Responding to ‘Tough Times U’

When you choose to be in a startup, you’re enrolling in the school of tough times. My time as an entrepreneur has been no exception. Now on my third startup, I had a chance to reflect recently on some tough times from my first entrepreneurial experience.

Responding to tough times

Ray Kliewer passed away on July 11th, 2009. Ray was one of the cofounders in my first startup.

I first met Ray along with his management team in the spring of 2008 at the headquarters of the engineering company he started nearly 25 years earlier. The meeting was organized by my MBA classmate to present a new product idea to their group. Our hope was to explore a partnership with Ray and his team, which included son Jay Kliewer, knowing their strong reputation and expertise (environmental, health, and safety regulation compliance) in the business problem we were trying to solve.

Ray, Jay, and team were open to the exploring the idea of a partnership and not long after the first meeting we formally partnered to develop a new compliance reporting technology. The passing of Ray nearly a year after partnering was very challenging. During that tough time, I remember being impressed by Jay’s strength when he stepped up to run the company his father started nearly a quarter century earlier.

Around this same time, I recall reading The Breakthrough Company byKeith R. McFarland. In his book, McFarland talks about responding to adversity in the chapter titled “Graduating from Tough Times U.” He shares that:

“…[I]t is not the surviving of tough times that defines a breakthrough company; rather, a breakthrough company is defined by how it uses those tough times to adapt, learn, and redefine its thinking.” [1]

Observing how the company his father started rallied around Jay as a leader was a powerful thing to see. It’s been even more impressive to watch Jay live up to that responsibility by advancing the company into new opportunities and growth in subsequent years.

Partnership grows stronger

Thankfully, our year old startup had formal agreements in place to handle the loss of one of our founders. It’s now remarkable to look back and recognize that our preparation for the unexpected can be greatly attributed to Ray’s foresight and experience. Because of this prudence, our cofounder group was able to come together and stay focused on creating a business and, united as a team, we believed the best tribute to Ray would be continuing to build something valuable.

It’s because of this challenging time that it was possible to truly see the type of people I had partnered with. These are good people. As McFarland also observes:

“Nothing quite brings out the truth about one’s character like difficult times.” [1]

My first entrepreneurial experience was a chance to learn through “Tough Times U.” I’m very grateful for the opportunity to grow with an amazing team during that challenging time, and likewise, I’m so very lucky to have a wonderful team during my current startup experience.

Keith R. Mcfarland. The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers (New York: Crown Business, 2008), 189, 191.