What To Do When You’re Backed Into A Corner (5 Strategic Keys to Capitalise on During Desperate Times)

Once upon a time, I had a vision of business victory. I drew a straight timeline of my (forecasted) success on a blank A4 paper.

That’s it, a straight line.

Never did I know that my visionary picture was not complete without various corners of setbacks. The simple straight line transformed itself into many chaotic abstract paths.

While success is what we desire, often a desperate situation precedes a great leap ahead. Just like pulling a catapult’s sling for a powerful shot, a painful stretch prepares for a strong comeback.

In this article, we will look at five strategic keys. I call these the ‘CoRNNR’ (read: corner) strategy for it is useful when we are backed into a corner.

The first three keys form the necessary elements. The fourth key is the most challenging one, and the final fifth key is the glue that will hold everything together.

CoRNNR strategy is being laser focused during a tough situation, for a powerful comeback. Coincidentally, setbacks, failures and crises provide fertile ground to discover, develop and strengthen our cornered business.

After all, a cornered army is a dangerous one.

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” — Sun Tzu

Core Strength

Pressures force us to switch on our survival instinct. We need to become our best selves to endure hardships. There is no time to muck around.

About a decade ago, we acquired our first business in mining industrial wholesaling. We supplied safety gears and industrial strength chemicals to workshops and factories.

Our business was operating in a highly competitive market with notoriously low margins. A few years into the business, several national players entered the market and started stealing some of our significant customers using aggressive pricing tactics.

It was a typical scenario of a small business getting bullied and squashed by large corporations. We were losing customers. We knew we had to compete differently from the major players to survive the onslaught.

And so we started to look at what we could do that our big competitors couldn’t.

It was undeniable that our smallish size meant we were more flexible and we could respond faster to our customer’s needs. Our large competitors had to comply with complicated operational procedures. We didn’t.

We then found out that a small number of engineering workshops around our area were not too concerned about prices. Instead, they preferred to work with vendors who could guarantee fast delivery of supplies when required. It was something our big, fat competitors had troubles fulfilling.

Upon this realization, we started to build our business around a simple strategy. It was the assurance of quality supplies with a fast delivery turnaround. We could do that because we were small, flexible, local, and highly motivated.

It became our core strength.

We found our unique competitive advantage, and it opened up a whole new opportunity for us. Our large competitors backed us into a corner, unknowingly positioned us at a unique vantage point. It enabled us to see how we could compete on our terms in a crowded market.

Key #1: Find a core strength that allows you to compete differently from your competitors.

Resources at Max

During the onslaught period, when the big players stole our vital customers, we suffered a severe cash flow problem. This situation got worse when the mining industry crashed at around the same time. Most of our customers were operating in the mining industry.

It was a double whammy.

The cash flow issue pushed us to become meticulous spenders. We learnt that we paid too much for several services such as broadband, landline, and mobile phones. We also found out that a lot of work our staffs were doing could be outsourced or automated (it’s cheaper that way).

It was amazing how much cash was bleeding through areas we could either switch to a different provider or stop altogether. We liked this exercise so much we decided to do it regularly. It was a responsible, well-thought cost-cutting.

Desperate times hurt businesses. Cash bleeds through different outlets. A regular cost-cutting exercise would keep our resources shipshape at maximum capacity and best return.

Key #2: Make sure your limited resources work as hard as possible for your strong comeback.

Niche Domination

So we knew how to compete differently, and our resources worked super hard to fuel our survival. It’s time to revisit the customers.

We had to let go of some customers who did not require the value we offered through our services. They were casualties of the price war.

We tried to focus our efforts and resources on a select group of premium customers (premium for us). We were confident that when we became good at something, we would naturally grow.

So we kept our eyes fixed on the chosen ones (read: customers).

What we didn’t realize back then was we stumbled upon a niche. A niche perfectly placed for our little business. In a nutshell, we matched what we could do best with the needs of a small corner of the market. It was not a big slice, but it was growing, slow but sure.

Difficult times propelled us forward through a unique path we would not find otherwise. We discovered a niche market big enough for us yet small enough to dominate. We knew we could compete comfortably against the big players because we found this niche through our unique competitive advantage.

Key #3: Use your core strength and revitalized resources to dominate your niche.

Nurture the Efficiency Seed

Our previous strategic keys can be summed up into “utilizing resources at maximum capacity to service a niche market that is a perfect fit for our unique core strength”. The final result is a highly focused, well-oiled, efficient business. The first three keys will integrate into one.

There is one small challenge, though. We can only build efficiency over time through patience and consistency. In short, it takes time, blood, sweat, and tears to perfect the efficiency engine.

It is, in essence, sowing and nurturing a seed; I call this the ‘efficiency seed’. This seed is the culmination of the previous strategic keys.

Nurturing efficiency is the most challenging part of CoRNNR strategy because we need to let go of everything else that does not contribute to servicing our niche customers. And that includes other potential customers, products, suppliers, and so on. We have to fight the temptation to try out different things. We must focus on what we can do best within the niche market that we have chosen utilizing our limited resources to the max.

Nevertheless, we will start to doubt ourselves.

But remember, we sow seeds in dark places, in obscurity where it is often cold and lonely. And it takes time to nurture them before they germinate and grow roots.

Similarly, we discover these strategic keys during tough circumstances. For only during desperate times that our perspective changes, forcing us to see pathways we would not consider before. People might misunderstand you and even mock you for your new focus, but it is important to keep playing to your strength and keep moving forward.

The next and crucial final key will help tie everything together in a beautiful little bow.

Key #4: You only become the best in your chosen niche market through focus, patience, consistency, and persistence.

Resilience to Prevail

Tough times demand resilience. We need to make a conscious effort to focus and power through. Resilience is the substance that holds everything together.

Resilience was there when large corporations squashed us. It was present when we scrambled through a cash flow problem. And it held us up when we decided to focus on servicing a small number of engineering workshops, leading to the discovery of our niche market.

Think of it as a mental muscle that strengthens your spirit whenever you feel defeated. Use it when it is difficult to take the next step. Use it also when certain people are trying to pull you down. And finally, use it when you are confused and lonely.

Now, the final twist to the CoRNNR strategy.

How do we develop our resilience muscle?

Well, there is no short cut. We can only develop resilience through desperate times.

Just like physical muscles, resilience muscle grows when it is stretched under heavy pressures. You can see how useful CoRNNR strategy is when we are backed into a corner. Because not only our perspective changes during difficult moments, our resilience also grows.

CoRNNR strategy is a full circle. It begins when the going gets tough and only when the going gets tough do we get to grow with it.

Key #5: Harsh circumstances build resilience, embrace these times for it is the precious resilience that will hold yourself (and your business) together.


Just to recap:

Key #1: Core Strength
Key #2: Resources at Max
Key #3: Niche Domination
Key #4: Nurture the Efficiency Seed
Key #5: Resilience to Prevail

I hope these five keys have been helpful.

Keep the momentum going and keep going strong.

“When you are backed into a corner, you can give up or you can use that corner as a stepping stone.” — Fredy Namdin

As published in The Startup: What To Do When You’re Backed Into A Corner

Why Real Goals Are Scary (And Impossible Goals Are Addictive)

“In two years, my business is going to expand nationwide,” I said to Rob, my good friend.

“Yeah, and how are you planning to do that?” Rob replied.

“Get good customers base, expand the product lines, hire salespersons.”

“You think it’s so easy? Your plan does not even sound convincing!”

“Well, it’s important to have a dream.”

“Yeah, keep dreaming.”


That conversation took place about seven years ago when Rob was still working for me in my wholesaling business in Australia. I did not end up growing nationwide. It was just a dream.

In all honesty, that dream was mainly comprised of unachievable ambitionsand insurmountable obstacles. I did not realise it then, but there were hidden motives behind my dream, behind my impossible goal.

I call them the Four Fears of Reality.

You see, it feels good to live in ‘potential’. It is a place to bask in the glory of our dream without having to worry about the rough roads to get there. We want to feel like we have already achieved that status, that wealth, that fame, that ‘potential’.

We love dreaming.

A dream is seductive and often addictive. But when reality hits, we realise it is just that, a dream. And we see how different it is from reality.

Are you ready to read more about it?

Fear of Responsibility

My seven years old daughter sometimes asked if she could fix things around the house. The latest one being our garden reticulation system. Of course, we said no. It was impossible for her to fix it.

The situation was different when I went to fix it myself. There was a real responsibility because I could do it. It was not easy, but it was possible.

When our goal is within reach, we have no excuse. It becomes a real goal. It becomes our responsibility.

We own it.

On the other hand, if we cannot even get close to our goal, how can we be held responsible?

Perhaps my impossible goal seven years ago was a reflection of my unconscious effort to avoid the heavy burden of responsibility?

Fear of Losing Face (this one is rather personal)

In Chinese culture, there is a saying: “Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.” This is a concept of face (mianzi). It can perhaps be most closely defined as “dignity” or “prestige”.

It is the utmost importance not to lose face because it is the same as losing dignity or prestige. And being a Chinese descendant, my parents had successfully embedded this mindset in my heart and soul.

What does it have to do with the impossible goal, you might ask.

In essence, when I fail to achieve an impossible goal, I don’t lose face. It is the perfect excuse. However, a real goal carries with it the power to make me lose face.

I cannot fail a real goal without losing my dignity.

And it scares me.

Perhaps my impossible goal seven years ago was a well-planned excuse to save face?

Fear of Real Work

When I set out to expand nationwide seven years ago, I also attempted to create an action plan. I studied my national competitors, learnt about products that would sell nationally, and tried to connect with the big players. All of those seemed like good ideas. I enjoyed every minute of it.

I learned then that those activities did not help me towards my goal. But they felt good. I felt like a big player myself. The goal itself was not real. And so all of my action steps were nothing but drops in the ocean.

I kept doing them though. I could not stop. I was addicted to my impossible goal and the feel-good activities I created along the way.

We tend to do things that do not contribute much to achieve our impossible goal. But we do them anyway because they feel good.

Remember, dreams are seductive and addictive. We want more of them, never enough, always more, and more.

All of these addictive dreams will disappear once the goal becomes a reality.

Real goals push away our addictive dreams, leaving us with boring daily grinds. Real goals produce real work, hard and stressful work. It is most definitely not addictive.

Perhaps my impossible goal seven years ago was for me to taste this pleasure of dreaming over and over again?

Fear of Real Change

Have you ever thought that an impossible goal often does not push you forward? In most cases, it does the opposite. It restrains you from moving forward.

I did not get anywhere while trying to expand nationwide. I did a lot of research, thinking, reading, and so on. But I stayed where I was.

I was too busy creating feel-good activities that led me nowhere.

Truthfully, I was scared of change. And my impossible goal helped me to stay put without feeling guilty. I convinced myself that I was moving forward. I was progressing in my mind. But in reality, I was not.

I was trapped in my own dream. Or rather, I trapped myself in my dream.

An impossible goal will move us around in our mind. Real goals bring with them concrete actions that yield results. Real goals will force us to move forward, in reality.

Perhaps my impossible goal seven years ago was me hiding behind my fear of change?


“Fred, you are still here,” Rob suddenly appeared at the door.

“Yes, I am still here,” I replied.

“I thought you would be conquering the country by now.”

“Haha. Well, that was two years ago. I am now into other things.”

“Such as?”

“Selling more safety gears to the workshop next door.”

“That sounds more promising, want me to come with you?”


If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. (Dale Carnegie)

As published in The Ascent: Why Real Goals Are Scary (And Impossible Goals Are Addictive)