In March 2020, many organizations found themselves suddenly plunged into crisis. A global pandemic sparked radical, immediate shifts with lasting effects. Companies had to shift their product strategy. Some floundered, while others adjusted, pivoted, and persevered.
For Brainmates Co-founder and CEO Adrienne Tan, the sixteenth of March was the day when everything changed. She still remembers everyone gathered in the office. A creeping sense of dread as clients contacted them to cancel training and in-person meetings.
“It was a very somber day,” Tan recalled. “We could tell there was a real shift in the environment.”
Just as jarring was the suddenness of it all since things had been going well right up until that fateful moment. “We had an amazing January and February, but March was decimated, and we were just stunned.”
But Tan and her team had no time to mourn or reflect. Brainmates was forced to spring into action immediately since they had a face-to-face meetup scheduled for that evening. They had to shift their product strategy. They scrambled and switched it to an online event on the fly.
“We had never run a meetup digitally. So one of the first things we did as a team that evening before going home was to run our first digital event with a few hundred people,” Tan recounted. “It was only the next day when we started trying to figure out how to rescue our business and our team.”
The COVID-19 outbreak drove the experience for Tan and Brainmates. But crisis management is an unfortunate part of any company’s lifecycle.
An invisible virus may not always be the instigator. Yet, how Tan handled the situation offers valuable lessons for other leaders who face a crisis. We’ve also explored resilient leadership with ProductPlan’s CEO, as well.
Assess and Defend
When things get turned upside down, leaders must take strong and decisive actions. But before they get too far, they first need a solid understanding of where things stand.
For Tan, that meant shifting her attention from innovative product leadership to financial analysis.
“The first thing we had to do was be defensive,” Tan said. “I started to plan out our cash to understand where we were economical.”
Tan also realized that navigating this crisis required her to focus fully on the business itself. Thus, she began delegating her consulting-focused client interactions to the rest of the team.
“My role was definitely more of a CEO role,” Tan said. “It was a clear decision to say hey, during this time, I won’t be a consultant. I’m going to have to take on that more focused leadership role, put a strategy in place to steer us out of this conundrum.”
But while her focus was on the bottom line, Tan didn’t completely change her “cheesy” personality. Instead, she structured her firm’s survival and rebound around three hashtags:
- Ensuring employee safety and helping them set up functional remote work arrangements. That includes raiding the office for chairs and monitors
- With a core commitment to retain the team and continue paying them, cash became a central concern to keep things afloat.
- Rebuilding the business for a new economic climate.
The most immediate change for Brainmates was delivering their training, workshops, and other events virtually.
“We were fortunate that we had clients who stuck with us and said ‘hey, we love the face-to-face training, but we’re prepared to go online,’” Tan said. “So we changed all our materials, and now we run our training remotely privately for clients as well as publicly, which is nice, but it’s been a massive shift.”
Investing in the Roadmap
Instinctually, when one encounters scarcity, there’s a natural tendency to hoard resources. While that’s a good strategy at the outset, sticking with that plan for long is also a recipe for long-term decline.
“Once you’ve done that initial check, once you understand where you sit as a business and once you understand what you can kind of manage in terms of cash, in terms of current revenues and costs, once you’ve done that, then it’s time to shift back to investment,” Tan said.
“OK, I’ve taken stock of my business and where my product is. What’s the path forward?” she continued. “I think that if you always stay in a point where I’m still holding onto my cash, I’m too worried to invest, that locks your mentality, that locks your business.”
So, after shifting Brainmates’ product strategy to a remote delivery model, Tan wasn’t content to stay in a holding pattern until conditions improved. Doing so might save a few dollars, but it would ultimately lead to the business fading into irrelevance as the market evolves and moves on from the pandemic mindset.
“There’s a seismic shift in your roadmap because you didn’t expect this thing to happen. ” Tan said, adding that “If you can see a path forward if you can project forward—and we have—I would continue to invest in your roadmap if you can.”
Investing in the Future
For Brainmates, the arrival of a new Chief Product Officer in April catalyzed looking toward the future and not just the present. Instead of postponing this expensive hire during a precarious financial period, they moved forward to shift their product strategy.
“If we didn’t invest and we didn’t put some of our revenue into future investments, it would be a challenging time trading out of this,” Tan said. “We wouldn’t have products for the new future, for the new consumer.”
Brainmates performs the same delicate balancing act that many other companies are attempting during this tumultuous time.
“We’ve got an eye on the existing product and making it better,” Tan said. “but we also have an eye on the future and bringing out new products to new customers.”
To hear more from Tan and how other leaders have piloted their product teams and companies and shift their product strategy through unexpected ups and downs, watch the entire webinar “Resilient Leadership During Challenging Times” for free now.
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