Image: Wikimedia Commons

What Would Happen To Your Startup If You (actually) Got Hit By A Bus?

A few days ago, I read in the local papers here in Bangalore that the founder of a startup was injured when a speeding car hit him. The driver drove away, a classic case of Hit and Run, and the entrepreneur was hospitalized. Doctors opined that the recovery period was three months. “What happens to his startup?” I asked my wife when I read the news. We both had no answer.

The reality hit us hard last week when I went to pick up my wife from her workplace. About 10 kilometers from our home, my car ran out of gas. Literally. We were in the middle lane of the highway, and the car had come to the grinding halt, with vehicles driving at 50, 60 or even 70 Kilometers per hour around us. The Low Fuel indicator was on for sometime, but that meant I could have driven for another 12 or 15 kilometers without a hitch. But not that day. We made home three hours later, my wife, our dog and I, but what transpired during those three hours made me wonder again:

Let us trace back to the events of a disaster that almost happened. I think there are a lot of learnings for startups along the way. I would like to draw some parallels with running a business.

Normally, I fill up atleast half the tank when the low fuel light goes on.For the past eight years since I have owned my car, this was only the second instance when this happened. Only this time I did not. It was complacency on my part that caused the car to run out of fuel in the first place.

Food For Thought: Learning Low Fuel is akin to Less Money In The Bank

Imagine if your business is running low on money. What would be your number one priority? Raise more money if you are in fundraising mode, look for alternate source of money- say chase the accounts receivables, or get a loan. “It will be allright” is hardly the response. My learning from this experience: watch your fuel level (money in the bank) and fuel consumption (burn rate or expenses) very closely.

My number one priority was to get the car to the side of the road so that we would not be in the way of the traffic. Fortunately, in this momemt of crisis, I had not panicked. Atleast in the begining. Safety of my wife and our dog was on the top of my mind. And my own safety, of course.

Food For Thought: When a startup runs out of fuel, what is the number one priority for the founder(s)? Making sure that the employees are paid? Customer orders are fulfilled? Protect your assets? IP, for example?

A few people came to help right away. One of them flagged down the traffic, another one helped me push the car to the side of the road. A third offered me to drop me off to the nearest petrol station (gas station). The car was on the side of the road, and we were safe for the moment.

If a startup runs out of money, will customers/ fellow founders/ or complete strangers come to help? Probably yes, but I think chances are slim.

My wife and I quickly began to weigh the options. I suggested that she get a cab- Uber or Ola and take Buddy, our dog, with her. I would leave the car parked to the side of the road, get the fuel, and then drive the car back home. My wife refused. She is the co-founder with me and wanted to be there to support me. Noble thoughts, but hardly practical in my opinion.What if a speeding bus or a truck had hit us while we were stuck at the side of the road?

In a moment of crisis, would it be prudent to have the founders together in the sticky situation and increase the risk to the startup exponentially? Probably not. My first thought would be to mimimize the risk — something that my wife did not agree to. Ironic, considering that she worked in insurance for over 12 years.

An hour later, I had got the fuel, and we were ready to start the car. The problem? The fuel was not enough, the can was leaky and some of it had spilled along the way. My effort of walking 5 kilometers up and down a bridge had gone waste.

What if a startup that had run out of money was able to raise some funds, but there were ‘leakages’ in the system that drained some of that money? It could be that subscription fees that came up for renewal, or an auto debit set up int he bank for making some payments, or unforeseen expenses that prevent you from using the money for the intended purpose?

Left with no choice, I asked my wife to take the steering wheel while I pushed the car. The connectivity on her mobile phone was poor, and my cell phone had discharged completely. As a result, calling a towing service was out of question. It was Murphy’s Law in action in its absolute sense.

Do you have a contingency plan in place? What is your support system?What is Plan B or C? All these questions seem rudimentary and some times a no brainer... till the time one is in a situation where they all seem to make sense.

This is the part of the story that is a little tricky to describe. First of all, it is not a post about a husband commenting on his wife’s driving. This is what happened as I started pushing the car. My wife held the steering wheel in such a way that the car began to move towards the traffic, instead of remaining straight on the road. Or better still, follow the curves of the road. Several times while pushing, I asked her to turn the steering wheel to move the car away fro the traffic. And every time, she did exactly the opposite. When I would push the car from its resting position, she would slam the brakes and not release the hand break. She had panicked, and did exactly what she was not supposed to do.

Here’s the irony. My wife used to drive a car before we got married, and for some reason, she has not driven our car even once for the past six years. And by now, she has completely forgotten to drive. So her driving instincts have become numb. Add to that the panic situation that she was in, her responses made her totally useless.

While it is great to have co-founder(s) who have complimentary skills, what happens when there are NO overlapping skills? Driving the car, for example. My wife could not push the car so that I could hold the steering, and she could not steer the car while I was pushing. It will be very difficult for a business to survive in that situation!

Three kilometers of pushing later, we reached a section where the highway slopes downhill. I tried starting the car several times, but the engine would not fire up. In the meantime, two hours of blinking hazard lights and the several attempts to start the engine had drained the batteries. Now we were in a dual dilemma. The fuel issue could be fixed- the nearest petrol pump was hardly 1 kilometer away, but what to do about the battery?

Many times, we become so focused on the immediate problem at hand, that we let common sense take a hike, and in the process, we end up creating another problem.

While I was getting the fuel (again), my wife called the towing company, and they agreed to show up in half an hour’s time. By then, I had filled up the fuel in the tank again, and thought of starting the car again. And fire up she did. Quickly, I asked my wife to sit in the passenger seat, which by now was occupied by Buddy. By now, he was pretty overwhelmed, cranky and excited by the ordeal, and he refused to get up from the passenger seat.

Life throws unexpected surprises, and business throws up unexpected surprises too. Consider the following metaphor: the startup that had run out of money, raised some funds again, and the production issue that was preventing the shipping to customers was also overcome. By the time the co-founders were able to gain control of the situation, the Tax Man arrived and slapped a notice. All the time and efforts required to get the business moving is now spent in chasing this unexpected wrench in the wheels.

Buddy is not just our pet, he is the mascot of our startup. It was ten thirty in the night, and he was super anxious because of the entire experience. One last time when my wife tried to open the passenger side door and ask him to move to the back seat, he jumped from the seat and ran outside the car. It took me a good five minutes to chase him down, calm him, and bring him back to the car.

What if your employees start bailing out because of the anxiety, the uncertainty and the ever-changing unpleasent situation that the business is in? What would you do? Manage money? Pacify customers? Chase the Tax papers? Or focus on employees who might bail out?

It was nearly Eleven in the night, and there was no sign of the tow truck. I decided to give the car one last push, but my wife refused to take the steering wheel again. By now, we had called out neighbor- we were only three kilometers away from our home. She had come her car, and she agreed to take the steering while I pushed the car to start it. Neither of us had jump start cables. One well meaning stranger helped me push the car, and less than a minute later, the car’s engine fired up. It was close to midnight when we reached home, safe and sound.

What I learnt from this experience

This experience taught me several lessons. I realized the need for a fallback option- I need a co-founder who will have atleast some overlapping skills. The money in the bank needs to be watched more carefully, and so does the equipment for the podcasts we create. For the first four months, a 9 year old laptop worked great, and I recently set up a podcasting station using Raspberry Pi, but to scale up, we need better hardware. Clarity of communication with my co-founder is also important. And we need to avoid carrying optional ‘baggage’ that can become a cause for trouble down the line. I hate to call Buddy as baggage, but you get the point. Most importantly, we- my wife and I- need to get more aggressive on the hiring, because if either of us were to be actually hit by a bus, the business would come to a standstill. And that is a situation that nobody wants- whether they are investors, customers, employees, least of all, founders.

Comments and suggestions are welcome! I can be reached on twitter @amarauthor

Creator- Gaatha Story- Podcast of Children's Stories. Cofounder Kamakshi Media and Author. Husband, dog lover. Country Manager for FSC, India.

Creator- Gaatha Story- Podcast of Children's Stories. Cofounder Kamakshi Media and Author. Husband, dog lover. Country Manager for FSC, India.