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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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Business Finance

How to survive a recession in the modern economy

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Advice about surviving a recession is common these days, but its intended audience can leave a large gap in application.

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There’s no question of whether or not we’re in a recession right now, and while some may debate the severity of this recession in comparison to the last major one, there are undoubtedly some parallels–something Next Avenue’s Elizabeth White highlights in her advice on planning for the next few months (or years).

Among White’s musings are actionable strategies that involve forecasting for future layoffs, anticipating age discrimination, and swallowing one’s ego in regards to labor worth and government benefits like unemployment.

White isn’t wrong. It’s exceptionally important to plan for the future as much as possible–even when that plan undergoes major paradigm shifts a few times a week, at best–and if you can reduce your spending at all, that’s a pretty major part of your planning that doesn’t necessarily have to be subjected to those weekly changes.

However, White also approaches the issue of a recession from an angle that assumes a few things about the audience–that they’re middle-aged, relatively established in their occupation, and about to be unemployed for years at a time. These are, of course, completely reasonable assumptions to make…but they don’t apply to a pretty large subset of the current workforce.

We’d like to look at a different angle, one from which everything is a gig, unemployment benefits aren’t guaranteed, and long-term savings are a laughable concept at best.

White’s advice vis-a-vis spending is spot-on–cancelling literally everything you can to avoid recurring charges, pausing all non-essential memberships (yes, that includes Netflix), and downgrading your phone plan–it’s something that transcends generational boundaries.

In fact, it’s even more important for this generation than White’s because of how frail our savings accounts really are. This means that some of White’s advice–i.e., plan for being unemployed for years–isn’t really feasible for a lot of us.

It means that taking literally any job, benefit, handout, or circumstantial support that we can find is mandatory, regardless of setbacks. It means that White’s point of “getting off the throne” isn’t extreme enough–the throne needs to be abolished entirely, and survival mode needs to be implemented immediately.

We’re not a generation that’s flying all over the place for work, investing in real estate because it’s there, and taking an appropriate amount of paid time off because we can; we’re a generation of scrappy, gig economy-based, paycheck-to-paycheck-living, student debt-encumbered individuals who were, are, and will continue to be woefully unprepared for the parameters of a post-COVID world.

If you’re preparing to be unemployed, you’re recently unemployed, or you even think you might undergo unemployment at some point in your life, start scrapping your expenses and adopt as many healthy habits as possible. Anything goes.

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Opinion Editorials

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

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

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strong leaders

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

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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decluttering

It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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