The S.T.O.P acronym can help you stay on your entrepreneurial journey when the worst of the worst happens
“No surprises” was the one mandate Bruce made when I signed the Term Sheet for our Series A just a few months ago. “That is all I ask – good, bad or ugly – just don’t surprise me”.
It was such an easy request at the time given all the good things that were happening with my startup. Bruce is one of the most prominent Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley and his firm has a long history of backing the best startups in the world. Now my company would be included on that list! Making a commitment to provide updates on the business in a timely fashion was an afterthought.
In a few short months that simple agreement didn’t seem so simple…
Our largest customer just called me to tell me they were going to cancel their contract. This was a complete shock and would cause a massive impact on the business. The business I was running was small at the time and only had a few, large customers. Such a cancellation would have a massive negative impact on the company. Despite our best efforts and intense focus on customer satisfaction, the customer had made a decision and it was final. It was beyond bad news.
Our entire business plan, financial projection and investment strategy just went out the window.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to smash something. I wanted to scream. I wanted to lay in bed with the covers pulled over my head. Or some combination of all four. I looked at my watch. It was 11am – too soon to start drinking but late enough that I was in danger of violating my “no surprises” commitment to Bruce.
Slowly I picked up my phone, dialed his cell number and waited for him to pick up. Shit, Shit, Shit was all that I could think of as I waited for him to answer.
Bruce barely had time to say hello before I launched into an update about the pending customer loss and the significant financial impact to the company. Without taking a breath, I then described my quickly assembled “action plan” as he listened patiently. My knee jerk reactions included firing my head of customer success, laying off staff, suing the customer and maybe even a ceremony involving a sacrificial lamb. I was off my gourd…
I waited for Bruce’s reaction, expecting anger, disgust or perhaps even my removal as CEO.
But after a brief pause Bruce simply said, “Stop. Take a breath. First, this happens to everyone and I am glad it is happening now. The key is to do the opposite of what your emotions are telling you to do right now. Take a break, go workout or go for a walk, give this some time. DON’T ACT. Then let’s talk in a few hours about the path forward”.
Calm, cool and collected. No anger, no shouting, no “what the heck, how did this happen?”
Bruce has been advising and investing in entrepreneurs for over twenty years and he has seen it all. The proverbial shit had hit the proverbial fan. He knew it would happen because it always does – and he knew that my reaction in the near term was more important than anything else.
I learned the S.T.O.P. acronym from him it saved my bacon (and job) more times than I care to admit.
Maybe it can help you as well.
No matter how good you are or how strong your business idea is – someday, somehow – the shit is going to hit the fan. When I think about this analogy it is really, really disgusting. But I can’t think of a better way to describe that sudden unexpected negative event that throws all your plans out the window.
You are left lying awake at 3 am in a cold sweat wondering “what have I done and how am I going to get out of this” moment that EVERY entrepreneur has experienced. If you do the job long enough you will get the joy of experiencing it multiple times.
These moments have the potential to kill your dreams and drive you mad. But only if you let them. In my book, Mr. Monkey and Me, I have a specific formula for mental tenacity called SHAPE. The “P” in the formula stands for persistence and there is no more important attribute for dealing with moments like this.
But the real key, as Bruce taught me, is to do a few things in the very moment that seem highly unnatural, especially for high strung, “get stuff done” entrepreneurs. The very first thing to do is the hardest – and the list doesn’t get much easier from there. But if you can deploy the S.T.O.P acronym in the worst of times, it might just be the difference between survival and failure.
- S is for Smell. As in stop and smell the roses. Yeah right, I can hear you thinking. The worst possible thing that could happen to my business just happened and you want me to relax. It seems impossible, right? But the key is to reduce your emotional response as quickly as possible. Go for a walk. Workout. Meditate. Count your blessings. This will help you get perspective.
- T is for Talk. You need to immediately update stakeholders and investors right away. No one likes surprises and waiting won’t make the pain go away. Get their input and advice. Then call a wide range of mentors. Especially contact your “been there, done that” business mentor and get their advice, explain the situation and listen calmly, they have undoubtedly been through something similar and will have advice. Then call other mentors and repeat this exercise.
- O is for organize. Think of what the worst case is and what it means for you and your company. Imagine the best case. Make a long, comprehensive list of everything bad and good that could happen and draw out a most likely scenario. Then brainstorm on alternatives, new ideas or different strategies that might move the business forward. This will help get you back into action mode.
- P is for plan. As in build a new one. Time for pity parties and mourning is over. Hoping all of this was a bad dream is useless. It sounds trite, but the quicker you get started to put the ideas from “O” into action, the more likely you will get your momentum back. Start moving towards the new goal, strategy or plan and don’t look back. The shit will be all over the room after hitting that fan – so why spend any more time in that place? Get up, dust yourself off and start moving forward.
I know from personal experience that this list is easy to understand but hard to put into practice. Smashed plates, lost tempers and bad hangovers are much more common results than pulling out this list and following this simple four-part plan.
The boxer Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. As an entrepreneur you come up with an idea, build a plan and start on the journey. Sooner or later, you get “punched in the mouth” (a much nicer visual than shit hitting the fan). Your job is to take the punch, get up and build a new plan.
The S.TO.P. acronym is one of many tools to help you get back on your feet.
The key is to keep going. No entrepreneur ever achieved their dreams without having one (or several) of these moments. Hoping to avoid them is useless. Even worse, when they do happen, spending time in denial or wishful thinking only wastes valuable time and resources.
The key is to stay calm, rely on help and build a new plan. The shit hit the fan. It happens to everyone. The real key is to have the mental tenacity to get up, dust yourself off and keep moving forward. It is your only real choice, after all, so why not get there as quickly as possible?
When shit does inevitably hit the fan, do you have what it takes to move forward and continue your entrepreneurial journey? Take the Entrepreneur Survival Test and see where you land.