It’s happened to the best of us. Things are going great, sales are up, profits are up. And then… POOF. Something that has nothing to do with your business sparks a seemingly uncontrollable collapse of everything you’ve built (I’m looking at you, COVID). Overnight, sales drop off, your customers stop contacting you, expenses are eating up any cash reserves that you had squirrelled away, and your team is looking beaten down and disheveled like they’ve just been to battle with a hoard of zombies. You think, “No biggie, just a temporary setback. We’ll make it up next week.” And then the long and ugly days turn into long and ugly weeks.

These are the times that we as entrepreneurs have nightmares about and hope it never happens to us. But it does and, if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. What do you do when your business suddenly bursts into flames and becomes the dumpster fire that you never thought could happen?

Step away from the flames

It may be counterintuitive, but DON’T RUSH INTO THE FIRE just yet. Take a step back, breathe, and assess the realities of the situation. We humans instinctively react to fear. It’s what kept our cave dwelling ancestors alive. Our amygdala signals a release of various hormones that send the body into “fight or flight” mode. Muscles tense, the heart rate increases, the senses become hyperaware of everything, the logical thoughts in our brain move into the background so the instinctual triggers can work without a delayed response, and our body prepares itself for a life or death battle. Basically, in less than a second, we revert from our classy civilized selves back to the caveman life.

This split-second Captain Caveman transformation is a good thing… when you’re cornered by a sabretooth tiger or standing in the way of stampeding wooly mammoths. When you’re trying to keep your business alive, though, giving into those fear-based reactions is the worst thing you can do. Quick decisions grounded in desperation are rarely good decisions. Instead, unplug for a few minutes and just breathe. Your greatest task in this moment is to convince your brain and your body that this is not, in fact, a potentially fatal situation. This is not a sprint, it’s going to be a marathon. When you do this, you’re allowing those logical thoughts to come back to the forefront and giving yourself the opportunity to make better decisions.

What started the fire?

Now that you have your logical brain working again, it’s time to figure out what has gone wrong. Is this an internal or external problem? If it’s internal, your top priority is to dig deep and find the true source. Why did your lead counts suddenly drop? When did this start? Did your best search engine marketing campaign just get shut down? What is it that caused this dumpster fire?

If it’s an external problem (once again, looking right at you, COVID), focus on what parts of your business are being directly affected. Maybe you still have the leads, but they can’t afford your product/service. Did your lead counts drop? Try to figure out why. For example, maybe potential clients aren’t seeing the value of your business right now. Whatever the cause, you can’t create a solution until you discover the problem.

OK, so you have your caveman emotions in check and you’ve gotten down to the root cause of what went wrong. Now it’s time to step up and lead your team.

Active communication is the key

Emotions are contagious. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re laughing and joking with a group of friends, pay attention to what happens when someone comes into the conversation talking about what a bad day they’ve had. Everyone in the group will probably stifle their laughter a bit, smiles will start to disappear and before you know it, that light happy mood has been sucked out of the room.

It’s your responsibility to lead your team through the firefight, so it is your duty to get your emotions in check. When you talk to your team about what’s happening with the business, they’ll quickly pick up on your frantic desperation. That triggers their frantic desperation, and then you have a group of people that have lost their ability to think. When you talk to your team, be sure you exude an aura of confidence. Yes, things are looking pretty bad. No, we’re not out of options to make it better.

Now more than ever, your team needs transparency on your part. There’s no point in telling them that everything is great. A ship’s captain can’t tell the crew that the boat isn’t taking on water when everyone is standing knee deep in it. They know your business, and they know that things aren’t good. Be honest with them about that but be prepared to answer questions and offer solutions.

It’s important to keep open communication with your team on a normal day (whatever that is), but right now it is vital to the survival of your business. You may be the person that’s supposed to know everything and have the answer to every problem, but your team members are on the front lines of your business all day, every day. You have a great “big picture” view, but they know the tiny little details inside and out. Now is the time to keep a roundtable discussion going, because someone is going to say something that gives you the solution your business needs.

Make it a controlled burn

We’ve all seen how the forestry service manages a controlled burn on a small patch of land. They’ll create various firewalls to keep the flames from spreading, and limit the intensity of the flame’s center to keep it from becoming too destructive. When our dumpster fire starts to get out of control, we have to create firewalls within our business to prevent total destruction.

First, check your funds. Given what you know about your business’ fixed monthly expenses, how far can your current bank account carry you? Once you know how long you can last if you don’t bring in another dollar of income, you have a timeline to work with. Now, see how far out you can stretch that timeline.

Dive into your budget and start picking out any expenses that aren’t necessary (we all have them, no judgement). Every dime counts here, so look for even the smallest little subtractions. In your online banking portal, look for the things that are set to autopay… These are the “set it and forget it” bills that you may not even remember signing up for. For example, I once had a client that had a Netflix account paid for by the business — they set it up over a year ago as a free trial to watch a documentary on their industry, and forgot to cancel.

Tighten down on your monthly expenses as much as you can without physically hurting your team. You can’t have them working with no power or water, but they don’t really need the SiriusXM service to be productive. The one part of your budget that you DON’T want to scale back is your marketing. You can — and should — make adjustments, but don’t take money away from it unless there’s no other option. Spend some time analyzing your campaigns, cut what isn’t working and redirect that money into the campaigns that are producing those life saving leads.

The more you can cut out the wasteful parts of your budget, the farther you can stretch that doomsday timeline and the longer you have to fix the problem.

How do you eat an elephant?

A long time ago when I was working in retail management, I was given the responsibility of opening a new store for the company. It went bad… really bad, really fast. Trucks were late, employees didn’t show up, the building wasn’t finished, etc. My anxiety hit an all-time high, and I knew there was no way I’d get this store open in time. My boss, an older gentleman that always had a Zen like calm, sat me down and gave me the best advice of my life.

In his quiet tone, arms folded over his chest, he asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” With everything going on and riding a speeding train to failure, I thought this was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard.

The answer? “One little bite at a time.”

It’s natural for us to get overwhelmed by the big picture. Our mind sees the negative, then sees more negative, and then exaggerates the possible outcomes. When we’re lost in a forest, we can lose the path out simply because we’ve become intimidated by the size and number of the trees.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything that’s going wrong, mindfulness will help you get through it. Focus on one little problem at a time. Solve it and move on to the next. One foot in front of the other. By breaking those giant problems down into smaller ones, you’re creating a very doable action plan. Just as important, with each little problem you solve, you and your team will feel that sense of accomplishment and can begin to rebuild that strong morale you need to survive.

Be sure to celebrate each of these accomplishments with your team. You are their greatest cheerleader, and it’s up to you to keep them motivated. And with every step you take toward extinguishing that dumpster fire, remind them (and yourself):

How do you eat an elephant? One little bite at a time.