A polar bear exploring icebergs

What do you do when you get stuck? Eight lessons from The Terror.

leadership planning risk strategy Feb 01, 2022

One of the stranger series to cross our screens is HBO’s The Terror. It is a fictional retelling of the famous 1845 Franklin expedition to find the North West Passage. Two of the Royal Navy’s most technologically advanced ships were sent to do battle with the arctic ice and find a potential short cut to China. Both ships disappeared without trace and were not seen again until 2016, when divers located the wrecks. A note left on King William Island said the ships had been trapped by the ice for two years and then abandoned. No survivors were ever found.

The fictional story imagines what might have happened, and throws in some things that definitely didn’t. Like the appearance of a giant supernatural polar bear determined to hunt down the crew to restore cosmic balance. Above all, the story is a tense psychological anatomy of people under pressure when things go badly wrong.

As such, it makes perfect viewing for any founder who faces the risk of their own technological marvel getting stuck. This is all too common. According to CB Insights, 67% of start-ups stall during the fundraising process. They fail to exit or raise follow-on funding. Usually the reason for this is because growth has stalled. Most companies can expect to experience a stall in sales or revenue at some point in their existence. One major study found 87% of Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies had experienced a stall. Sales collapsed almost overnight. They often occurred right after periods of record sales growth. Only 10% of companies were able to recover from a major stall point.

Founders of start-ups and small businesses need to be wary. You may be flying along, sailing in blue oceans for months. The warning sign is a change in the prevailing conditions, when the competitive currents against you become stronger and the hazards noticeably greater. You may still be able to navigate your way around floating pack ice, but be aware, it is only likely to worsen. You could soon sail your business straight into an ice sheet that locks you firmly in its death grip.

It’s no fun being in a business that has stalled. Still, as The Terror shows us, some decisions are better than others. 

The first is not to go for broke. When Franklin saw worsening conditions he ignored expert advice and gambled that things would get better. They would prevail thanks to the providence of their glorious mission. They didn’t and everyone died. So when your business looks like it is entering choppy waters, don’t risk everything. It is better to retreat and survive, where you can regroup, refit, and try again. Or pivot to a different path. If you are uncertain of how serious the conditions really are, then listen to advisors who have been there before and know the perils.

When you are stuck, don’t make things worse by antagonising beasts that are better suited to survive in the wilderness you find yourself in. Franklin inadvertently antagonises the local Eskimos, which enrages a supernatural polar bear.  It is natural to strike out and pick a fight when you are desperate. Resist the temptation. Think about the implications of the stall for your strategy and the future direction of your business. Focus on reallocating resources and plotting a new path. Don’t get caught up in damaging tactical fights that will only distract you from finding this new course. Low hanging fruit are enticing to a starving man. But if the act of grasping them causes him to leave a place a shelter to which he can’t return, or a fall that breaks his neck, then that fruit isn’t worth having.

Show leadership. Franklin trusted to God and deferred urgent decisions, such as making an early attempt to seek rescue. Your staff will be looking to you. Of course you can put on a brave face, but no one appreciates blind or misplaced optimism. They would rather you were honest. Everyone should be mobilised in getting you out of trouble. This will mean making a series of tough decisions and being more decisive than ever. It may push you out of your comfort zone, but this is what leaders do.

Get help early. Don’t wait for the ice to melt. A difficult market is not suddenly going to improve. You need to make things happen while you still can. There are points of no return. By the time Franklin’s ships were finally abandoned, the men had neither the food nor the energy to reach safety. Don’t be proud and let your business reach such a point. Look at every option you can, whether it be with banks, new investors, partners or potential acquirers. Get advice from people you trust. They will probably have options you are not aware of.

Get rid of troublemakers. You are unlikely to have a murderous psychopath like Mr Hickey on your payroll. But you may have staff better suited to performing in calmer waters. If there are doom mongers or people who disrupt the rest of your crew, you have to get rid of them early. Sir Ernst Shackleton worked marvels when his Endeavour expedition stuck fast in the Antarctic in 1912, moving the worst troublemakers into his tent to shield others. It sounds inspirational, but you won’t have the time or energy for this. So act fast or morale will plummet. Your bigger responsibility is to keep the core staff who are going to get you out of the trouble, both focused and motivated.

Keep feeding your staff. The crews of the The Terror and Erebus had to reduce rations over time, especially as that pesky polar bear had chased off any game. You will need to quickly bring your burn rate under control to give you as much runway as possible. It is better to rightsize your business and keep those that remain on three quarter rations rather than starving everyone. Try to get the business model rebalanced. Avoid the temptation to pay people in equity. That is like the tinned meats Franklin’s crew were forced to eat, which gave them lead poisoning. Equity does not pay bills and only nourishes when there is a prospect of its value being realised. Staff with too much equity can resent being tethered to a sinking ship. And if your repurposing does work, you will want the equity back.

Keep analysing. One of Franklin’s men, the anatomist Mr Goodsir, was one step ahead of everyone because he was constantly analysing their situation. This is exactly what you need to do. Set emotions aside and coolly dissect what has happened and why. Only through an accurate diagnosis of your predicament can you hope to find a cure. At any given moment, businesses form a ‘dynamic state’ within their market. You need to accurately understand both, so you can reconfigure and try to reignite growth.

Fortunately most founders today have created businesses with agile principles at their core and a data-driven early warning system. You can detect potential stall points before they happen and act quickly and decisively to avoid them. If you don’t have either of these, you may want to consider them.

In the meantime do watch The Terror. For the learnings. For the dramatic pleasure. And for the reassurance that if things go wrong in your business, you are unlikely to have to worry about a supernatural polar bear trying to eat you.


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