Lessons from Google and the GFC: Six crisis survival tips from :Different co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan

Mina Radhakrishnan

:Different co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan. Source: supplied.

Back in 2008, Mina Radhakrishnan had been in her new role at Google for a matter of months, when the global financial crisis hit. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing economic chaos around the world, she’s heading up her own property tech startup :Different, and tackling a whole new crisis from a whole new perspective.

When Radhakrishnan joined Google, it wasn’t exactly a fledgling startup operating out of a garage. The tech Goliath already had something like 20,000 employees.

But still, a big part of the compensation package was equity in the company.

When Radhakrishnan joined, “the stock price was at an all-time high of Google history”, she tells SmartCompany.

“About six months later, none of that was worth anything,” she recalls.

However, the company adjusted the value of employees’ shares to match the lower share price, meaning they would still be able to benefit from increases in the future.

“That’s not an easy decision for leadership to make for tens of thousands of people,” Radhakrishnan says.

“Even as quite a junior employee at Google at the time, for me personally, it felt like that was something that I really appreciated,” she explains.

“It has always stuck with me.”

Leadership lessons

Now, while Radhakrishnan may not have 20,000 employees or a listed company, she is guiding proptech startup :Different, which she co-founded with her husband Ruwin Perera back in 2017, through the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

As a tech-enabled real estate agency, the tricky thing for :Different has been adhering to the new rules than ban house inspections.

“We had to completely re-map the approach that we take,” she says.

“We’ve done virtual inspections.”

But, first and foremost, :Different is a tech company, she says. And right from the start, she’s been focused on finding new and innovative ways to provide real estate services at scale.

Moving online is the reality for everyone now — clients included.

“Now, they have no choice but to do things on their phones … it’s a requirement,” she notes.

“We’ve been really well set up to handle those kinds of things.”

At the same time, as the leader of a tech company at this time, Radhakrishnan feels some additional responsibility to her workforce.

She’s been able to keep everyone employed, and working from home.

One new hire was supposed to migrate to Australia to start his new job, but wasn’t able to make the move.

“He’s in a completely different country, and we’re still able to run our business,” she says.

She’s certainly feeling the pressure more now than when she went through her first crisis as an employee at Google.

“The things that I worry about are not just about myself. They’re about all the people that I employ and that I personally have committed to creating a future and a career for,” she says.

“That’s the thing that I think changes the approach, and how I look at the current situation.”

As a veteran of the US tech scene, a founder herself and startup advisor and mentor, Radhakrishnan is no stranger to a challenge.

This is the advice she has for founders negotiating leadership at the time of COVID-19.

Don’t stop hustling

While things are difficult right now, this crisis won’t last forever. The Australian tech ecosystem is relatively new, especially when compared to somewhere such as San Francisco.

“San Francisco has been through this several times over, on a large scale,” Radhakrishnan points out.

“They’ve seen great companies come out of that.”

Neither startups seeking investment or investors seeking opportunities should necessarily be put off by the current environment.

“There is a sense of fear when it comes to investment, which I understand,” Radhakrishnan says.

“But venture capital is a long-term investment.”

What is important is for investors to base their decisions on “fundamental truths and reality” of an individual business, and what they stand for in the long term.

“This is an opportunity for investors to be able to make decisions about companies they think are going to be well-positioned to come through it, and to come out in a good position.”

Batten down the hatches

It’s also important to reconsider the way you run your business, Radhakrishnan advises.

“Obviously there’s going to be major impacts on your ability to burn cash, and to be able to continue to pay your employees and manage the cash that you have on hand,” she notes.

This is especially true of startups that are backed by venture capital, and may not have reached profitability yet.

“Batten down the hatches,” Radhakrishnan says.

“If you can’t be here tomorrow then there’s no point in thinking about where you could be in two years.”

The situation is likely different for different startups, and obviously depends heavily on the industry you’re working in.

But, founders should not underestimate what the effects of the crisis could be.

“You have to be in a position to ride it out, which means you can’t spend cash irrationally, you can’t be so optimistic that you think nothing will change.”

Get creative

At the same time, there is room for a little creativity here.

Founders should be willing to adapt their business and “think about the possibilities for growth even in a tough situation”, Radhakrishnan explains.

“You have to be able to continue to work through today and tomorrow,” she says.

“But, at the same time, there are times to be creative and opportunistic.

“Is there a way to grow your company and find a way to work through the challenges that you have been presented?”

Know your strengths

Again, Radhakrishnan stresses that every startup will be affected by this crisis in a slightly different way. And taking an individual approach to your response will be an important part of survival.

“Some businesses make the mistake of looking at a situation from a generic perspective, and it looks terrible,” she says.

“Every company has to understand for themselves specifically where are the areas this is going to have a major impact, and where are the areas where this is not going to have a major impact.”

Leaders should take a “specific and individual” approach, considering implications for the specific business and operations, Radhakrishnan advises.

Data, data, data

You can’t tidy up a mess if you can’t see where it is.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Radhakrishnan says.

“If you haven’t had a data-driven and a metrics-driven approach to how you run the business, this is definitely the time to start.”

When you’re a business leader considering major decisions, such as which parts of the business are critical and which can be suspended, “you have to make sure you’re coming at it from a numerical standpoint.”

It’s important to understand the core metrics that determine the success and the strength of the business, she explains, and the effect the COVID-19 crisis could have on those metrics.

“You want to make sure that you have those numbers at your fingertips … so that you can feel confident.”

Room for optimism

Finally, Radhakrishnan says one of the things startup investors love most about founders is one of the things they hate the most too.

“They’re really optimistic.

“But, I don’t think that you can be a founder without being optimistic,” she says.

“Why would you give up a stable job that you could probably find anywhere else, and that you’re probably really good at, to go and do something that’s high stakes and with incredibly high uncertainty?

“It’s because they believe they can overcome the odds.”

Nobody invests in pessimists, Radhakrishnan explains. So, while founders have to be “rationally optimistic”, the key is still, fundamentally, optimism.

“I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind.”

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