Business Library

Everything I Know about Surviving the Recession I Learned from Tom Hanks

John Favalo - Managing Partner | Eric Mower and Associates (EMA)

While the business environment is considerably more difficult than usual, it could be worse; it could be a matter of survival. Consider Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and what he faced as an overweight, citified American stranded on a deserted island.

At EMA we created a Cast Away “lack-of-hope” scenario as an exercise for a client in the residential/commercial construction industry to brainstorm ideas for generating incremental revenue without spending incremental dollars.
However, you needn’t be in the construction business to learn from Tom. Put yourself in Tom’s shoes: Your plane goes down in a violent storm; everyone is lost but you; and you’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your clothes and FedEx boxes.

The way that Tom lived through hardship – and made it back – provides us with a great model for surviving this recession and moving ahead.

Face reality and move on.
Make a brutally frank assessment; accept the facts; and shift quickly to survival mode. Tom didn’t dwell on the negative because giving up, despite the odds, wasn’t an option.

See the world differently.
Accept a new reality: It’s not business-as-usual anymore. Same-old, same-old won’t work. Tom created a new vision for his life, recalibrated his goals and made progress daily.

Concentrate on the “must dos.”
Finding food, making clothes, building a fire work on a deserted island. But the Harvard Business Review (February 2009) suggests what works now: maximizing cash position, managing customer credit tightly, aggressively managing working capital, reducing costs, increasing efficiency, re-evaluating product mix and pricing strategies, reining in planned investments, considering selling assets, and managing the top and bottom lines. Tom had to “make do.” So when he realized that he hadn’t explored everything he had (he didn’t immediately open the FedEx boxes that washed ashore), he found ways that would have mitigated some difficulties. Be sure to look in all the “boxes” around you, and reinvent, use, reuse and repurpose.

Learn new skills.
Remember that in facing a new paradigm, all the knowledge you’ve collected may no longer apply – or maybe not in the same way. Don’t rely on convention. Be eager to learn and introduce new ways. Tom had to figure out how to hunt, sew, navigate and more. Figure out what you need to learn and do it.

Find friends and partners.
You don’t have to do it alone. Tom, the only human on the island, created a friend, Wilson, from a volleyball, which provided companionship and sanity. Look for your Wilsons in your sales channels, among companies like yours that aren’t your competition, in technology partners, etc. Look for ways to partner, to develop new and unique offerings that are economical and easier to access. Multiply your capabilities and resources without the attendant costs. Collaborate and evaluate, but be prepared to let a friend go when it’s time, just as Tom did with Wilson.

Deal with opportunities and emergencies quickly.
Things happen in a blink. The right opportunity can pass or minor trouble can balloon in no time. Don’t take long for objective assessment. Gather up your best and brightest by phone, by video, by tomorrow. Sketch scenarios around options, weigh the circumstances, the investment and the upside/downside and take appropriate risks. When the weather looked right, Tom launched his raft. He faced setbacks but continued to balance risk/reward until he broke free.

Identify your greatest threat.
Is your company or marketing strategy particularly vulnerable to a competitive salvo? Don’t assume that in severe downturns everyone stays the course and remains quiet. What would you do if a key adversary suddenly announced a new pricing strategy that disadvantaged your offering? What if your primary technology supplier recalled parts found only in your products? Make sure you look hard at the events that could have major strategic consequences and develop one or more game plans. The turbulent ocean was Tom’s biggest barrier, but he soon realized it was his only means of escape. As you review options, try flipping things upside down for a different, and possibly beneficial, perspective.

Use good guidance.
Tom scratched his days “in captivity” on a rock. Simple advice: Keep track of things. Employ the most appropriate and accessible metrics. Tom wasn’t a meteorologist, but he looked for patterns and timed them appropriately to plan, eat and sail away.

Don’t waste anything … live lean.
Unless you’re lucky, there’s no excess of resources. Condition yourself and your team to use everything, including the scraps. In many cultures, all animal parts are used: meat, bones, pelt, organs. And while that thought may be extreme, the concept is not. The only way to stretch a little is to use less every day.

Stay healthy, focused and determined to succeed and you will.
Tom’s castaway did all these things and survived. Do the same, physically, mentally and metaphorically. That’s why some 40 years ago, EMA’s CEO, Eric Mower, adopted the phrase “Press On” as the company’s operating attitude, based on a passage from an unknown author:

  • Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
  • Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
  • Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
  • Education alone will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
  • Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
  • Indeed, Press On. Had he not, the castaway would be exactly that


John Favalo is a 40-year veteran of advertising and marketing.