Refrain: What was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
As we face down humanity’s biggest crisis in our lifetime(s), whose long-term implications we’re only just starting to understand — I’ve come to a destabilizing realization: There are no experts on how to lead right now.
Building Seed&Spark for the better part of a decade, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I haven’t just followed my whims. I’ve approached each stage in the development of this company by having a series of conversations with dozens of mentors. (I’m a Techstars founder; they literally kick off every new accelerator cohort with something called “Mentor Madness.”)
So not only do I have 30–50 people — people who’ve built all kinds of enterprises and solved all sorts of problems — that I could call on for advice at nearly any hour, I also serve as a mentor in accelerator programs and for other startups. I am where I am today because a legion of brilliant and generous people lent me their expertise. And I try my best to give back with the same openness and generosity.
But mentorship relies in large part on past experience. You’ve gone through this. I haven’t. You’re the expert. You can tell me what pitfalls to avoid.
But what happens if no one has gone through something? Nobody alive has successfully navigated a global pandemic during a national leadership vacuum exacerbated by a fractured, unequal healthcare “system” and massive wealth inequality. What happens when the mentors are as inexperienced as the mentees?
What was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
I have no idea if my company will survive this catastrophe. But I’m trying to keep what I’ve built afloat. And at the same time, I’m trying desperately to support the people who’ve helped me build it. I don’t have the time or resources to wait six months and gain the clarity of hindsight. I have to act NOW.
Many of you reading this are probably in the same sinking boat. So, I want to share some experiences/ideas/practices that have helped me and my team find some stability on these rough, rough seas. I’m not trying to be a mentor, here. That would require me to have actually navigated this storm. But here’s what I think I’ve learned so far.
1. If something feels amiss, drop everything and do a strategy session
I’m a founder, which means I’m a pathological optimist. I love to think about the inclusive, abundant future — not just the unequal, cobbled-together mess of the present. But about a month ago (awww friends remember February?) as I was prepping for our bi-weekly executive team meeting, I was tracking a slack channel where a team member in Seattle was posting “dispatches from the outbreak zone” — earlier enough on that it seemed quaint — and others were piling on with articles they were reading about conferences starting to consider cancelling. Something struck me differently by this collated thread. It seemed to be the accumulation of our team collective intuition. “SHIT,” I thought. Up until that point, probably like a lot of you, I’d thought of COVID-19 as scary but eminently manageable. Wash your hands and don’t get on a cruise ship.
But when your gut says “SHIT,” my dad taught me, grab the nearest scrap of paper and start scribbling. Divide the most important uncertainties you’re facing into quadrants. So I walked into the Wednesday exec meeting and scratched out this comically simplistic matrix (this is the actual piece of paper; please excuse my handwriting — which I tried to improve):
“This is a COVID matrix,” I told my team, holding up my scrap of paper. “And we need to think through everything that happens in this upper-right-hand section [where it’s really real, really bad, and coming soon!] in our business [independent film]. We need to look only at the most extreme and most uncomfortable scenario.”
My team jumped in. In the worst-case scenario, film festivals and other in-person events would get cancelled, theaters will close, and film production will cease — possibly until summer. (Remember, this was still February; the idea that the entire country would be sheltering in place was beyond contemplation.)
At Seed&Spark, we teach more than 120 live events a year, mostly hosted at film festivals around the country. Our sponsorship revenue relies on that. Our crowdfunding business growth relies on that. If it might be unsafe for people to gather in large numbers for even a few months, that could have dire consequences for both our company and the community we support.
“What happens if all our revenue disappears, like, overnight?” I asked. Then the hour was up — and everybody needed a few days to process. We agreed to meet again Friday.
That was March 4. SXSW officially canceled two days later. And suddenly the upper-righthand corner wasn’t theoretical. It was reality. Our entire industry was going to fall apart in a matter of weeks. And our strategy session— where we willingly faced the scary shit together as a team — gave us some lead time (days, really, but that seems to matter now) to:
2. Replace lost revenue with new ideas. Fast.
Three days after our exec meeting, our entire team sat down together and started brainstorming about what our industry was about to be in dire need of. We were searching for opportunities that might help our company survive. But we weren’t looking for weaknesses to exploit. Our goal was to find new revenue by helping support what would have (and have been) the hardest hit areas of our industry. In other words, our survival couldn’t be the cause for someone else’s collapse.
We broke up into committees, identified opportunities, conducted user and market research on each, and came back together as a whole team the next week to decide which one(s) had legs.
Based on our findings, over the next 10 days we conceived, prototyped, and actually started selling a brand new feature on our platform: to support film festivals. Why was that our conclusion? Because film festivals, for decades, have been essential to the discovery and nourishment of new artists. From small regional events to household-name international extravaganzas, film festivals are often the first places where audiences connect to previously unseen work. Lose those events and you lose the bold, remarkable, diverse voices that have transformed our industry from an exclusive club into an inclusive ecosystem.
Now, last year I would’ve stood on a soap box and actively argued against the existence of online film festivals. The magic of live events is getting strangers INTO THE SAME ROOM.
But what was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
So in the age of COVID-19, here we suddenly were diving head-first into helping festivals transition their events to the internet. Clay Pruitt, our Head of Acquisitions and Programming, was spearheading our effort to understand what would make it possible for our partners to safely move online. And as you might not be surprised to learn, making the move from physical to digital isn’t as simple as, you know, uploading a few video files and sending out links. There are entrenched industry standards and practices that we can’t just ignore — including explicit clauses in festival and distribution contracts prohibiting online exhibition. So Clay had a brilliant idea. Before we could start thinking about infrastructure and interface, first we needed an industry-wide agreement to suspend some of the previous standards and practices. In other words, we didn’t need a product; we needed leadership.
Within two days, Clay had drafted a pledge to suspend the moratorium on online exhibition and had published a corresponding op-ed in The Wrap. When this post went live, more than 150 festivals and film organizations have signed it. A month ago this was unthinkable.
But what was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
And to be clear: the pledge makes it possible not just for our new business ideas to thrive, but also for dozens of our direct competitors’ ideas. Because in the end what we need at Seed&Spark is a healthy marketplace. We don’t need to “win.” (Because without a healthy marketplace, most people lose, which is not the fucking same as winning, capitalists.)
So if you want a healthy marketplace:
3. Call your stakeholders first!
Based on how I and everyone around me reports feeling: some days you have the fire and some days you need to lie on the floor and watch Love is Blind. Some days are so confusing, overwhelming, scary and sad and the decisions you need to make seem so…actually life or death that it’s causing a lot of decision paralysis. It’s hard to know how to pick the next right thing to do. I mean, what I really want is someone to just tell me the next right thing to do. So it’s tempting to call someone who ostensibly knows more than I do and just ask them.
But your businesses’ stakeholders are likely to have a lot more to offer you right now — to give you the information you need to make the best possible decisions you can. So:
- We called our investors and pressure tested our ideas. It was really energizing to hear what they got excited about, and they offered us a TON of material support.
- We called our creators. We asked them what they were searching for. The answer was: some guidance, some community connection, some ideas to help them sort through the muck — and to stay creative without necessarily being so focused on output. (Bri Castellini has produced an absolutely astounding body of blog posts for these creators just in the last 10 days. This one is helpful for everyone, whether you identify as a creator or not.)
- We spoke to our adjacent businesses — not just film festivals, but art house theaters, distributors, news outlets, other tech platforms. We got to listen to our peers talk through their own business strategies, how they were assessing risk and adapting to it, and the challenges they faced.
It’s not like any one of them had the right answer either. What they had was a lot of really interesting information, ideas, questions…
And a lot of them were really not willing to look in the upper right hand of the scariest matrix quadrant. While their optimism about how soon this would be over was tempting, it’s now more than ever that you must:
4. Listen, listen, listen to your gut.
Your intuition isn’t alien and autonomous, like some magic elf living in your abdomen (although if that image makes you listen to it, go on thinking that by all means). Your intuition is just the sum of all your experience, and all the information you’re willing to really consider. Which is why how you inform your intuition really matters. (The whole section above? Those are all methods of informing your intuition.)
As a founder, especially during periods of economic strife, you’re often facing really difficult decisions about team, business model, and focus. Over the years I’ve received SO MUCH advice from my mentors that’s proved invaluable to how Seed&Spark has navigated our constantly-changing industry. So as COVID-19 madness set in, I reached out to a host of both big-blue-checkmark (that’s a Twitter reference) and behind-the-scenes-but-with-fancy-pedigrees mentors to ask how I should try and weather the storm. Amongst other challenges, 50% of our business comes from gathering people together in the same physical space (yaaaaay!). And we also knew that every other organization relying on live events for revenue was trying to figure out how to make their events digital. If we didn’t figure out a way to differentiate ourselves and to add real value, like, NOW, then 15 of the best people I have ever known would be out of work in what’s shaping up to be the worst economy in American history.
What should I do? I asked over and over. And over and over my mentors gave me the same answer: Fire as many people as you can, keep the company on life support, and hibernate until “it’s all over.”
But my team had just spun up an entire new business unit — with new customers and a huge pipeline for bringing in dozens more — in 10 days. Every single person on the team had a crucial role in this new endeavor. And yet every “expert” I spoke to told me I should, in a period of economic uncertainty that could last years, dictate which people on my team should get paychecks, and which should, perhaps literally, starve.
My gut told me they were all wrong.
What was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore.
Instead, I went to the team and told them I thought keeping the crew together for as long as possible was more important than anything — including the long-term survival of the business. If they would agree to 30% pay cuts across the board, we could all stay together, launch this new business, and just…do our level best. They all agreed. Only if we stayed together, we decided, would we have the energy and security to collaborate — and if we’re lucky, thrive.
No matter what happens, I will never regret this decision for as long as I live.
Nobody knows your team and your company like you do. And a company is really just the people who make it up. (That’s why it’s called a company for godssake.) So I guess here is me being a mentor now? This is my best advice for this time:
5. Be human. Just really, really human.
I have no idea what I am doing. I have no basis upon which to know if the decisions I am making now are right or wrong. Too many factors are just completely out of my control. I know what kind of person I want to be in the world. And I love my team, I love my community, and believe me — I love the SHIT out of my mentors.
But they only know what’s worked for them in the past. The future looks to me like it’s going to demand something much kinder, much more human, than shareholder-value-driven, growth-at-all-costs capitalism.
What I do know: how to check in, to ask how my team members are faring. I know how to listen to their answers. I know how to answer honestly when asked how I am doing. To cry and rage and loosen at the edges a bit so other people feel like they have space to do that, too. (I have cried a lot with my team in the past four weeks .)
We won’t really be able to judge whether we’ve made good or bad business decisions during this period of upheaval. In a moment when Christian Siriano has turned his atelier into a pro bono mask factory, like, what even is business anymore? I’m seeing glimmers of hope everywhere that help propel me forward each day. There is a profound generosity of spirit surfacing all around us. More than 150 organization have signed Clay’s pledge. More than two dozen celebrity creators and cultural influencers have made themselves available in the coming months to host virtual Q&A’s for emerging creators as a part of the online film festivals we’re helping to host — lending their reach so that the next generation of creators can rise up. (Thank you Mark Duplass, Lena Waithe, Patton Oswalt, Jill Soloway, Olivia Wilde, Franklin Leonard, Haley Joel Osment, Jake Choi, Janina Gavankar, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, Jeff Yang, Erika Alexander, and so, so many more!)
All the rules have changed— and SHOULD change — forever. You’ll probably find yourself doing shit you never considered before.
All we can possibly do is to make the best decisions we can with the information — and empathy! — at hand, and try to always look courageously at what is probably coming, whether we like it or not. What was “right” before probably doesn’t make sense anymore. So your guess is as good as anybody else’s.
Thanks to Kt McBratney.
This piece originally appeared at Sparking the Conversation, and was published here with permission.