8. 6 Business Secrets I Learned from Being in New York City During the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

On September 11, 2001, I was in New York City during that horrible terrorist attack. I had a flight scheduled to leave JFK that morning. In this episode I’m going to share my story, and what I learned that has changed how I see the world and run my business.

I Was There

The Days Leading Up to 9/11

That Friday afternoon we were doing some sightseeing, and as we reached the revolving door of the tallest tower of the World Trade Center I wanted to go to the top. I’m always up for an adventure. However, my wife didn’t feel comfortable with that. She felt there was no way to get down if something bad happened. She said I was welcome to go up, but she and our daughter would be staying outside the building. So, we moved on and found another part of New York City to explore together. The streets were packed bumper to bumper with cars and the sidewalks were filled with people scurrying like ants in an ant farm.

The next day, Saturday, September 8, 2001, my wife and daughter flew back to our home in Arizona, where we lived at that time. I was scheduled to go home with them but extended my trip a few days to take care of some additional business. I rescheduled my flight for the morning of Tuesday, September 11.

I remember lying in the bed in my highrise hotel room on Monday night September 10, hearing an airplane fly by, and thinking to myself, “What would prevent an airplane from crashing into one of these buildings?”

September 11, 2001

While on the phone, my wife turned on the same news channel, and we watched together in horror as a second airplane crashed into the other Twin Tower at 9:03 a.m. Within 1 hour and 42 minutes of the first plane crashing, we had watched both of the Twin Towers collapse, just a few miles from where I was sitting in my hotel room.

At 9:25 a.m. the FAA closed all U.S. airspace to all civilian aircrafts, and flights had to make emergency landings around the country. For two unprecedented days, no civilian flights flew in America. The skies went quiet. Commercial flights did not resume until Thursday, September 13 but commercial flights to and from New York City were delayed even longer. For at least a full day after the attacks, even bridges and tunnels to and from Manhattan were closed to non-emergency traffic. Rental cars in the city became an incredibly scarce commodity.

I stayed in my hotel room in Manhattan for hours watching the worst terrorist attack in the history of humanity unfold with 2,997 fatalities, more than 25,000 injuries, and more than $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage.

Later that afternoon I went outside and walked the streets. I walked up the middle of one of the previously packed streets, without a single car or person around me. It was like a scene from the Twilight Zone. Eventually, I found a taxi and convinced him to take me as close to Ground Zero as he could go. My most vivid memory from that ride is of a fire truck covered with white ash.

In the early hours of September 12th, the train I needed resumed service. I was able to get out of New York City and go to New Jersey where my cousin Drexden Davis and his wife lived. I am so grateful for their hospitality during that crisis. My cousin had been on the tarmac of a New York City airport when the first plane hit. He and the other passengers were evacuated, and he rented a car and drove home. It was very lucky for me that he’d gotten one and was able to transfer it to me. The next day I started my drive to Chicago, which was the departure city for the second leg of my original flight home.

I remember thinking as I drove to Chicago that all I wanted was to get home to my family. Nothing else mattered. I am always amazed and embarrassed at how often crises are blessings that help us put our lives in perspective and focus on the things that truly matter. I was able to book a flight home in Chicago and finally make it to my family on Saturday, September 15.

Other Disasters I Have Witnessed

As I wrote about in a previous blog post, I was the CEO of a publicly-traded dotcom company when the dotcom bubble burst.

In 2014, I was in Thailand when the military launched a coup d’état, dissolved the government and the Senate, repealed parts of the constitution, took control of the media, declared martial law, and implemented a curfew.

My family and I were stuck in a horrible snowstorm that closed the highway during a road trip. All the hotels were full, and we were sheltered in a very generous church for the night.

In July 2019 I stayed in the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel for a conference. During that same week, there was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the hotel. At least 1 person died, 11 cases were confirmed, and there were 63 probable cases.

We are all now in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic that is wreaking havoc on many lives and organizations. More than 1 million people have already lost their lives to this coronavirus globally, tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, and unknown thousands of businesses have closed their doors permanently.

Those are just a few examples of the disasters, crises, and tectonic shifts I have seen. Maybe you shouldn’t hang around me.

9/11 and various other crisis situations I have been through have resulted in me seeing the world and business differently. I have tried to learn from these situations so that I can prevent or mitigate the negative effects of similar crises in the future.

Understanding Normalcy Bias in Business

I often travel with a “get home bag” so that I have the basic supplies I need to get home if I get stranded somewhere. To someone who has never been stranded, their normalcy bias might tell them my “get home bag” is unreasonable. However, because I have been stranded on multiple occasions, my normalcy bias is different and this “get home bag” is a wise and responsible risk-mitigation strategy for me.

As a business example, when I went back to school to get my MBA, a teacher taught us how business leaders should leverage debt to fuel growth. In that lesson, I don’t remember the teacher exploring the risk of leverage that the debt would add to the company. However, a leveraged company becomes a huge risk during an economic crisis such as the 2008 crash or our current global pandemic. When I lost a leveraged company during an economic crisis I learned the hard lesson that there is a huge risk to taking on debt.

I’m not saying we should never take debt. There are plenty of times when debt is the right choice. But we have to factor in that risk. Is the risk associated with that debt worth the benefit?

To someone who has only seen a growth economy and never seen a company lost to debt leverage, their normalcy bias might tell them that my concern about debt leverage is unreasonable. However, because I have lost a leveraged company, my normalcy bias is different, and carefully weighing the risk of debt leverage is a wise and responsible risk-mitigation strategy for me.

When businesses face tectonic shifts in the business landscape it is very normal for us to ignore or underestimate the severity of that tectonic shift, and its effect on our businesses. We often hear of businesses “doubling down” on a business strategy. Doubling down can be a great thing if we are doubling down on a tectonic shift opportunity that is proving successful right now. However, if we are doubling down on an old and ineffective strategy that used to work, but is being disrupted by a tectonic shift, that can be an almost certain recipe for disaster and a doubling of the crisis.

Sticking with the old, ineffective strategy and ignoring a tectonic shift is a great example of normalcy bias. Business history is littered with thousands of businesses that ignored tectonic shifts and lost market share or completely went out of business.

Normalcy Bias Causes Paralysis

1. When the Vesuvius volcano erupted the residents of Pompei watched for hours without evacuating.

2. As Hurricane Katrina approached, and the government pleaded with people to evacuate, thousands of people refused to leave their homes.

3. 70% of the 9/11 survivors stopped to talk to others after the plane hit but before they evacuated the building.

4. As the Titanic was sinking, people refused to evacuate because they underestimated the odds of the worst-case scenario. (source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normalcy_bias)

Preventing Normalcy Bias

During the September 11 terrorist attacks, not all of the hijacked planes caused the damage intended by the terrorists. On Flight 93, 46 minutes after the takeoff, 4 al-Quaeda terrorists stormed the cockpit. They intended to crash the plane into the U.S. Capitol Building. Some of the passengers and flight attendants learned from phone calls that other airplanes had been hijacked that morning and flown into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. As the passengers then sought to retake control of the plane from the hijackers, the hijackers crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania, rather than give up control of the plane. They were only 20 minutes’ flight time away from Washington. In that crash, 7 crew members and 33 passengers tragically lost their lives.

During the hijacking, the passengers and crew members realized quickly that they were in the middle of a crisis situation. They acted rapidly and decisively to mitigate the damage, made the best of a very difficult situation, and saved many lives.

In my business career, I’ve been blessed to hit some home runs. However, the strategies used for each of these home runs were different. I did not use the same strategy twice to hit different home runs. The common denominator is that we found a tectonic shift that was changing the business landscape for that business, and we quickly leveraged that tectonic shift to accelerate growth and leapfrog over established competitors.

In the book I am writing, I talk about tectonic shifts that are happening right now and how to leverage those tectonic shifts to leapfrog competitors. It is critical that entrepreneurs and business leaders leverage these tectonic shifts today to drive growth and protect their businesses. However, tectonic shifts this year will likely become common business practices in future years. Then, new tectonic shifts will happen, and we will have to adjust to those as well. Furthermore, specific industries, geographic locations, and individual businesses will face their own unique tectonic shifts. The main point of the book is to teach us how to identify, leverage, and protect ourselves from tectonic shifts today and in the future. Great companies will even be able to create their own tectonic shifts.

We Must Innovate to Survive

“If you don’t innovate, you die”

– Gary Vaynerchuk, New York Times Bestselling Author

Fortune 500 companies are the largest corporations in the United States based on their revenue. When you compare the Fortune 500 companies of 1955 to the Fortune 500 companies of 2019 only 10.4% of the companies have stayed on that list (Source: AEI https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/only-52-us-companies-have-been-on-the-fortune-500-since-1955-thanks-to-the-creative-destruction-that-fuels-economic-prosperity/#:~:text=31%2C%202019).,started%20(see%20graphic%20above). Staying stagnant is not an option. These tectonic shifts will cause either growth or destruction. Innovation with tectonic shifts is one of the keys to ensuring our businesses continue to experiences growth.

Key Takeaways

1. When crises strike, as they will, instead of wallowing in our plight, we should focus on what matters most, such as our families and the monetization of our businesses (because revenue helps solve many of the business crises).

2. We shouldn’t wait for crises and disasters to strike and remind us to focus on the things that really matter in our lives and businesses. We should be doing that every day.

3. During a business disaster or crisis, we need to quickly identify what is happening, and immediately take action to create the best outcomes possible instead of sticking our heads in the sand and just hoping things get better.

4. We need to learn vicariously from the normalcy biases of others who have already “been-there-done-that” so we don’t have to learn the same tragic lessons for ourselves the hard way.

5. We must prepare so we are ready to respond to tectonic shifts. What is in our metaphorical “get home bags” that we can use to keep our businesses safe when we go through a crisis? Do we have a cash reserve, a stable recurring revenue stream, education about the newest trends in our industry, low expenses and leverage, a huge list of loyal customers who trust us, etc.?

6. Tectonic shifts are all around us, and they will continue to happen. These tectonic shifts will cause destruction or growth. In many cases, it is our choice based on how we prepare and respond. The difference between companies that fail and companies that thrive is often how we prepare for and respond to tectonic shifts.

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Nathan Gwilliam helps entrepreneurs and digital marketers transform into better digital monetizers with revolutionary marketing and monetization strategies.