Wrestling state finals, senior year of high school. I’m cruising through the match, up 5-0 over someone I had already pinned twice that year. I tilt my opponent onto his back as the ref’s hand hovers over the mat, waiting to call the pin. I’m an inch away from being a state champ. Six years of hard work are about to pay off, and then, my opponent escapes and we’re back on our feet.
The escapes only worth one point, I’m up by four, and with 20/20 hindsight, could have done nothing the rest of the match and still won. Instead, I panicked. I took a flailing attempt at a move I never did, ended up on my back, and thirty seconds later was watching my opponent get his arm raised.
I fucked up. I had a plan, the plan was working, something unexpected and surviveably bad happened, and I started flailing. The panic was worse than the problem. As markets get more volatile, trend down, and doom is spread, I think about this match a lot. For most startups, those who are not burning an immense amount of money to “blitz-scale” or in industries at the epicenter of the downturn, the fundamental facts on the ground have not changed.
Even though facts stay the same, the pressure to attempt large moves ratchets up. When other competitors are visibly pivoting, doing lay offs, and making sweeping changes, it can seem like a mistake to not follow in those footsteps. The same goes in a bull market. When your competitors are paying 100k over your target salary for a role, there’s pressure to match.
This pressure causes panic, and panic causes reactionary flailing. Whether your company is bootstrapped or venture-funded, it’s your company and no one knows more about it, or has a better plan for it, than you as a founder. “No one” includes Twitter pundits, your competitors, your investors, and your mother.
This doesn’t mean putting wax in your ears, a blindfold on, and sticking your head in the sand. Plans should always be iterated on. If fundamental facts change, plans should be blown up and rebuilt from the ground up. However, plans should not be re-adjusted in a flailing panic. The opinions and actions of others around you should be just one input, not the main driver, when it comes to adjusting strategy. To paraphrase “If”, trust yourselves when everyone else doubts you, but make allowance for their doubting too.
After the season ended, one of the team parents printed large foam board pictures of each wrestler and gave them out. Mine happened to be from that match, showing me in a dominant position to win, about a minute from when I panicked and lost. That picture remains where it has been since the day I got it, on the shelf of my childhood bedroom. Whenever I go visit my parents, it serves as a helpful three-by-two foot reminder. A reminder that panic, and the flailing half-hearted actions it causes, can be much much worse than the initial cause itself. As things get crazy and markets pull back, it’s something that needs to be remembered.