It’s more important to adapt to the situations life throws at you than to try to create the perfect plan. The matter of fact is things hardly ever work out, no matter how many pre-mortem meetings you set up; instead of trying to create the perfect plan, prepare yourself to take the hit, and adapt to the situation accordingly. Make yourself robust or antifragile. As legendary boxer Mike Tyson says:
“Everyone has a plan – until they get punched in the face.”
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Tyson unpacks this idea further in an interview:
‘If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.’
Here are a few principles to consider the next time you get punched in the face, illustrated through a set of stories:
When Two Entrepreneurs Ran Out of Money
Just a few years before Airbnb was valuated at $10 billion and had a grander vision for shared cities, the company consisted of two designers. To validate their idea, they had hosted conference-visitors on a couple of beds in their apartment.
They weren’t in a good place. Both co-founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbla, were collectively in $40,000 of credit card debt. They had exhausted their cash and had long since ridden off the first wave of customers. They were still reeling from getting punched in the face, shortly after the first weekend their idea was validated. They just needed to stay in the ring until the bell to get their second wind. How could they buy more time?
The two designers used their design skills on a completely different product: cereal. They bought boxes of cereal in bulk and designed novelty boxes of Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains to coincide with the 2008 election. Although this little stunt might sound silly, Chesky and Gebbla sold nearly $30k worth of cereal (at $40/box).
This helped them stay alive long enough to make it to startup accelerator Y Combinator. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It can be shocking to get punched in the face. It can be scary, confusing, and difficult to catch your breath and think straight. That’s okay. Just breathe. Calm down and prepare yourself to take action. Do what it takes to survive in the short-term, even if it means applying your skills to a completely unrelated venture - like using your cereal money to fund your sharing economy startup. As Ben Horowitz writes in The Hard thing About Hard Things, “If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.”
How Mark Cuban Got Fired - and Started His First Company
At his first job at Mellon Bank, Mark Cuban took initiative. Cuban writes on Forbes about how he sent the CEO news clippings of relevant articles, write newsletters, or send updates on current projects. He thought his boss would be delighted. Instead, his boss yelled at Cuban for trying to go around him.
That wouldn’t be the last time Cuban got in trouble at work. He left his job at Mellon and moved to Dallas, where he knew a few of his friends lived. He started bartending and started teaching himself programming. Then he landed a steady day job selling software. It paid $18,000 plus commission.
One day, he sold $15,000 worth of software. He got a friend to cover his shift at the office and called his boss to tell him he was going to pick up the cheque from the customer. His boss wasn’t happy - and told him not to do it. Cuban thought he’d change his boss’s mind when he showed him the $15,000 cheque. Instead, when Cuban got back to the office, his boss fired him on the spot for disobeying him.
Cuban just never seemed to do well at work. So he didn’t. He decided to not work for someone ever again and started his company that day - his first customer was the one who he picked up the $15,000 cheque from. After convincing the customer to work with Cuban’s recently-developed company instead of his previous one, Cuban created his first company Micro-Solutions (and ran into a young Michael Dell along the way). He would grow this company to one with $30 million in revenues, and sell it to CompuServe a few years later. This paved the way for his future success with Broadcast.com, the Dallas Mavericks, and onwards.
He could have buckled. He could have resolved to stop bumping up against the walls so much, to stop being proactive, and to cave to the pressures of typical bosses. Instead, Cuban chose a path that fit his personality better and punched back. He turned his perceived weaknesses - proactiveness and stubbornness - into his strongest strengths as an entrepreneur.
How IKEA was Started in a Volatile Communist Country
IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad had realized that much of furniture’s costs were in its assembly - both in the human resources required to put the actual pieces together, as well as the increased shipping costs. Kamprad undersold all his competitors by selling his furniture pre-assembled and shipping them in flat boxes.
The angry Swedish furniture manufacturers reacted by launching a boycott of IKEA. Suppliers would no longer supply Kamprad with the material he needed to generate revenue. Kamprad and IKEA just got hit with a right hook.
Looking South of Sweden, Kamprad realized Poland was a country with cheaper labor and an abundance of wood. However, few companies had outsourced and imported like that during this time, and developing this connection would not be easy because Poland was a communist country. Moreover, it was a ticking time bomb - Kamprad had decided to go into Poland in 1961, right as the Cold War was peaking. (Author Malcolm Gladwell, who writes about Kamprad and IKEA in his book David and Goliath, likens this to “Walmart setting up shop in North Korea” today.)
It would be a cop-out to say that IKEA was forged simply when Kamprad made that decision; however, he had to work around the Polish security police watching his every move and the restrictions on dealing with a lack of infrastructure and trained workforce in Poland.
Do what you must to survive and cope, even if that means entering unconventional territory. The qualities that make something unattractive or difficult could also be turned to make that option your greatest asset; in this case, Poland’s untrained workforce and volatile environment repelled many businesses, but also meant that IKEA had the inexpensive labor and material it needed to compete aggressively against established furniture retailers.
Getting punched is inevitable. Suffering is tolerable. Losing is optional. Even the most perfect plans can go astray, especially when exposed to the unpredictable environment of the real world. It’s difficult to account for everything. Instead, brace yourself and get ready to dodge and strike back when the moment happens. It’s not the adversity that defines you, but how you react to it.
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” - Charles R. Swindoll
- Obama O’s. via AirBnB.com
- Ingvar Kamprad - The Billionaire behind IKEA. via Luxedb.com