How We Handled Adversity Has Been Our Key To Business Success
The company I lead, FireFly Automatix, was Utah’s fastest growing privately funded company in 2016 and 2017. But surprisingly, in a region known for technology, we’re not a so-called unicorn or a provider of software. We’re a heavy equipment manufacturer of highly automated turf harvesting and mowing tractors that use robotics, motion control, IOT and autonomy to increase productivity and save fuel. (The impact of this to farmers is staggering.)
When I joined the company three years ago, the business was running out of money and within weeks of being permanently financially impaired. Now we build an average of five machines every month, with pre-orders booked until July 2018 and a new automated turf mower product as well.
Yes, it’s been an astonishing outcome. (I joke with observers that if you don’t believe in God, visit our shop floor and you’ll see a miracle happen every 4–5 days as a new machine rolls out of our doors.) But the most important lesson in this for my own company and any other, in my opinion, is how you handle adversity when it hits you and to learn from it rapidly. This, more than any of your metric accomplishments, will determine success.
In a nutshell, everyone fails. But not everyone learns quickly and eveolves from the pain their failures create.
What causes business adversity? Sometimes it’s external; sometimes self-inflicted. The economy changes. Regulations shift. Maybe it’s an industrial accident or even the weather that puts your success on the skids. What if your business was based in Florida or Texas last year as the hurricanes hit? Or perhaps a partner has betrayed you or an employee has gone rogue. Or you may face a debilitating challenge in your personal life. Adversity happens to every business. When it does, everything you’ve accomplished that you’re so proud of achieving may suddenly go away.
My current company has lived those experiences. I’ve lived them in my prior organizations as well. Not surprisingly, most of us don’t want to talk about those incidents much. Take a look at social media and take a look at the press. People talk about the records they set and the sales they completed. Not many will tell you about the nights they spent crying into their pillow, worrying about how to make payroll. (And yes, I’ve been there.)
None of us knows for sure what is happening next. Life and business can be going great and the minute you walk out the door a bear could take off your head. We joke that working at a company as edgy as ours is like wrestling grizzlies on the frontier. But the best advice I can offer leaders at any level is this: When adversity strikes, get focused. For example, what did Steve Jobs do when he was fired? He got mad. And then he got focused. He started getting up at 3:00 a.m. He was not a perfect leader, but when Apple eventually re-hired him, he produced amazing results. The pain he felt forced learning, and he evolved into a great business leader. When you experience discomfort, that’s the natural world (business or personal) telling you something needs to change.
Think about this: Regardless of what’s happened in your business so far, you’ve survived 100 percent of your worst days if you’re still here. Ask yourself the following questions before a tragedy happens: “If the business we’re in today became illegal tomorrow, what would we do? When life seems unfair it’s tempting to go and complain to your mother or to rant to your friends. Or you go out and drink too much in an attempt to escape. But my advice is this: Don’t do it. You will only make a hard situation worse by avoiding it, making rash decisions in anger, or miring in blame. Embrace and analyze the pain and learn from it fast.
Consider the public companies who are doing a great job and then they miss their numbers one day. What do they do? Some of them panic. They fire the CFO. Or they make a crazy acquisition to prove they are “on it,” potentially driven by a Wall Street banker making 12 percent on the deal (and who sometimes won’t have your best interest in mind). Instead, take a moment to be grateful for your team, your product and your culture. Then get focused. Focus on your core business. Determine what went wrong and what you can do better and differently moving forward to keep this situation from occurring again. Remember the market is always right. It doesn’t care what your goals and ambitions are. It only cares that your product creates value for your clients, and if the timing or value proposition is off, you will feel that in the numbers. Seek to understand what changed and don’t overreact. Focus on learning what the realities are that the numbers are telling you.
At a point in my own life when things seemed so bad I couldn’t see a way forward, I stood in my shower and as the water poured down on me, I cried. Then I looked up and realized how blessed I was to live in a time and place that makes it possible for me to have warm water coming out of my wall. I felt gratitude. And then I got focused. If you are not happy with your current career, get focused. Get a mentor. Hire a coach. Read inspiring books describing elite business minds Do the hard work to enact a positive change. If your product is suddenly afoul of new regulation or becomes obsolete, be grateful for your team and your customer relationships. Then get focused on figuring out what else you can do.
In our case, we took in $2.1M in friends and family investment (including my own) and with that money have built 130 automated machines in a sector that contains perhaps 400–500 machines overall. And early in the process we asked ourselves what could be next. This month, we introduced a highly autonomous mower (limited or no driver input). We realized that while our customers harvest turf once a year, they need to mow once a week, and the cost of labor to perform that repetitive task is sky high. Immigration change is reducing availability of labor, and in areas like California, minimum wage has risen to $15 an hour. So we’re helping farmers offset the cost of performing these repetitive tasks with increased automation and cutting-edge technology.
We also recognized quickly the opportunity to eliminate pain and create more revenue by becoming a stellar provider of service and parts. Our machinery is required to operate for 10–15 hours a day in conditions that include rocky soil, salt water spray and human error. You can imagine the impact on our customers if a piece of equipment goes down. We estimate a probable need for $15K in replacement parts per machine every year. We are also developing the ability to refurbish machines, allowing our biggest customers to move to newer equipment more quickly while bringing the cost of acquisition down for the smaller operations that can’t afford to buy new.
These are additional revenue streams for us and additional ways to be sure our customers will never have an incentive to leave. In a region of flashy buildings with 5–6 year leases, we operate from a warehouse facility. We are investing in our people, instead, and are steadily adding new jobs. I would advise other companies, where possible, to consider the same. We’ve learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Adversity is inevitable. Business is unpredictable and sometimes life is unfair. But for our business (and every business) it is our ability to manage the volatile days and seasons that allows us to adapt and learn from the pain, focus on meaningful change and grow value. Being dynamic and evolving fast is your competitive advantage and keeps the grizzlies on the frontier at bay.