Picture a rabbit on fire running at you. What would you do?
My Kansas wheat-farming parents did a controlled burn on their farmland several years ago. If you are not familiar with this land-management practice, you make sure the weather is just right; contact the county, the fire department and your neighbors; and have enough people, water, and fire extinguishers to make sure that the fire is controlled.
What was not in my parents’ plan was the rabbit that decided to migrate—and take the fire with it. Thanks to the urgency and good reflexes of all stakeholders involved—except, of course, the unfortunate rabbit—they kept the fire under control.
You could say that I was predisposed to a sense of urgency growing up in a farming family. When it’s harvest, it’s a race to get the wheat off the field before the next rain, the combine breaks, or an unknown occurs. This is also good training for closing an acquisition in a pandemic.
I focused on what I have learned about urgency because I imagine this year’s 40 Under Forty class has a strong sense of urgency, or they would not have made the list. Building on my urgency training from the farm, my experience at Cerner certainly increased my level of urgency. I can hear Neal Patterson’s voice saying, “Maria, when is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Today!” Even in a well-resourced environment like Cerner, our sense of urgency was almost always higher than our partners’ urgency because we had a strong sense of mission and not enough time.
From Cerner, I entered the startup world, where urgency is in every fiber of your body. Limited resources do not match the large dreams. At Orbis Biosciences, I often asked myself, “How can I increase our partner’s urgency to match our urgency?” Obviously, never putting yourself in an urgent situation is key. That is Common Sense 101. You need enough cash, clients, and time so you do not get yourself in a corner.
At key inflection points, like fundraising and exit, having multiple offers is an excellent strategy to create movement from your partners. However, this is much easier said than done. Getting everyone’s timing to line up is difficult. When you get a solid letter of intent, you run with it. The whole “bird in the hand” thing.
When Orbis received interest for acquisition, timelines started to extend. November turned to December which turned to March, and we all know what happened in March of 2020. I looked for ways to move faster. Voices from advisers said: “Time kills all deals” and “If my deal would have been one week later, it wouldn’t have happened.” I would respond, “Exactly! What else can I do to move this along?” You can return the ball with incredible speed, but when there are multiple players in the game, you cannot control how long the other side is going to look at the ball before they start running with it.
Strategies we employed included: always asking for target dates on next steps, involving an investment banker, showing up in person when e-mails and voicemails aren’t returned, looking ahead to what your partner needs next and having it ready, and generally going as fast as possible on the parts that we controlled.
By mid-March, my worries grew exponentially, just like the coronavirus. However, now the urgency was with both the buyer and seller, and everyone moved as quickly as possible. The pandemic posed unique challenges, like getting stock certificates from a New York vault when the city was in lockdown, having a key consultant get sick when you really needed his expertise, and homeschooling. The dreaded call came to postpone closing from March to April.
When you realize something you are deeply invested in can unravel, you look to what makes you grateful: your faith, your family, your health, and the opportunity to be running the race. Then, the deal closed on April 30, and our team celebrated with a toast on Zoom. Our urgency turned towards a successful integration.
Congratulations to this year’s 40 Under Forty class! I look forward to watching your careers and to learning from you. If you have any tricks on urgency, let me know, because I will always be looking for ways to make progress faster.
In the meantime, I will keep a fire extinguisher handy.