

In one week, the company reorganized, decentralized (everyone working from home) operations, radically reduced expenses while also building an online application portal for clients, shifting more resources to support their SMB customer in securing crisis funding (from the Paycheck Protection Loan or PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loans or EIDL), developing a comprehensive pandemic resource center on their site and launching a new funding product for recapitalizing a small business.

Guidant’s results are a great reminder that teams can accomplish so much when they have strategic clarity and a shared purpose.

Thoughts for founders:
In a crisis, throw out your annual plan and shorten your planning cycle. Reset your expectations lower and allow the team to exceed goals.  This is for everyone’s emotional benefit. Continue to recalibrate on this weekly/monthly cadence. Communicate with the team, stakeholders, and board members.

Get very clear on the most important levers in your business and track them incessantly. And if it’s not obvious, one must be cash.  

As the dust settles, continue to stabilize around these norms. Don’t look to push back to the old normal too quickly. In fact, I’d challenged you to ask — “will it go back to normal or has something fundamentally changed?”

Play offense

The Guidant story isn’t finished. And, I probably shouldn’t share the strategy from here but how you play offense varies. David Nilssen suggested that their version of playing offense was developing organically by listening to their customer, partners, and team members and then reconciling that feedback against their long-term vision and values. “A crisis is never comfortable but it forces us to really focus on what’s most important now and in the future.  It’s important not to lose that focus as the dust settles.”

Thoughts for founders:
Now that you’ve stabilized as much as you can. Where can you begin to play offense vs just defense? Where are their opportunities where you can take advantage? Are there opportunities to take market share? Can you fill a role in thought leadership? 

This process is all about synthesizing your inputs from customers, your team, and the broader market conditions. It’s not about taking huge risks, it’s about de-risking the decisions based on data. 

As we come out of this crisis, where can you look for advantages? 

Finally, I just want to comment that I’m proud of the team and how they’ve handled this so far. It’s a challenge to lose any team members. This team values people and has shown that they have made these moves. I’m glad to be a part of the organization, even at an arm’s length.

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