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Managing Burn: The Stockdale Principle

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

by Rebecca MacKinnon

How’d it happen? After the ongoing, persistent strength of the US economy over the past decade, COVID19 has brought us all to a screeching halt. I suppose the why or how doesn’t matter so much now. But, where we find ourselves does...

We must remember that "resilience" and "adaptability" are necessary personal qualities. We can either choose to move into our basements and forever become a victim to COVID19...or, we can move forward and adapt!

Even if Federal programs blunt certain financial challenges, there can be no rest. Early stage, high growth ventures consume capital. Until the signs of recovery are fully underway, remaining alert is prudent.

Yes, this may feel overly serious, but experience and a lot of "grey hair" offers a few undeniable facts:

1. Even during good times, financing an early stage venture is difficult.

2. The basic entrepreneurial spirit always offers a hopeful outlook in the face of any crisis.

3. There is will always be a long tail to any economic crisis.

4. It's essential to maintain a firm grasp on working capital until "we are in safe waters".

As a point of interest, I have directly experienced four major financial crisis in my life. Each of these events occurred abruptly, and had a significant impact on my personal and professional life. This is not unique to me -- I live where all of you do, so you can recount your own experiences. What may be different is my perspective on it. Each of the four crisis in my life brought major changes and not all of those changes were bad.

The most life-altering crisis as a parallel to COVID19 was 9/11. At that time, I was leading BeyondNow Technologies into what everyone believed was a strong Series B equity raise. The news was very good with all indicators in the right direction! We had experienced excellent growth, successfully recruited a number of talented team members and significant market opportunities filled our pipeline. And, out of nothing we did...WHAM!

The shock waves following 9/11 felt much like COVID19. Great uncertainty, ongoing conflicting information, warring politics and politicians—at home and abroad—and, looming financial crisis. Sound familiar? The long and difficult story for my company in the following year post 9/11 requires more than a blog to share. But, there is a bottom line...

We survived through aggressive, proactive management of our cash burn!

I know as quickly as it is said, there are nay-sayers. But, I offer a favorite quote that emerged for me during the year following 9/11. I have never forgotten it.

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” ~ The Stockdale Paradox.

In today’s terms, optimism post COVID19 lull you into believing a “V-shaped recovery” is right in front of you. Get squarely in your mind the depth of capital around your table and manage within the limits. Current investors may remain committed to keeping the company alive, but recognize new investors struggle to come to the table during these times.

A few practical steps:

- Quickly adopt a cadence of forecasting, projecting, managing behavior and repeat the cycle. It’s not work that anyone really wants to do, but it’s very necessary.

- On a weekly, biweekly and monthly basis, bring the senior team together and require communication. There can be no silos in spending decisions.

- Whatever budgets anyone thought they had, the notion of auto-pilot or autonomous decision must be eliminated.

- Don’t obsess over the decisions you must make at this time, you are most kind to others when you secure your operating future and support jobs well into the future.

As with any time throughout history, another saying applies: “This too shall pass…”. But, only time will tell us how long it will take.

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