The Refounder’s Dilemma: refound or cut bait?
In my mid-twenties, at a struggling tech company, I was moved to an inflection point, a decisive moment. The chairman of the board was on the other end of the line, and he gave me some hard news. We were out of cash. Employees needed to be laid off, the leases canceled, and all the office furniture would soon be repoed. But before the gravity of the situation set in, before I could spool up thoughts about my impending job hunt, he threw out an offer. The board, he said, was willing to keep our software developer Chris and me on board if we wanted to try and reboot the company.
“We’ll understand if you walk away, but we’ll give you a couple of months to try and turn it around.”
As the cascade of bad news washed over me, I froze.
The voice on the other side of the line pulled me back into the moment.
“You heard me, right?”
It was a dicey proposition. Pittsburgh — the blue-collar steel town our company called home — was in its early days of unproven tech expansion, not the most likely place for a breakout tech company. What’s more, the company had no clear product and no real customers. Our purpose was unclear. What was our raison d’être, our reason for existing? I wasn’t sure.
I considered the chairman’s offer and discussed with my wife Jen and Chris. The truth was, we made a risky bet to join a little little tech company. The other truth? Chris and I would have to be willing to place a big bet on each other. And so, days after the offer, I called the chairman of the board and told him we’d see it through. We acknowledged the risks and would give it a go.
Refound or Cut Bait?
If you’re a reasonably aware human, you’ve experienced a similar inflection point. Maybe your business was on the edge of insolvency and needed a complete product overhaul. Perhaps your childhood community had fallen on hard times and needed an injection of hope. Maybe your marriage was on the rocks, and you wondered whether you could return to the love you once shared. Times like these beg the question: Should you put in the time and effort to take what’s broken and make it better, or do you cut bait and move on?
Chris and I decided to refound the flagging company, but the truth is, this isn’t always possible. Sometimes, it might be best to move on. So, how do you know the difference, particularly when there might not be a right or wrong answer? The answer might lie in answering three questions.
Is it Worth Your Time or Energy?
Everything comes at an opportunity cost. Pursuing one thing means not pursuing another. In my case, attempting a refounding meant putting an indefinite hiatus on a potential job hunt (a back-up plan), a frightening proposition given my newly-wed status. Still, I’d spent more than a year of time and energy with this little company, shouldn’t I at least consider doubling down?
The truth is, there are toxic relationships, work environments, and archaic institutions, and often, that toxicity poisons talented people. There are some things that are simply not worth the time and energy. If a studied analysis indicates that’s the case, you might be best offering a pleasant goodbye, cancelling your membership, or submitting your two-weeks notice.
There are many opportunities, though, in which the application of time and energy can turn a situation around. When you identify those opportunities through careful analysis, you can move to the next question.
Do you have a team you can trust?
Refounding is a team sport. If we were going to refound our little company, I needed Chris, and I hope he’d say he needed me too. As I’d come to learn, I would also need our Chairman. And as I’ve studied other Refounders (my nomenclature for those doing the hard work of making broken things better), I’ve learned the same is true in most refoundings.
In the course of writing my book, Refounder: How Transformational Leaders Take What’s Broken and Make it Better I interviewed numerous business leaders, academics, and even a television personality who took broken things and made them better. With few exceptions, each highlighted their refounding team — the community of people who came together to beautify the neighborhood; the team that tackles the most intriguing global problems; the group of practitioners setting out to make a difference in the medical community. Time and time again, I heard the truth: They couldn’t do it alone. They needed a team. And, that team was always composed of people with a variety of experiences, skills, and thought processes. In short, diversity was a difference maker.
Teams help us analyze problems from different angles. They notice our blind spots. They push against our best reasoning. And, they bring diversity of skill and thought, which is critical to any successful Refounder movement. Ultimately, they help us refine our thinking, which often illuminates the path forward. This was the case with our company’s refounding. Over the years, Chris and I surrounded ourselves with an amazing team that helped us hone and develop better products. We included people who weren’t simply saying yes to every idea we had. They helped us refine the vision and ultimately made us a better company (and people).
Is the Purpose and Potential bigger than the Problem?
In the early days of our refounding, it might have been easier to cut bait and look for a new career path. After all, our company’s problems seemed insurmountable. We were buried in debt and had no cash flow. Still, it was the early days of the tech boom, and we believed if we could figure out ways to apply technology to modernize healthcare, we could change the lives of so many and create a successful enterprise.
Maybe we were naive. Maybe we were too dim-witted to see that our vision and purpose was a touch grandiose. Still, it was enough to keep us going. And I’m glad it did.
In the early days of our refounding, I didn’t know to ask these questions, at least not explicitly. In hindsight, though, I can better articulate why a refounding was in order. Chris and I had put so much time and energy into the company, and we believed we had more to give. We trusted each other and believed we could make a difference if we stuck it out. The result? Over twenty years later, our little company — Net Health — is a thriving enterprise that is rapidly approaching 1,000 people; our software is used by caregivers to care for and heal, millions of people each year. We took what was broken and made it better.
What applies to an organizational refounding applies to every facet of your life. Is your community, your marriage, or your career broken? Do you believe it could be better? Do you wonder whether you should stick it out or are you considering cutting bait? Carve out the time to answer these three questions:
- Is it worth your time and energy?
- Do you have a team you can trust?
- Is the purpose and potential bigger than the problem?
If the answer to all three questions is yes, don’t cut bait. Don’t give up. Instead, set out to be a Refounder.
For more on the principles of Refounders, check out the book (May 25), Refounder: How Transformational Leaders Take What’s Broken and Make it Better.