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Sequoia ‘Black Swan’ memo could steer companies off of the COVID-19 cliff

(EDITORIAL) Venture capital firm, Sequoia sent out a memo to their companies, but also to the world. And the echoes are about to cause tech companies to make irresponsible layoffs that will cripple their brand when this crisis is over.

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sequoia black swan

Nearly two weeks ago, venture capital (VC) company, Sequoia Capital sent a note, “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020” to all founders of companies currently in their portfolio to offer insight into how they should handle the new business environment in the midst of a global pandemic.

Much of the advice was fairly standard “hunker down” advice – plan, prepare, and perform. Move quickly and be decisive. Be “bold,” they say in the memo. Anyone who took an intro business course in college knows the drill.

There are the predictable anti-capitalism responses in comments on the original post and across social media, but simultaneously a realistically dark and recklessly invisible reaction spreading in the tech world.

In their actionable advice, one point was the shortest, but loudest statement: “5. Headcount. Given all of the above stress points on your finances, this might be a time to evaluate critically whether you can do more with less and raise productivity.”

We are now being told that boards are meeting behind closed doors and referencing the “Black Swan” memo, and they’re seeking to act “clinically realistic,” as Sequoia instructed. Even if they’re not in Sequoia’s portfolio, the weight of the VC firm’s influence has rippled across the nation and pushed companies to put real thought into mass layoffs. In the middle of a global pandemic.

Why is that the takeaway from the memo when so many other points were made? Because we’re all panicking, and it feels like one of the only immediately actionable moves. Hunker down, trim the fat, keep as much cash on hand, be brutal, keep the company afloat. It makes sense, but it’s wildly tone-deaf and instead of leading on the topic (offering insights into how NOT to lose the loyalty and “culture” brands have so heavily invested in), it is cold. Clinical.

“5. Headcount” is echoing in boardrooms across America.

Bret Starr, Founder & CEO of B2B marketing agency, The Starr Conspiracy wrote a scathing point-by-point takedown of the Black Swan memo, also taking issue with pressuring their portfolio to review their headcount. “There it is. This is Sequoia at its core. Why wait to fire people? Go ahead and fire them now! And while you’re at it, see if you can squeeze the people left behind to be more “productive.” (Remember that part at the beginning of the memo when they talked about how much they care about people? Come on. Sequoia doesn’t care about people. They care about money.)”

Just yesterday, we wrote an open letter to employers struggling with sending their teams home or not, noting, “now is not the time to shut down your hiring pipelines, in fact, right now is the exact time you need to fire up your efforts, because remote work is going to reveal a lot about your team, and some folks are going to shine more than you ever knew they could. But in this sink or swim scenario, some are going to sink and you need to have a deep roster to pull from. If you don’t keep that pipeline full, your sinkers could drag your whole company down.

Starr concluded, “Sequoia had an opportunity (like the rest of us) to reassure their portfolio companies and demonstrate their care for our people, our communities, and our country. Instead, they whipped up fear and uncertainty, gave bad marketing advice, recommended firing some people and making others work harder, told folks to hoard cash, said some stupid shit about Darwin, mansplained a bunch of stuff using jargon, and trotted out Alfred Lin so he could once again compare shit to Zappos. None of us are selling shoes, dude! And we wonder why people are pissed at Silicon Valley.”

This would be the time to confess that I personally believe capitalism is beautiful. Truly. But even “bold” leaders and “clinical” thinkers who also believe in capitalism have an opportunity to do the right thing here without losing their companies.

And maybe that’s the Austin tech geek inside of me raging at the idea of taking an axe to something that requires a scalpel and a steady hand. A native of the nation’s most philanthropic city, I’m surrounded by people that give as much time, talent, and treasure (money) as possible. We’re used to coming together and helping each other out.

And one defining characteristic of Austin tech companies is thinking creatively – something others look to us for. And a top reason firms like Sequoia flop their thick wallets around our town.

So here’s what I hope Austin tech companies will do instead of use an axe to blindly chop down headcount – pick up a scalpel, take a deep breath, and make small cuts.

As teams work remotely, some are going to sink while others swim, so do a productivity audit, do a leadership audit.

Look at how people are working right this very minute – are there managers going above and beyond to make sure the transition to remote is seamless? Keep ’em. Are there support staff spotting challenges and offering ideas on fixing them? Keep ’em. Is there anyone on the team looking at budgets without being asked and sending in suggestions for how to mitigate the pandemic onslaught? Keep ’em. Are there sales staff that are dragging their feet and offering excuses while others are digging in and thinking outside of the box? You know what to do.

Leaders that can’t take the time to pick up the scalpel are going to have a hard time recruiting QUALITY talent after this pandemic is under control.

Can companies afford to take that kind of hit? Can Sequoia companies take that hit? Did Sequoia just put their portfolio companies in a negative spotlight by association with their Black Swan memo?

When layoffs begin (and of course they will, it’s inevitable), how awful will the headlines about each company be? Will it be clear whether a compassionate scalpel was used, or if the Board pressured a CEO into indiscriminately flailing an axe around the corporate offices for two minutes then staring at the fallout?

Sequoia’s advice isn’t just in conflict with Austin tech culture, it is the worst kind of useless “business advice” that people are going to listen to, be they a 5-person graphic design shop in Dallas, or a 1,500-person SaaS company in San Francisco.

Because Sequoia is the source, the generic advice will be followed blindly.

It speaks volumes about Sequoia that the memo wasn’t their fund offering to chip in a bit to help mitigate the impact of layoffs and offer staff severance packages to make sure those impacted don’t literally starve during this pandemic. There was no mention of mental health. There were no whispers of mentoring their portfolio companies through this storm to make sure their long term brand name survives this potential PR hit. Nothing about doing the right thing or being American, or anything about a rising tide lifting all boats.

Instead, it was a list of platitudes that could have been written by a high schooler assigned a paper on “how to do business during a crisis.”

Of course it is prudent to prepare for the worst right now, because it’s looking like a serious possibility, but thinking more creatively (doing a productivity and leadership audit (scalpel) versus aimlessly cutting higher paid or underutilized staff (axe)) is the only way to protect the company’s reputation long-term.

Trust me, people won’t forget how EVERY company acted during the COVID-19 crisis. In this current environment, the world is news obsessed, they’re taking stock, and can you blame them?

News organizations like ours won’t be deleting stories about companies using the axe when they could have used the scalpel. Or not made cuts at all.

America is watching business leaders right now more than ever, and companies’ futures rely on the decisions they make right this minute.

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Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms. 
 
Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.
 
The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.
 
And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.
 
We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.
 
That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

I just got furloughed. Now what?

(EDITORIAL) Some companies are furloughing employees, betting on their company’s long-term recovery. Here’s what you can expect and should plan for in your furlough.

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Are you furloughed? You are not alone! What now? What does “furlough” even mean? How will I get money? Will I still keep my insurance?

A furlough differs from a layoff in a few ways. Whereas a layoff means you are definitely unemployed, a furlough is at its core unpaid time off. Not all furloughs are created equal, though the basic concept is the same: to keep valued employees on ice without being on the hook for their pay until a financial turnaround occurs.

The good-ish news is that a furlough means the company wants to keep you available. When a company is unable to pay their employees for an extended (often indefinite, as is the case with COVID-19 closures) period, they may opt to furlough them instead of laying them off. This virus has decimated whole industries, at least temporarily.

Furloughed employees are forbidden by law to do so much as answer a work email or text while furloughed–or else the company must pay them. The first large waves of COVID-19 furloughs are in obvious sectors such as hospitality (Marriott International), airlines industries (Virgin Atlantic), though other industries are following suit with furloughs or layoffs.

Some furloughs may mean cutting employees’ hours/days to a minimum. Maybe you’re being asked to take off a couple days/week unpaid if you’re hourly, or one week/month off if you’re on salary. With the COVID-19 situation, though, many companies are furloughing bunches of employees by asking them not to work at all. This particular furlough will last ostensibly for a few months, or until business begins to bounce back, along with normal life.

So, what are your rights? Why would you wait for the company? Can you claim unemployment benefits? What about your other work benefits? I’d be lying if I said I knew all the answers, as the furlough packages differ from company to company, and the laws differ from state to state.

However, here are some broad truths about furloughs that should apply. I hope this information helps you sort through your options. I feel your pain, truly. It’s a tough time all around. I’m on your side.

The first answer people want to know is yes, if you’re furloughed and have lost all or most of your income, you may apply for unemployment benefits. You can’t be expected to live off of thin air. Apply IMMEDIATELY, as there is normally a one or two week wait period until the first check comes in. Don’t delay. Some states provide more livable unemployment benefits (I’m looking at you, Massachusetts) than others, but some income is better than none.

Also, most furloughed employees will likely continue to receive benefits. Typically, life and health insurance remain intact throughout the length of the furlough. This is one of the ways companies let their employees know they are serious about wanting them back as soon as it’s financially realistic. Yet some other benefits, like a matching 401k contribution, will go away, as without a paycheck, there are no contributions to match.

Should you look for a job in the interim? Can you really afford not to? What if the company goes belly up while you’re waiting? Nobody wants that to happen, but the reality is that it might.

If you absolutely love your job and the company you work for and feel fairly confident the furlough is truly short-lived, then look for a short-term job. Thousands upon thousands of positions have opened up to meet the needs of the COVID-19 economy, at grocery stores or Amazon, for example. You could also look for contract work. That way, when your company reopens the doors, you can return to your position while finishing off the contract work on the side.

If the company was on shaky ground to begin with, keep that in mind when applying to new jobs. A full-time, long-term position may serve you better. At the end of this global health and economic crisis, some industries will be slower to return to their former glory–if they ever do. If you’re furloughed from such an industry, you may want to shift to something else completely. Pivot, as they say. Now would be a good time.

The only exceptions are “Excepted” government workers in essential positions, including public health and safety. They would have to work while furloughed in case of a government shutdown (and did previously).

Furloughs are scary, but they offer a greater measure of security than a layoff. They mean the company plans on returning to a good financial situation, which is encouraging. Furloughs also generally offer the comfort–and necessity–of insurance, which means you can breathe a bit easier while deciding your next move.

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Opinion Editorials

The cringe inducing and lesson learning tale of Poor Jennifer

(EDITORIAL) Video conferencing is becoming the norm, so make sure you don’t end up like poor Jennifer. Take some extra time and precautions against exposure.

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poor Jennifer

Ever had that bad dream where you were giving a speech, but realized you were totally naked? If so, you’ll join us in cringing at the true life tale of “Poor Jennifer.”

We are all Poor Jennifer. We love Poor Jennifer. We stand with Poor Jennifer. Take a deep breath and prepare to relate far too well to a story this mortifying. You’ll want to tell her you feel for her and perhaps even offer up your own embarrassing anecdotes to let her know she’s not alone. Jennifer’s story serves as the ultimate cautionary tale for Zoom calls.

Working from home is a luxury/burden that was still surprisingly rare until the COVID-19 crisis sent office workers home in droves. IT departments across the country–and across the world–scrambled to ensure they had solid firewalls and valid VPNs locked and loaded on everyone’s computer. Everyone signed up for video conferencing tools. Zoom became a household name overnight, though other options are available, too.

Nearly everyone’s reality has drastically changed over the past several weeks due to the novel coronavirus–and in some cases overnight. With this global pandemic comes uncertainty, anxiety, and dread, meaning few of us are working at our own full mental capacity. Many professionals find themselves working at home, using new tools, and with new, often rambunctious, noisy, or needy coworkers, AKA children, pets, or life partners. It can be jarring, disconcerting.

If you’re used to participating in conference calls in an office environment, whether video or audio, you take them at your desk. Working from home can tempt one to mute the audio call and do some multi-tasking. Nobody can see you or hear you once you mute the phone, after all, and not every part of every call is important for your particular piece of the puzzle.

I’m not proud of it, but I’ve walked the dog or loaded the dishwasher while I muted a conference call during another department’s report. It’s not ideal, but I have to tell you…it happens. I am thanking my lucky stars today that we kept video conferences to a bare minimum at work.

What does this have to do with Poor Jennifer? Well, Poor Jennifer was on a team video conference call when she answered another call: nature’s. Yikes. Zoom caught it all, and her colleagues’ faces told the story. We see confusion, discomfort, then disbelief. By the time one of her colleagues tries to tell her, she obviously already caught a glimpse of herself on the porcelain throne and took care of the problem.

The whole scenario was over practically before it began, yet it’s a moment that will live on forever, because one of Poor Jennifer’s inconsiderate coworkers went ahead and posted the Zoom feed online. NOT COOL, BRO. As for Poor Jennifer, please know we get it. The world is coming to a standstill, and this weighs heavy on our heads. Your accident serves as a warning to all of us coping with a strange new world. And yes, we laughed a little, awkwardly, because we were taken by surprise and felt uncomfortable for you.

Please know, Poor Jennifer, that it could happen to anyone. Know that we’re on your side. Know that we think your coworker is in the wrong 100% for posting it. Most importantly, know that any minute now, some other unsuspecting soul will unseat you from your internet throne of ignominy. This is the beauty of the internet and our ridiculously short attention spans.

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