As the global pandemic continues to impact everyone's economic situation, we founders are tasked with leading our companies through to the other side--and I know first-hand how lonely this kind of journey can be.
I dropped out of business school and started LearnVest in 2008, just as Lehman Brothers crashed. It was an incredibly precarious time to start something new, but my experience as a "recession entrepreneur" taught me some very important lessons about getting through tough economic times.
Stay close to your customers
Now more than ever before, founders need to spend as much time as possible staying close to our customers. How are they feeling? What's changed for them? What do they need to be happy? And what can our businesses do to retain them?
When I was just launching LearnVest, I used to pore over customer support emails every single night. Perhaps that's an unconventional way to unwind, but it led to some of my best ideas. Not only was I able to reconnect each day with my company's core mission, I was also able to spot patterns that led to improvements--like realizing that our customers were emailing most during evenings and weekends and adjusting our service hours to better serve them on their schedules.
Once you identify your key customers, reach out to those you need to connect with. This may come in the form of a letter from the CEO that shares exactly how your business is adapting to the current crisis, and opens a channel for feedback. I love this one from Umbrella's CEO, Lindsay Ullman, for example. She clearly states the company's mission, outlines their new practices, and--most importantly--makes herself personally available to their community.
Leverage what you learn
Your customers will not only lead you to small improvements, listening to them can actually lead to new lines of business and revenue opportunities. I'm seeing so many companies doing that right now, from salon owners offering hair consultations over Zoom to restaurants offering in-demand grocery items for takeout.
I always say, companies fail because the founder gives up or runs out of cash. Let's take giving up off the table--which means that, aside from staying close to customers, ensuring an ample runway of cash is your most urgent goal. Everyone's budgets are tighter right now. Whatever you were able to sell before, consider that doing the same thing will be at least 2x harder in our new environment. Listen to what your customers need, and then get creative in the way you meet those needs.
Prepare for next time
Going through these tough periods is painful. But just like in the gym, we get better by doing reps. Taking the time to engage with our customers is vital right now--and it will be vital when we make it through to the other side of this pandemic, too. Just like maintaining a gym routine, we as founders benefit from making customer engagement a daily practice.
When I was launching during a recession, I ended my days reading customer feedback, because even if doing so made my head spin with things we needed to do, it also provided moments of joy: Every single time we got an impassioned thank you or a note about how one of our financial planners had been life-changing for a family, well, that's what kept me going on the hardest days.