Resilient founders in tough times

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is an incredibly tough time for founders and entrepreneurs, particularly if you are battling to keep your company afloat. Remaining resilient in the face of adversity is important for you, your team, and the success of your company. You will get plenty of scrapes and scars building a business. Wear them as a badge and learn from them, but remember that you are so much more than your job.

“It's just a job”

During the Aconex journey there were many times when I was too attached to the success or failure of the company. Every day, I’d ride the rollercoaster of its progress. Some days were good but when we had problems, I’d take it personally. I’d feel like I was failing, letting people down, that I was an imposter in my role and just not up to the job.

I discussed this issue with one of my mentors, asking him how he had dealt with the low points of running a company. He told me, quite simply, that “it’s just a job”. Founding and leading a company is just that. It is not your entire life. You go home at the end of the working day to the other - equally important - parts of that life.

I found this really helpful. Over time I became better at standing back I saw that the situation is never as bad as you think. Just as the highs are not as high, the lows are never as low as you imagine. You do your best and you find a way through. I continued to work hard at my job, but with limits so that Aconex didn’t consume me.

An almost failed IPO

One of the toughest times for me personally at Aconex was just before our IPO. The team and I had put in over 6 months of work to prepare the company for an ASX listing. We had spent long hours preparing the prospectus and Rob, Steve and I had completed two gruelling investor roadshows, giving hundreds of presentations to potential investors. We finished the final leg of the roadshow in Hong Kong and the investment banks had told us that all was looking good for the bookbuild the next Monday. I then headed to Italy to attend an Aconex sales conference. My wife met me there and then we went to Rome on our way back to Melbourne.

It was 5am Monday morning in Rome, late in the work day in Australia, and time for an update on the IPO book build from the banks. My wife was still asleep, so I took the call in the extremely small bathroom of the tiny hotel room. Within 10 seconds of starting the call, I knew something was wrong. The mood was sombre, and the banks explained that due to recent market volatility the book build had not been successful – the IPO was off. Six months of hard work down the tube.

This was devastating, and one of the big downers on the Aconex rollercoaster. However, I was able to stand back from the disappointment and maintain a broader context. Ensuring that I was not too personally wrapped up in the business provided me with the perspective to deal with the situation. While I wasn’t sure what we would do next, I felt that I had done my best and I remained optimistic that we would find a way forward. That was my job now.

Fortunately, it all worked out a couple of weeks later. We repriced the IPO down a little, asked our current investors to join a share escrow, reduce the size of the raise, and then successfully completed the bookbuild, listing the company in December of 2014. Keeping the right perspective and not taking the setback personally, helped me to find a way through the difficulty.

Look after yourself and you’ll look after your company

Good mental health is critical to strong, enduring leadership. You need to look after yourself – physically, mentally (and, however it is for you, spiritually).

You’ll always hear about the importance of staying physically fit. Your mental and spiritual health are just as important. Make time for what sustains you and gives you joy in life outside of work. Spend time with family. Play with your kids. Go for a walk. Get sleep. Read a book. Attend your place of worship. Volunteer. Catch up with friends.

There are so many options, even at a time of social distancing, that can contribute to balance in your life. As a leader of a growing business, you will need to continually grow as a person. Balancing your work with your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing allows that to happen.

Your company is not you

Your company is your baby, it reflects and defines you. You have poured your life into it, worked long hours and made many sacrifices. For an entrepreneur, that can be exhilarating. But it can also be dangerous. You can’t let your self-worth get wrapped up in your company’s success or failure.

Many businesses will fail during or because of this COVID-19 pandemic. Start-ups fail all the time, even in good economies. Often this is because of poor execution, but just as often it can be plain bad luck – poor economic conditions or changes in technology, regulation or geo-politics.

A failed company is not a failed life. As long as you have worked hard and smart you can hold your head high. Just as in a business that thrives, you grow and develop through responding to challenges. Whether your company makes it through this upheaval or not, you will have gained incredible experience that you can draw from in your next job, or at your next start-up.

What is most important is who you become rather than what you do. Your character trumps your achievements. Separate your personal identity and meaning in life from the success of the company. It may be your life’s work, but it is not the only you.

Thanks to the advice of my mentor (“It’s just a job”), I made a point over the Aconex journey of separating my sense of meaning from the company. I may not have done it perfectly, but it helped me become much more resilient and gave me better balance in my life, riding the highs and lows without taking it personally.

National Entrepreneurs’ Day

Whether you succeed or fail, every entrepreneur is doing great work. Taking risks, employing people and building a company is an incredible public good.

As Nassim Taleb has written:

My dream – the solution – is that we would have a National Entrepreneurs’ Day, with the following message:

Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished, but we are grateful for the risks you are taking and the sacrifices you are making for the sake of the economic growth of the planet and pulling others out of poverty. You are at the source of our antifragility. Our nation thanks you.

Entrepreneurs are the innovation engine of the economy. The majority of us may fail to build an enduring business, but collectively we build the future.

So be proud of your work building a company, appreciate the scrapes and scars that develop your character, but don’t let it define you.

Stay well!