Best Advice: When Things Go Wrong, Go Surfing

Ten years ago, I was the co-founder and CEO of a 40-person startup called CenterRun, and I felt awful. We had just missed our sales target for the previous quarter by a mile. Even worse, it had been a surprise as our optimistic sales team thought a bunch of new customers would sign up at the end of the year (none did). Now I had to break the news to my investors, and then probably layoff 20% of our staff.

The first person I went to see was Mike Moritz at Sequoia Capital. I shared my frustration and embarrassment at having messed things up so badly, and waited for his response. Mike was silent for a moment, and then he surprised me. Rather than expressing anger or showing disappointment, as I had expected, he instead asked if I had seen the movie, Apocalypse Now. I had not, though, given my mindset at the time, its name sounded quite appealing. He explained it was a war movie set in Vietnam, and described a scene where Robert Duval takes his men surfing on the Nung River, amid napalm strikes and while under enemy fire. “You need to go surfing,” Mike said, “More importantly, the company needs to see you surfing right now.”

It took me a minute to understand the wisdom of what he was saying. As a founder, you feel responsible for everything that happens at your company. That’s tough when things go wrong. Your confidence takes a hit, and the natural reaction is to retract into your shell. But what’s needed in those situations is the opposite. Mike’s point was that it’s in the dark times that your team needs to see you most. They need to know that you have not lost hope and, more importantly, have a plan to get things back on track.

At CenterRun, we went through the painful process of asking some great people to leave so that we could cut our burn rate. I spoke to everyone in the company, individually and together, and explained our situation and the tough choices we had to make. The team rallied; if anything, it drew the survivors together.

Mike’s advice came back to me years later in a similar situation at Clearwell, and informs how I work with startups as a board member today. Almost every successful company faces tough periods, when things go horribly wrong. As founders, you need to be ready – surfboard in hand!

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