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Resilience & Scaling internationally: What we can learn from nature

In the aftermath of a hurricane where structures are swept away, post-tsunamis where trees and buildings are destroyed, after volcanoes when mankind fears to tread, it is hard to imagine an animal as small as an ant surviving. Yet, a study from Harvard and Florida State Universities discovered that ants first rose around 130 million years ago and have survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K/T extinction) that killed the dinosaurs as well as the ice age.

Nature is a great source for inspiration when it comes to resilience and survival. It is worth having a closer look at what you as the founder of a startup can learn from it when it comes to growth, scaling and building resilience. Quick disclaimer, the author is by no means a biologist but has many years of experience in scaling companies and working closely with hundreds of founders.

Survive like the Tardigrade

Illustration of a tardigrade. - shutterstock

Not to be confused with Doctor Who’s TARDIS, this tiny creature who is also called ‘water bear’ or ‘moss piglet’. Have you heard of it? No Till a while back, neither.

Near microscopic in size and disarmingly cute, they’re indestructible (much like the ants). They can survive in a range of environments including withstanding high temperatures, and live without dehydration for over 10 days in lower orbit.

Not that founders need to do the latter.

But there is a similarity. Often burning the candle from both ends, jumping between topics which are mission critical, putting out fires left and right, while fundraising, growing the company and trying to keep teams, shareholders and personal spaces satisfied in parallel. Sounds stressful and energy depleting?

Lesson: Protect the Asset.

While a Tardigrade has survived billions of years by bringing its metabolic activity down to a near zero in harsh situations, you need to do quite the opposite - protect the asset, that’s you (by the way).

As Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism explains: If we underinvest in ourselves — our

minds, bodies, and spirits — we damage the tool we need to make our highest contribution. By ‘protecting our asset’, we are able to go about their daily lives with a reserve of energy, creativity, and problem-solving ability to call upon when needed.

Recharge like the Tiger

Tiger - Unsplashed

Do it like the tiger. A tiger favourite way of taking down its prey is to lunge at the animal

neck and hold on tight with its powerful jaws. One deadly lunge. For which, it may hunt all day, but he doesn’t exhaust his energy levels.

Like most animals they, if possible, conserve energy, groom, and play. This allows you (and

them) to mobilize extra strength to bring down their prey and therefore care for their pack. The pandemic is a prime example where the pressures of the situation and business downturn had us all working harder, faster but not achieving the one big lunge. This potential toxic behaviour, that we’ve all been guilty of, needs counterbalancing - find what gives you comfort.

Both start-ups and scale-ups often have a leadership deficit. At no point does this imply the lack of strong leadership at the top. Instead, it’s about strong leadership managing strategy, implementation and operations without delegation. Patrick Flesner writes for Inc calling it the “leadership debt”, one that is acquired when growing and scaling rapidly, till it erodes team management, culture, output and finally, the teams themselves.

Organise like a Wolf Pack

Wolf pack - Unsplashed

It is not about dominance or hierarchy in your leadership team, rather this means that the

behaviour of a wolf pack is family-oriented and cooperative - guiding, teaching, and caring for each other. Responsibilities and roles are clear. Teamwork is key to success.

How does that feel on your founder’s shoulders?

This alone will not yet ensure the survival of your company, if external circumstances like the pandemic that took the world by storm or an economic downturn eradicate your markets or the consumer’s need for your product, it’s then time to play your next powerful card from your resilience deck: The adaptability joker.

Adapt like the Chameleon

Chameleon - Unsplashed

What might be alien to more grown up corporates, is still very much ingrained in your young startup’s DNA: The power to move fast and change lanes. Call it pivot if you must, but recall your early founder days, when pivoting was a necessary tactic towards product-market fit. Data from our resilience strategies report issued at the close of 2021 clearly shows that many companies shifted resources heavily towards (new) product development during the first Covid-lockdown.

But should this shift come at the cost of people. It’s a bit of a “yes” and “no” answer. Not every downturn or market disruption is worth cutting people – with the caveat: as long as your runway allows. But, if you dig deep into a book I am extremely fond of, “Scaling Up” by Verne Harnish, it clearly states, everything starts with the people you have on board. They come up with a great strategy, execute it well, which leads to strong cash flow that you can invest into priority areas.

Remember good old Darwin: Not the strongest, most powerful survive – it’s the most adaptable who will come out on top. Or did you recently see a dinosaur move in nextdoor?

Forage like a Squirrel

Squirrel - Unsplashed

Given the global growth ambitions of startups and you as founder, international expansion into new markets is fast on the horizon. Either you think about it or are in the middle of setting up new countries – when market disruptions happen. What now? Stop and fold? Keep going? Let’s ask the squirrel.

Born explorers with both a shy and bold personality, the squirrel can go from active hunting to hibernation, from being “oh so cute” to dangerous. Squirrels always prepare for a winter which could come too early or last too long. They hedge their bets by overinvesting into distributed stocks. As a founder, you can do similar things while expanding your geographical markets. To quote some overused statistics, but our own research demonstrated that being internationally present, especially during market disruptions, pays off with over 80% of those interviewed considering it a big advantage. One country closed down, another opened up, one has a gloomy outlook, the other is on the recovery – bottom line this is still a win. However there is a major difference between internationalisation and spreading yourself thin - work with experts within or from outside to know which side you’re on.

He who shines, cannot be ignored, much like the Peacock

Peacock - Unsplashed

To clarify, the “he” here is a way of saying.

The peacock strategy can help you to prepare for a potential exit. In case other new

international markets are not achievable, switch to this approach. Invest into the existing

markets you are already active in. Deepen your roots.

This way, the cheaper route to gain market share would be by simply buying you. A French platform in the coaching and personal development space was for example acquired by its German competitor. In times of economic downturns and pressure, market consolidations will clearly increase. There is a downside to this strategy - like to any other - which surrounds your financial value, the value of the transaction and whether all your partners / investors are on board.

Be Smart and choose wisely, like a majority of the animal kingdom

Whether it’s thirsty crow who figured how the pebbles would get the water level to rise, the bees who are know to never under- or over-estimate their work load, the decision making capacity of animals can often equal or exceed that of humans. And that too, in tight situations like a hyena chasing a pack Wolves. It’s also important to understand where you are in the food chain to make those decisions with precision and calculation.

When in doubt, reach out… for support. You don’t need to carry the weight of the company, its expectations or your own vision on your shoulders alone.

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