Three Opportunities to Seize in the Downturn

110-anthony-tjan.jpgAnthony Tjan blogs about entrepreneurship and strategy at HarvardBusiness.org.

One of the most pernicious tendencies companies fall victim to in downturns is to focus on and project out near-term data points. The result? An inaccurate reflection of the future. The current extreme economic conditions only exacerbate this tendency.

So what can you do about it? The key to winning now is to focus on business basics. Real 101-type stuff. To again quote Warren Buffet, "In the short term the market behaves like a voting machine and in the long term it behaves like a weighing machine." In this economic climate, a company should focus on what makes any business great — superior cash flow and sustainable growth. This implies one of two solutions: a defensive survival position, or, if resources allow, being more aggressive on opportunities that will be rewarded in the long-run.

My business is venture and growth equity investing in smaller private companies. The entrepreneur and pragmatist in me suggests we bolster our strong performing companies, cut more aggressively on losing propositions, but continue to selectively invest in good opportunities. In this downturn, cash may have been promoted from king to God. If you have it, now is a time of opportunity. If you don't have it, now is the slap in the face reminder to get it. Our message to our companies therefore is to ensure sufficient cash on the balance sheet and cash flow generation. If that is in place, then we urge them to consider the opportunities emerging through recalibrations happening in the market.

I see three major resets continuing through 2009: talent, valuations, and competition.

First, consider talent. People everywhere are finding that their stock options are underwater and probably will remain so. This creates a window for a smaller growth company to get that experience at a discount through more aggressive use of head hunters and job marketing. There are also numerous good people who have been collateral victims to necessary cut backs, or even worse, company collapses. I often think of an accounting firm we work with that has become one of the largest regional players from its start as a very small local shop. How? By picking up the Arthur Andersen accounting talent after the Enron fiasco, they not only got good people, but the clients that came with those people.

Second -- the reset in the valuations of public and private companies creates a buyer's market. The rules around betting on fundamental strengths don't change, but there's a lot of quality that is now "on sale." If you have the cash, this is not a time to try and time the bottom -- such strategies usually fail -- but to look at this as an extended sale period in which you are not trying to get the very best price, just a very good price.

The third reset is closely related to the first two: In the fallout of any major economic upheaval, new winners and losers will appear. For stronger companies, now is a time to sharpen marketing messages and consider taking or building share while others competitors may not be in a position to do so. Even without acquisitions, businesses that can should step up and reinforce what makes them stand apart and why they are resilient in this market. Customers are more careful in their purchase decisions in these times — tell them why you deserve it.

Most of us will be subject to some macromyopia and will miss the exact bottom, but we should stay focused on what it will take to win the marathon and not this mile marker. For businesses owners and managers who are struggling, defend your position vigorously and do whatever it takes to preserve and generate more cash — surviving this period is worth at least a silver medal in the downturn. But if you have flexibility and resources, an eventual gold can come from some more offensive moves now while others are frozen. The answer is to not to go from irrational exuberance to irrational indifference. Naturally being macromyopic is forgivable, not recognizing that tendency and not acting on the appropriate measures within one's control, is less so.

For more analysis on recession strategy, visit HarvardBusiness.org's Downturn Survival Guide.

Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner, and Founder of Cue Ball, a venture and early growth equity firm investing in the information media and consumer sectors. He blogs about entrepreneurship and strategy at HarvardBusiness.org.

By HarvardBusiness.org Editors  |  February 24, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
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