Driftwood Group

Don’t Stall the Start-Up, or 4 Ways to Prevent a Crash n’ Burn


Remember this image?

It’s Tyler Durden’s Project Mayhem In-Flight Emergency Card from the movie Fight Club. I saw a framed print of it in a shop-front just a few days ago, and it reminded me of a discussion I’d been having with a client very recently…

The conversation centred around how you’d have to basically be mad to want to enter the dangerous world of the ‘Start-Up’.

We’ve all heard the stories of VC money evaporating faster than rain in Alice Springs, of founders ousted after their company goes public (anyone seen Andrew Mason…?), and of the Graveyard, where Start-Ups are buried on a daily basis.

Of course, said client is the Captain of a Start-Up, so far one that has evaded the Grim Reaper, kept the Burn Rate to an acceptable level and held on to that captain for the duration of the flight thus far. Let’s hope they make their destination!


So speaking of Flight, and of Start-Ups and of Mayhem, here are four ideas to help you on you rocket-powered Stratospheric trip to the moon and back…

1 – Keep an Eye on the Fuel Gauge

So you’re flying high, finally getting somewhere, up there in the blue sky, when you look down and discover you’ve run out of gas.

You can cruise along gently for ages running just on fumes, gliding when you can, taking advantage of all the uplifts along the journey, but one thing’s for certain – run out of fuel, and you’re going to crash into the sea (or mountain, or whatever).

Burn rate – it’s the killer.

Does every single employee need a new Macbook…no, probably not. Lamborghinis for the founder and friends? Same again. You spent WHAT on social media this month??? And so on…

It might sound ridiculous, but more Start-ups fail by not watching the burn rate than for any other reason.

And it doesn’t have to be about Laptops and Lambos – it can be unrealistic project timelines, undercapitalization, cashflow trouble, or a host of other money pits. Yes, you will need some sort of Burn Rate, otherwise nothing will happen. But you need to keep your eye on it.

If you run out of funds, there goes the Start-Up. Run low, run lean, do what you have to do to get by, but watch like a hawk. No one is going to find out how outstanding your new product or idea is if you don’t exist long enough to see it to market.

So watch the Burn Rate and keep your eye on the fuel gauge.

2 – Keep the Values Light on for the Duration of the Flight

We often discuss “Values” with our clients. Those Values define why you’re different from the rest. How you shine while others grow dim. It’s why people want to work with you, help fund you and also why people out there want to buy what you’re offering. Those Values should propel the entire starship.

Problem is, when you go from garage to high-rise office, these Values often get left in the lift.

For some reason, what started out as a noble cause, a cheeky, quirky innovation-incubator, with a good dose of self-deprecation and humour to boot, morphs into a ‘corporation’, with beancounting, bureaucracy, and business-babble at the core. Founders get bogged down in the minutae of keeping the doors open, staff become disillusioned that their once-accessible leader is now behind a closed door with the bankers, the light grows dim.

Keep those Values close – they make you want to keep flying, and they make your staff want to get out of bed early and come fly with you. But most importantly, they make you appear on the commercial radar as someone to watch – someone designing a modern workplace, determining the future of how work is done, showing the others where they’re going wrong.

Don’t forget it’s those Values which stopped the business breaking up during take-off – before you reached cruising altitude – so keep the values light on for the duration of the flight.

3 – Stick to the Flightpath, Even if you have to Avoid the Odd Stormcell

You started out with a vision, and a mission to change something. It doesn’t matter if you started in your spare bedroom, or a shed, or a café. What is important is you had a vision.

Then you took off, and you’ve been hanging on for dear life ever since.

Every business has its ups and downs (have you read the financial news recently?)

It’s how you avoid the storm (or weather it) that counts. Some fly straight into the eye of the storm only to crash and burn. Some divert to a new course – this can work, but you won’t be the same when you do it, and by the time the change is made, chances are you’re already too late.

Stick to your vision, and fly as straight and true to it as you can. There will be challenges, and changes, and turbulence – bits of your ship might even fall off mid-flight! But if you stick to your intended course, navigate through the storms as best you can, and remain calm onboard, you may just make it.

So stick to your flightpath if you want to reach your destination.

4 – Autopilot’s for Airliners

How many commercial airlines does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer = Two. One to hold the seat, and the other to charge you extra for it.

Yet many of them can barely turn a profit to save themselves.

And you know what? They LOVE autopilot.

But for the taxi, take-off and landing (and even these bits are going the way of the dodo), those pilots up the front switch on the autopilot, kick back and enjoy the coffee – for pretty much the whole flight. I think the corporate office does the same. Save for the Southwests and Ryanairs, who reinvented airtravel for the masses, most just continue along on autopilot – when was the last time you were truly inspired by an airline?

Leave the autopilot alone. This is a fighter jet you’re in, not a lumbering flying bus! And you’re the Captain, so you need to actually ‘fly’ it. Believe in all those things you set out to do. Package all that stuff up and hand it out to your staff, encourage their creativity and innovation, and their drive to follow you into the Stratosphere. They’ll leave if you don’t.

Autopilot’s for sissies. You’re a Captain – act like one!


Now sit back, relax and enjoy your flight.



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Alex Kelly

Alex Kelly

Alex is a Director at Driftwood Group | Occasional Recruiter | Amateur Wordsmith | Career Interventionist