How a Founder should Communicate in Crisis

"Whoa. I'm dealing with an insane crisis at my startup right now. I'm trying to think of the best way to tell everyone what's going on, but it feels like I'm stuck somewhere between writing a really poofy press release and crying on stage. What's the best approach to rally everyone right now?"

March 26th, 2020   |    By: Wil Schroter

Founders are rarely prepared for how to handle a legit crisis, like when the whole world turns upside down overnight.

I lived through 9/11 with 700 employees, raised multiple funding rounds in the middle of the 2007 Financial Crisis, and just for "funsies" oversaw the overnight shutdown of a startup with 450 people.

So yeah, I have some experience here.

What I've learned is when crisis hits, a solid approach to communication is one of the single most effective tools we can employ.

Cut the Bullshit

In times of crisis, no one wants to hear the sugar-coated version of where things stand.

"Hey Team, I know half of you have turned into flesh-eating Zombies, but the good news is there's way more La Croix for those of you who have survived!"

Now is the time to cut to the chase. Imagine that every person reading your email, or listening to your conference call, is going to assume every word you're saying may be bullshit. Drop some hard facts. We need to set a tone of transparency so that our communications are well-received and effective.

Open up Direct Lines to the Top

This isn't a time for management by organization charts. The entire company is freaking out and people want to know they can get direct access to answers. When we bought Zirtual.com during its shutdown, I sent a message to 450 employees that basically said,

"Don't ask around. Ask me. Here's my email, here's my phone number. There's no reason to wonder what's going on." (Incidentally I got hundreds of emails which is exactly what was needed).

When a crisis hits, the worst thing we can do is bottle up communications. Instead, we need to go on the offensive and make sure that everyone in the org has complete access to answers, even if they aren't the answers everyone wants to hear.

Rally on a Focal Point

In times of crisis, assume that 90% of our attention is on anything but getting stuff done. Our staff is heads down in Slack chats, social media, or stressed out texting with spouses. The things that are eating up the most attention aren't likely to be synonymous with the things that really need our focus.

Our job is to rally that anxiety and attention toward a single focal point that has the highest and best probability to get us out of crisis.

"Right now we need everyone to focus on ONE thing — keeping our Top 10 clients on board. If we can do that, everything becomes totally manageable."

By rallying to a single point, it gives everyone in the org a collective call to arms which is an incredibly powerful force, and a huge asset to the company.

Shoot Everything Straight

Decades ago, communicating inside a company used to be about "spin" and "polish" — those days are largely behind us. What Founders need now is authenticity, transparency, and a very clear way forward.

Anyone want to tell our elected officials that?

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About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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