The 1 Question Every Founder Should Ask Before Rebuilding Their Business

Now is the time for every leader to resist the reflex to preserve the status quo.

On Monday, New York City took its first tentative steps toward reopening, and thousands of business owners are now asking themselves: “How can I rebuild my business as fast as possible?”

It’s the same question founders and CEOs are considering across the country.

And it’s the wrong one.

Instead, we should be asking, “If I were starting my business today from scratch, what business would I build?”

Mid-crisis, I spoke to a New York City–based founder who runs a wildly successful national brick-and-mortar and ecommerce business — that is, it was wildly successful until the coronavirus laid waste to her entire industry. It’s natural to want to fight the carnage, to take up the clarion call of resistance and defiantly get those stores reopened as soon as possible. After all, this is our generation’s Independence Day (albeit the alien is within, but same outcome).

But what if the coronavirus didn’t just close this company’s doors? What if it actually opened an aperture to an alternative universe — one where her products fly off supermarket shelves faster than ever?

I asked her, “Rather than fighting to reopen your own stores (which come with high operating costs) as soon as possible, and selling your product online (which comes with high customer acquisition costs), what if you redeployed those resources to find more supermarkets to sell in? Less capex, less infrastructure and more cash runway to stay alive.”

Explore the answer, and your next question might just become: “What if I’m actually better off in this new world than the one I’m trying to go home to?”

Now is the time all leaders should resist the reflex to preserve the status quo. Every business was built for the time before COVID-19. If you don’t act intentionally, you could end up rebuilding a business that is actually a relic.

So clear some mind space, light a candle, reimagine your business as a blank slate and run through this simple self-audit:

1. Give yourself permission to challenge every assumption.

Block out the ebullient stock market swings and try to forecast what the real-world economy will actually look like in one year when the federal till runs dry. What I know for sure is that seemingly conservative assumptions of today will end up naively optimistic in retrospect. Could it be a V shape recovery? Perhaps. Seems more prudent to assume it won’t be. Is a permanent demographic shift from urban to suburban underway? Will working from home become a mainstay or a perk?

Regardless, through honest reflection and self-awareness you unlock the greatest arbitrage in business: the ability to iterate before you’re forced to.

2. Write down how your business has evolved since launch.

In retrospect, the biggest upside that materialized within your operation since you started was probably never on your radar in the beginning — and it definitely wasn’t in your pitch deck. Most companies ignore the true nuggets of gold that are waiting to be mined within their own four walls.

Need inspiration? Remember that Kodak actually invented the digital camera in 1975 — then blew off its inventor and shoved the patent in a drawer until it was too late to stave off bankruptcy.

Before COVID-19, were you treating a product or service as a mere tinkering when it should have been the main event? Reorient version 2.0 of your business to go after it!

3. Before this crisis, were you really happy with how things were going in your business, or at least, were you happier than your peers who have a boss?

If the answer to either question is no, then you’ve just diagnosed a misalignment between your dreams and reality. A few years back, Wharton School of Business conducted a study of 11,000 graduates that found the number one predictor of happiness was not money, but entrepreneurship. They say cash is king, but being your own boss is checkmate. Don’t rebuild the same business to satisfy your ego; rebuild it to satisfy your soul. Life is too short, as we are being reminded once again.

Three months of remote work opened our eyes to another way to conduct every aspect of our lives. We discovered a vast array of technology that was shockingly underutilized in retrospect.  As we start to leave quarantine behind, carry forward the productivity tools and quality of life enhancements that sustained us during the dark times.

And if you don’t, rest assured your competitors will.

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