I recently picked up Made in Japan, the story of Sony. When you think of Sony, I bet PlayStation or the Walkman first comes to mind, but Sony is involved in a ton of industries. Much of what inspired Steve Jobs at Apple actually came from Sony—right down to his iconic turtleneck.
You might not be aware that Sony started immediately after World War II, in a bombed-out factory at the heart of Tokyo, when the city was not much more than rubble piles. Sony’s very first product wasn’t even a product, but a service to help repair fellow citizens’ radios, which the Japanese government had damaged during the war to control the airwaves.
Sony continued under the principle of creating great Japanese products, which guided them through many iterations until they finally put out some hugely successful innovations. The rest is history. Sony has been building for more than 75 years and is one of the 100 largest companies in the world.
Not to go all doomsday on you, but I logged into my library app recently, and all the top books were about World War II. The era we’re living in right now is different from anything we’ve seen in a long time. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation in Ukraine, there is enough uncertainty circulating that people are wondering what happened the last time the world turned upside down.
At Interact, we’ve been through quite a few rounds of uncertainty. The initial founding of the company was in 2008, when two of our chief executives were beginning their careers and had to find a way to get by during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Then, once the company started, we went through the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, which cast a very negative shadow on quizzes for marketing. Not too long after, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a huge scare; people were apprehensive about data, and our growth stalled.
Now we’re in another tumultuous time, and the principles we learned through the previous rounds of struggle are ringing truer than ever. So, here are the four principles of building through uncertain times.
1. Maintain a direct line to your customers
Nothing is more valuable than this. When uncertainty strikes and “the norm” goes out the window, you need to know what is going on with your customers to best serve them. If you rely on old knowledge or patterns, but everything is changing, you might be unhelpful in the new world in which your customers live.
Staying connected to your customers also helps relieve some of the stress of not knowing what will happen. Even if your customers’ needs change, you can remain helpful, which will mean more stability in your business since you can introduce new products and offerings if needs shift suddenly.
2. Be adaptable to changing needs
Sony started as a bunch of super senior engineers repairing radios. Not exactly what we’d consider a “sexy” startup. But, they found a way to introduce a desperately needed service at the time. You can’t always do the coolest or most exciting thing during changing times. Sometimes you just have to adapt to what is needed at that moment.
This is a mindset shift. In stable times, it’s prudent to think long-term and commit to projects that could take a while to pan out. That’s still true when uncertainty comes about, but you have to balance it with a dose of adaptability in case demand dries and you need to find solutions to get through the hard times.
3. Loosen your expectations
Happiness is the difference between expectations and reality. Going into uncertain times, the biggest cause of failure is expecting everything to proceed normally. But there is no “normal” when everything is up in the air. We’ve recently seen this in the public markets: companies getting hammered and missing expectations, which leads to even more panic. But if you loosen your idea of what “normal” is, it’s much easier to stomach the changes.
For founders, we give up not because we’ve missed growth goals or struggled with a product; we give up because we get tired. It’s exhausting to ride the roller coaster of hoping for goals and then missing them because the world is changing. Letting expectations fall more loosely reduces the mental toll of uncertainty.
4. Focus on making rather than fear
“Doom Scrolling” is so easy when there’s uncertainty. Humans are hardwired to hate uncertainty, according to The Guardian. Our stress peaks when we don’t know what is going to happen. First the pandemic and now world chaos have made it clear that our futures and livelihoods are entirely unpredictable. That’s stressful—don’t get me wrong—but the more we focus on how stressful it is, the more we’ll live in fear.
The people who continue to build and adapt through uncertain times are the ones who focus on creating. They focus on what their skills and talents can do for the world, then spend their time and energy on those things. Of course, I believe we shouldn’t just ignore the world’s problems, that everyone should play their part when possible, but in the events where people have no control, those who persist and build through tumult are the ones who focus on making.
Be like Sony. In uncertain times, there is nothing you can do to know the future. Instead of obsessing over stability, Sony found what the world needed and focused on delivering it. In the end, it was a very positive outcome for them, and they were able to benefit others through the process.
No one likes uncertainty, and it will always be painful, but following the above four principles can help make the chaos more bearable and less stressful.