Startup in Crisis? 4 lessons for founders to brave out the storm


By Major Sunil Shetty, SM (Retd), CEO at

This week, India’s biggest aviation show, Aero India 2019, opened with a “missing man formation” of three fighter jets in memory of the Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Sahil Gandhi, who lost his life in an aircraft crash during practice as part of the event.

This air accident happened in less than a week after Pulwama’s terrorist attack that killed 40 Indian soldiers. This wasn’t all; during various counter-terrorism operations, the Indian army lost another six of its Bravehearts. The last 10 days have been one of the worst weeks for the Indian military.

A moment of crisis can strike a family, nation or a startup without a warning, – and it is at these times that the core team- be it an elder in a family, political leadership of a nation or founders of a startup, have to maintain composure, ignore naysayers, instill confidence among their teammates and while doing all this, lans for the next steps without loss of focus on the primary duty.

I am reminded of a similar situation – I have faced a decade ago when two of my employees were kidnapped by the Taliban from the outskirts of Herat, a western Afghanistan city located on Iran- Afghanistan border.

This incident had happened a few days after my company was awarded a US-government contract that required us to provide services to a military camp located 80 kilometres outside Herat city.

The kidnapping news hit us hard; it had shaken everyone including me – for we all knew how in the past all kidnapping had ended in Afghanistan – especially for Indians due to presence of Pakistan’s ISI in the country.

On one hand, I had the responsibility to do everything, in my capacity to get my two kidnapped men safely back and on the other side, I had to keep the morale of the 160 men high, so that they performed to their peak failing which we would lose the US-government contract. Added to this misery were the distress calls and communication from family members of kidnapped boys and a media that wanted an hourly update from us. Such situations test the very core of leaders.

Lessons for startup founders in times of crisis

1. Practice to be “captain cool”: Former Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni earned the tag “Captain Cool” by performing “consistently in death overs,” taking “tactical decision at crucial times” thus brought “some memorable win to the team.”

“Dhoni hardly lets his emotions out”, writes Gokul Nath, a blogger on Quora. Leaders too are impacted emotionally by situations, they too experience wild mood swings – however, successful leaders have master the art of suppressing their emotions.

The worst leader is one who loses his cool in a pressure situation.

During my interactions with young, first-time or budding entrepreneurs, I always educate them on the importance of making a conscious effort in controlling their emotions.

Whether you are a startup founder, sports team captain or a political leader – whoever controls emotions, wins the support of his teammates.







2. Naval tradition a guide for leaders: According to the naval tradition, “a captain will be the last person to leave a ship alive before its sinking or utter destruction, and if unable to evacuate the crew and passengers, the captain will not save himself even if he can.”

Though startups may not face a life and death situation during their startup journey, however, founders can shape their organization culture, guided by such rich traditions, where leaders prioritize team members’ interest over personal interest.

In a time of crisis, startup founders should make it clear to their team members that their safety and or interest will be the priority in all decision-making.

3. Decision making is critical: During a crisis, leaders have to make wise and rapid decisions and follow up with courageous action, says Captain Ameya Kocharekar founder of Proforce; a Mumbai-based startup that works with schools to identify and groom sporting talent.

In the second year of business of Proforce, a few discussions didn’t pan out as envisaged and this left Captain with limited options.

“I was facing a tough choice either save my startup or my home; I sold my flat and liquidated all my mutual funds and pumped all the money back into my startup,” says Captain Kocharekar.

He further adds, “I knew it would push my financial stability back by 20 years, still I did what was correct, to save my startup and the people that depended on it.”

4. Learn from crisis and effect changes: Coming back to my two employees who were kidnapped in the year 2008;  I got them back safe and sound and one of them still works for me in Iraq. The incident was a big learning curve – I made changes to my company’s SOPs and since then though we continue to work in conflict zones- we have not faced a similar situation.

It is the responsibility of leaders to learn from crisis and effect changes to avoid a repeat of a similar situation.

The scale or size of a crisis doesn’t really matter because – whatever be the scale – the core of the decision maker will be tested to the fullest.  If a leader can withstand crisis and yet delivery on her goals- that is the true test of leadership.

(The author is CEO of Views expressed are personal.)