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Fighting fires, in business

What you do day-to-day at your job, when you are at any level of management, and especially so in the world of technology, can be divided into a convenient dichotomy. There is time that you spend on immediate problems, usually under tremendous amounts of pressure because of the impact that not tackling the problems will have on your business. Then there is time that you spend on making plans for the long term, trying to shape the directions in which your business will grow. Some term this dichotomy as ‘running the business’ versus ‘scaling the business’. I prefer to think of it in terms of dousing the flames of a house on fire versus digging a pit to lay stones as foundation for a big house that you intend to build.

In a larger company, fighting fires is easy. The fire can be compartmentalised, localised, and fought. Think of it as a large skyscraper, where there is a fire in one floor. Unless the fire is really catastrophic, or people fail to handle it correctly, it will not bring the whole building down. You can even have teams focusing on just firefighting, and you can have a whole bunch of other people thinking about building long-term businesses.

But in startups, it often feels like one’s entire time is taken up by firefighting. There are product features failing. There are cases of the operations set-up not being able to handle sudden surges in demand. There are vendors demanding payment. There are clients who are refusing to pay up. There are angry customers threatening hell and high water because they feel that they are entitled to far more than what they have paid for. It is like a small unfinished house full of highly flammable materials that has caught fire, and the damage that it causes can quickly turn permanent and irreversible. At a time when entrepreneurs should be thinking about how their startups can scale up, and build for the future, they end up using all their resources on just keeping the company alive.

So what should startups be doing to avoid the dangers of perennial firefighting? A mantra from the world of healthcare is useful here. Prevention and early detection. As a startup, pay extra attention to cases that go wrong and cause flare-ups, and make sure that you have mitigation plans at hand.

The mitigation plans may range from something as unrelated to your business as having a good relationship with the local police (which can come in handy when a client is refusing to pay), to training your employees with at least two different skills, so that they can fill in for other roles under conditions that call for it. Also, fight these fires when they are still small. This is usually a matter of prioritisation. If something looks like it is about to be problematic, pay attention to it immediately and get it out of the way. The more you push doing that to a different day, the greater the probability of the fire being catastrophic.

The author heads product at a mid-sized startup in the real estate space

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