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Go Hard, Or Go Home: A Game Plan For Startups Wanting To Survive An Economic Downturn

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Raising capital for a startup in times of economic expansion and prosperity is tricky enough, and in periods of economic downturn, it’s even harder. An investor’s appetite for investment and risk lowers considerably as they adjust their priorities in such circumstances, and they are also more careful in ensuring their investments provide a good return on investment (RoI).


Now, every company is unique, and each will face different challenges, so the impending recession won’t affect everyone in the same way. However, common questions arise from entrepreneurs in this situation: how can I secure funds in difficult times? How do I deal with the prospect of lower valuations? What is the best approach when my clients become cautious in their buying decisions? Are there any opportunities for growth?

For startups, the ability to recalibrate in difficult circumstances is critical. While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive to move forward in an economic downturn, here are some of the ways that this can be achieved. After all, economic downturns are an opportunity for resilient startups to really shine, and separate themselves from the crowd. Here’s how:

1/ Redefine what success means

Founders need to adopt a different approach when navigating an economic downturn. While success for your startup may have once been equated to becoming a unicorn, it’s perhaps time to redefine what exactly success is.

Looking back to previous downturns and what happened to tech companies listed on NASDAQ and the S&P500 paints an interesting picture. Stocks went from bullish markets and sky-high share prices right down to fair market value or bear markets as they are sometimes described. Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when markets go bearish, as it provides the opportunity to reevaluate what the real fair market value of your shares is, and it also gives you a chance to correct and rethink the process. Essentially, it allows us to figure out what is the real value of what we are buying.

Such circumstances also provide an opportunity for founders to ask, “Am I raising at the right value, or is my valuation inflated and full of hot air?” After all, company valuations should only be a side factor- it’s more important to be open to change and resilient as you advance forward. Focus on establishing a sustainable company that is unit economic-positive, prioritize your customer’s wants and needs, while also maximizing opportunities to scale up and grow. Of course, the key to successfully spinning all these plates in your startup’s journey is in having the right team, board, and partners by your side. Their contributions will help you balance these many challenges, and stay on course to follow your guiding star.

2/ Keep a closer eye on your financials

Ensuring you have robust control of your cash burn is vital during a recession, as, inevitably, client growth slows, and fundraising becomes more difficult. Controlling costs and examining the level of RoI on all business activities, with a view to extending runway, can help startups to navigate this turbulence.

As an entrepreneur, you may also face the prospect of raising capital at a lower valuation. While this is not an ideal situation, investors will be more impressed by a sustainable company that delivers added value to customers over one with an inflated company valuation for no good reason. Perform due diligence on investors, and have the mindset that investors should be pitching to you for your big idea, and not the other way around. This will ensure you attract the right investor who is aligned with your mission and vision for the business.

If you have two or more years of runway, then it’s even more important to play hard and not be defensive. If your business has a healthy balance sheet, then cutting spend may compromise the momentum of your startup. Executing and adapting your strategy in line with customer behavior can provide competitive edge. Competitors may be extremely cautious during the economic downturn, so being aggressive in terms of raising capital could offer the opportunity to boost your presence as well as increase market share.

3/ Prioritize your clients

The customer is king. Providing customers with what they want and when they want it is the primary way to retain key clients, as well as to sow the seeds for future client growth. Growth in the client base will inevitably slow during a downturn, so it’s vital to be laser-focused on the finer details, and listen intently to your customers.

Pivoting your business toward new markets and products and/or services is another way to address the impact of an economic downturn. Consult with new, existing, and potential clients via focus groups, pop-up surveys, and beta testing, and then focus on optimizing product-market fit. Plugging this research into your product roadmap is a great tactic both in the short term as well as in realizing your long-term product vision.

Related: Six Tips To Help Entrepreneurs Avoid Making The Most Common Startup Mistakes

4/ Unlock M&A potential

It’s generally accepted that mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and other deal activities are likely to nosedive during a recession. However, focusing on an offense-driven M&A can lay the foundation for a startup’s success as the economy recovers. Being acquired by a complementary business, or acquiring one, is a great way for a startup to increase the scale and (potentially) scope of the business, in addition to providing the opportunity for a subsequent divestiture or spinoff.

Declining valuations and failing startups will provide resilient entrepreneurs with the opportunity to integrate target acquisitions, with potentially outstanding teams and valuable client networks up for grabs. For startups that are reasonably strong financially and strategically, taking advantage of the downturn is a great way to enhance your portfolio, and start unlocking the potential of M&A.

5/ Grow efficiently

Critical to achieving success in today’s business environment is to constantly look at ways you can do things better. Taking time to analyze and evaluate your core business processes will provide the opportunity to boost efficiency and effectiveness.

In the fast-paced startup world, this can often be overlooked or pushed to the back of the priority list, but in the long term, it can provide you with improved business agility and competitive edge. Look at improving your recruitment processes, streamline/optimize the client pipeline, and promote best practice approaches across the team.

6/ Attract and retain key talent

Economic downturns inevitably lead to hitting the brakes on recruitment and compensation, but actually it may be the best time ever to capitalize on these areas. The good news is that as many organizations let go of talented staff and batten down the hatches on their talent pipeline, the playing field is left open for you. Now is the time to tap into this wider pool of talent.

Investing and engaging with existing employees who offer value to the organization is also critical. Creating a positive employee culture may by trickier in times of remote working, but these efforts can be extremely valuable in leaner times. If you don’t have the cash on hand for any recruitment activities, employee incentives can provide a great solution, such as offering more equity in relation to salary. Talent acquisition also extends to your senior leadership team. The number of outstanding C-level executives available due to redundancies or seeking new challenges is also an amazing resource. It’s important to review your executive teams’ skills, capabilities, and performance, while also being on the lookout for talented leaders who will make a positive impact on your business.

To summarize, here what’s you need to remember as you and your startup move ahead in our current circumstances: As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never waste a good crisis.” Use this crisis to really look at your business, and then, enhance your playbook. Investors will view this as an extremely valuable asset.

Research has found that companies make more dramatic gains or losses during downturns than during stable periods– remember that Uber and Airbnb were both founded during the last financial crisis.

Founders need to adopt a different skillset when navigating a recession. Rather than focusing on growth, it’s important to have refined and precise control and management of the business.

Consider how much cash runway you have available, whether your growth strategy is cash-efficient, evaluate the strength of your product-market fit, look at what your competitors are doing, and make positive internal changes in terms of employees, processes, and projects.

Focus on establishing a sustainable company that is unit economic-positive, prioritize your customer’s wants and needs, while also maximizing opportunities to scale up and grow.

Related: The Legal Corner: To Raise, Or Not To Raise? A Lawyer’s Guide For Entrepreneurs Seeking Funds To Grow Their Startups

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