Launching a resilient startup is like riding the most terrifying roller-coaster you could ever imagine. Just ask anyone who’s ever tried it. It’s a white-knuckle experience.
Now, imagine trying to launch a resilient start-up during the worst global public health crisis in 100 years. It’s a white-knuckle experience on steroids.
I know. I’ve been living the experience since the start of the pandemic through my work with 7 Leagues Leather, a circular economy start-up that repurposes two waste products – fish skins and tree bark – to create high-quality, high value leather. As CEO of Realize Strategies, a Vancouver-based organizational design and innovation firm that helps leaders and organizations design a company culture that achieves high performance and resilience by putting people first, I have a lot of experience working with leaders to do just that.
Since 2019, I’ve also had the opportunity to volunteer my time and expertise as an extension of 7 Leagues’ leadership team, as the company’s CFO and Head of Strategy to design a resilient organization that champions its people – even through a global pandemic.
7 Leagues is a somewhat unusual addition to BC’s startup space – it’s manufacturing rather than digital. The company’s founder, Tasha Nathanson, is an educator and advisor in gender equality and value-added agriculture. After finishing a stint working in Barbados, Tasha returned to Vancouver and came across fish leather. It was (and is) mainly a hobby industry in Vancouver. Tasha quickly saw the commercial potential of fish leather and started diving deeply into research. She learned that fish leather is in high demand for its extreme durability, beauty and strength – in fact, BMW uses it as an interior finish for many of its European models. She saw the potential to create an innovation business that combines people, planet and profit. And so began the journey.
Sounds familiar, right? An entrepreneur with a vision and a passion – and some money to get things started. So, all that’s needed now is some capital, a large dose of good luck and a team to execute on the plan.
But like I said earlier, then came the pandemic. It disrupted supply chains and closed businesses. It significantly reduced access to commercial production space. What’s more, it left a remote workforce trying to launch a manufacturing start-up.
7 Leagues is an ideal case study showcasing the power of strategic, organizational design amidst what we now look back on as the perfect storm. From the onset, COVID upended global shipping – costs skyrocketed, and delivery times were a guessing game. Leather production requires machinery – most of which is only available from overseas. And fish processors shut their doors for the most part. So, accessing raw skins – a critical input – was next to impossible. On top of that, commercial production requires access to a commercial space – which is pretty much a no-go when access to facilities was shut down during the pandemic. And on top of all of it, you have a team – mostly volunteers working on the promise of equity and future salaries – trying to juggle a start-up, plus their day jobs, plus the impact of the pandemic.
Needless to say, through the chaos of the last two years, we learned a lot of lessons about building resilience in a remote work environment.
If you’re in the thick of launching a start-up, here are five key takeaways that might help:
1) Don’t under-estimate the importance of focusing on mental health and well-being. If you’re the leader, this applies to you – especially to you. You can’t be an effective and inspiring leader if you’re feeling overwhelmed and burned out.
2) Celebrate the small successes and the quick wins. There is often a temptation to focus on the big things – a successful funding round, that first big customer, a great first social media campaign. Focusing on the small successes and the quick wins will keep you and your team engaged. They’ll make up for the setbacks, the times when it feels like two steps forward and six back. You and your team will feel good, and you’ll begin to lay the foundation for a resilient organizational culture.
3) Never overlook the importance of organizational culture. Without it, you’ll be dead in the water. It doesn’t matter how great your product is. Without a culture that invigorates your team and propels them to exceed, you’re headed for disaster. Just remember the old saying, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
4) It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you’ve ever trained for a marathon, you know that it requires a combination of determination, commitment and above all, a willingness to accept that you’ll have setbacks along the way. A running injury that disrupts your training schedule is no different from a setback in your start-up. Maybe you were turned down by an investor when you thought it was a done deal (it happened to us at 7 Leagues). It’s tempting to treat those “injuries” as the end of your start-up journey. They aren’t. And if you’re feeling that you’ve hit the wall, shift the focus back to your mental health and well-being.
5) Find a trusted mentor. Someone who’s taken the same journey. Someone who knows when to listen, when to push you, and who will remind you to celebrate your success.
Building a resilient start-up is a terrifying, rewarding, and challenging journey into the unknown. One of the keys to success lies in building a culture that can withstand all of the shocks and setbacks you’ll encounter along the way.
John Kay is the CEO and Executive Director at Realize Strategies.