7 Ways to Deal With a Business Black Swan

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“No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”

 – David Hume

I live in an idyllic location overlooking Lough Neagh in Mid-Ulster.  The view to the lough, the white swans, and other wildlife is only interrupted by the B160 and the Heavy Goods Vehicles who use it to take a scenic shortcut into Belfast.  The level of traffic on the road has never bothered me.  Until today.  It is not busier, nor is it noisier.  No, it is eerily quieter as the impact of isolation to our places of abode takes hold.

We are in the midst of a Black Swan event.

A Black Swan

A Rare Black Swan Ironically Owned by a Dear Friend.

What is a ‘Black Swan event?’

The term, popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a finance professor, writer, and former Wall Street trader, refers to an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. These events are symbolised by their extreme rarity, their enormous impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight despite their initial surprise factor.

How many Black Swan events have I personally lived through?

On investigation of this phenomenon, it’s definition and it’s incidence, more than I realised!

I was born in 1974 and I have memories of: the 1987 financial crash; the 2000 ‘dotcom’ bubble  and crash; the 2001 911 terrorist attacks; the 2008 global financial recession; and well, let’s face it, the 2016 Brexit referendum result also came as an enormous surprise with far-reaching consequences.

Taleb argued that because black swan events are impossible to predict, it is important for people to always assume a black swan event is a possibility, whatever it may be, and to plan accordingly.

The Black Swan event that had the biggest impact on me?  The 2008 global financial recession.

Within the definition of a Black Swan, I can now apply the benefit of hindsight.

For those of you not familiar with my story, in 2008 I was a business woman in possession of a large coffee shop and with interests in property rental and development.  I had several smaller spin-off businesses.  I am also a pharmacist educated to PhD level and was still utilising my skills by working on a self-employed basis as a GP Practice-based Pharmacist.

As many financial gurus would recommend I had multiple sources of income, but also many sources of potential problems.  I was ambitious, but also naive,  and I got caught up in the greed and ease of access to credit to build my business and property portfolio.  I had money and assets but I also borrowed, and I did so heavily.  A few phone calls and a couple of signatures and I was seamlessly selling and buying properties which seemed to double and triple in value almost overnight.

I poured money into a money-pit of a coffee shop, which did have an enviable turnover, but also an unenviable level of expenses and overheads.

I was in a difficult marriage which I also threw money at to try and heal and repair its rocky foundations.

When the Black Swan visited me in 2008, I was ill-prepared for the rug being pulled from under my feet.  For a brief period I was in denial.  I often tell the story of Starbucks opening at the bottom of the road where my coffee shop was located and how I blamed it’s appearance on the demise of my takings which literally halved in a space of a few weeks.  Upon quietly surveying activity on the road, and tuning into the daily news reports of bank runs and crises, I eventually realised this problem extended far beyond the beautiful and affluent leafy Lisburn Road.

I look back upon that time now in the midst of an even more terrifying prospect of beating the health and wealth impact of coronavirus with some knowledge, strength and resources I might not otherwise have had.  In the context of the 2008 financial crisis Taleb put forward the conceptual idea that if a broken system is allowed to fail, it actually strengthens it against the catastrophe of future black swan events.

My personal strength and lessons learned are of use to those of you now also facing the same unanticipated fear and worry as I faced more than a decade ago when I eventually had to accept I would lose everything and have to start again.

I fought hard until 2011 but ultimately lost the battle, and found myself with a whole new identity as a bankrupt single parent who was going to need to dig deep to survive, not just financially, but psychologically too.  The impact of those years have taken their toll on me for some years and I have needed to  work hard on not just building a new successful career, a new loving relationship, and a redefined family life, but a stronger mindset too.

2020, the year where I planned so much for my business and life coaching ambitions, has brought with it a new Black Swan, but for me, an opportunity to share some thoughts on how to get through to the other side.

Today’s blog has more of a slant on what to do in business.  Future blogs will also focus on other aspects of my learning in terms of mindset, personal development and relationships.  I feel like I could write for days, and this is quite possibly a good thing as you benefit from my hindsight and experience.

  1.  Accept the uncontrollable, and on the flip side, take control of what you still can.  I loathe uncertainty, especially after my previous experiences and I’m sure this is adding to your many concerns.  There is no doubt we feel like we are on a rollercoaster ride with total loss of control, but what can you do in the short and long term to see you through the loop-the-loops and hold you firmly in your own seat? Take control of the controllable.
  2. Do not bury your head in the sand.  Moving swiftly on from my question above about what you can do to take control, it is so incredibly important to face this crisis head-on.  We are being bombarded with the public health dos and don’ts in terms of social distancing, hand washing, isolation etc. but we are also being bombarded with information about what financial help is on offer.  As I type this, the government has made substantial offers of help; there are still some worrying gaps in terms of supporting freelancers, people in the gig economy and the self-employed but I hope the schemes/allowances/grants/loans will keep coming to plug all potential holes.  Take all the advice, make the phone calls, write the emails and take action. Facebook is suddenly awash with support groups by very qualified and experienced people, but still make sure you are taking your advice from legitimate, qualified and reliable sources.
  3. Accept all offers of help. In the midst of chaos and some pretty terrible behaviour, there are also many acts of kindness and offers of help. Leave your ego at the door and take the help!
  4. Do not default to failure mode.  For a long time I played the ‘victim of failure’ and I blamed so many external things.  What is happening as the war with our unseen enemy escalates was not your fault.  Don’t let it victimise you.  With every downside there is always an upside. With every ‘failure’ there are lessons learned.  With every challenge, there is opportunity to learn and grow.  What potential opportunity is there hidden within this emergency scenario?
  5. Pivot.  What could you do differently? Strategise, brainstorm, mind map and get expert help.  If in business, what elements of it could you take online?  If going online for the first time or extending your online offerings, what do you need to learn and do?  What are your strengths and areas of expertise? What expertise or service could you offer remotely?  What do you need to learn?  Who has the skills to help you pivot fast?  Write an action plan – today!
  6. Keep investing in you and your business.  Our immediate response as we shut down our business premises and stay home is to completely retreat. We cannot entirely stop spending or the economy will not just ‘stall.’ It will collapse.  I know depending on your own personal circumstances this will vary, but there are endless opportunities out there to invest. People should not be abused for continuing to sell their services.  They too need to live, pay their bills and have a viable business when this is all over.  What could you invest in both in terms of time and money that will put you and your business in a much better place in six, 12 or 18 months time?
  7. Don’t offer everything for free.  I know we all want to help and we feel guilty for charging for our services.  What value can you easily give for free right now?  How and where could you do this?  Again, the default will be online and not in-person.  Put your expertise on a page and share it, but be wary of giving everything you have for free.  By all means, heavily discount as you see fit, be creative and give as much as you can, but be wary of not being able to contribute to the economy and causing personal hardship; as mentioned above we need to keep the economy going.

This too will pass.  We will eventually regain control.  How long it will take remains unknown and estimates vary from three to 18 months, but start your new business journey today.

You are not alone #weareinthistogether.

Take care

Stay safe

Stay well

Stay home

Ruth xx