Have you ever started a business venture that "should" have worked only to discover that forces beyond your control prevented success?
It's that project team that had all the right skills in the mix, the right product, even enthusiasm, but never seemed to gel.
It's that first business venture, when you got brave enough to strike out on your own and do what you were imminently qualified to do, but just couldn't quite connect with enough paying clients early on.
I see you wincing!
…I am doing it too.
The fact is that we can take all of the book knowledge in the world about what "should" work in business and still not manage to connect the dots sometimes. Smart, capable people close businesses every day and few ventures actually succeed over the long haul.
Why is that? you ask. (Then you shrug your shoulders and go try and shore up your own books against the possibility that success-stealing gremlins may lurk just outside the door.)
The truth is that some degree of failure is, for most of us, a necessary teacher in the school of life, business, and especially entrepreneurship.
There is a wonderful quote by Nelson Mandela that seems to come out of my mouth at cocktail parties.
"I do not fail. I either win or I learn."
So often we are awestruck by the bold, brash youngster who seems to have been making six figures since his first lemonade stand cornered the neighborhood market in the third grade. ... or we sheepishly listen to the braggart whose financial successes seem (to him) important enough to share in detail with colleagues who are struggling to establish themselves in a crowded field.
I am here to tell you that many of these folks were not born with an in the black balance sheet stapled to their umbilical cords, even though they may come across that way. They probably struggled in the beginning like most of us do, even if they don't readily admit it.
(This is why the authenticity of people like Richard Branson is so refreshing.)
To go into business with no fear of failure is foolhardy.
To never make a mistake is a matter of luck, something that runs out eventually.
What gets us to a point of succeeding is constantly learning, improving, and not giving up on ourselves.
When I made the decision to retire my first business, people questioned my decision to do so after five years, just as it was beginning to grow, but I knew that was not the brand that would lead to success in the long run and it was time to let it go. It was a tough decision, but it was the right one.
I soon began a much slower, more deliberate process of launching a new company, one grounded in the lessons of the first one but not tied to that business model or brand. I allowed myself time to be mindful about my planning, slower to make any public statements about what I was doing, and more accepting of a degree of experimentation. (It's going well. Thank you!)
This time it was easier, simpler, cleaner, and more attractive to clients.
So what do I know now that I didn't know then?
There are many, many things on this list, but here are three quick observations that may be helpful to budding consultants and entrepreneurs of all kinds.
1) Strategic planning is important, but without clear, actionable goals and metrics specifically tied to executing the strategy, it's not enough. I love strategy. High level strategy is fun and exciting. Envisioning success wrapped in a brightly colored blanket of corporate social responsibility and innovation leads many a budding entrepreneur to aimlessly wander down the yellow brick road until the money runs out— UNLESS… he or she does the hard part.
What's the hard part?
Cash flow projections, etc.
That's right! Even B-corps and nonprofits need cash.
No budget. No business.
Vision is really important, but absent the nuts and bolts of a viable business model, it's like the blueprints for a really great house for which there are no bricks. If you love your vision enough, you will find a way to feed it... by creating cash flow!
2) Timing is everything.
You can meet (and miss) the right client while you are still too green to confidently articulate your value proposition.
You can meet an opportunist when you are struggling to find your way and spend unnecessary fund for unneeded or ill-advised services.
You can stumble upon the right idea before the world is ready for it, or worse, after someone else has beaten you to the punch.
The trick is to have enough determination to stick it out and keep trying, learning, and adapting until the stars do align. Believe me. It happens, but not always when or how we expect it to.
How do we buy time while waiting for opportunity to knock?
We use our resources strategically, sparingly, and keep a safety net in case there are dry spells.
"That never happens to me!" you say?
Then before you do anything else, go buy a lottery ticket! (Get me one too, please!)
Seriously, if you are fortunate enough to get it right coming out of the starting gate, then it is important to squirrel away some working capital because the marketplace is fickle and cash in the bank buys you time to adjust when conditions change.
3) Embrace good fortune when it comes your way. I know people who are steeped in their own narratives of struggle that when something good happens, they wait for the other shoe to drop.
(I was even like that for a time, myself. ICK!)
"This is too good to be true," they say, when fortune smiles upon them.
Sadly, these same people begin to panic over anticipated losses and unwittingly self-sabotage, ending their winning streaks prematurely. In business, we can't afford to sabotage the next sale because we can't believe the last one happened. We must celebrate the wins, set our sights even higher, and build a pattern of winning over time.
Part of finding and keeping success is appreciating it when it comes. Doing that makes you an interesting and approachable person whose conversation appeals to the next client, the person who will ride the train with the person you need to meet the next day— of course mentioning your name in passing, and a host of positive people who are just fun to have around.
So what's the takeaway here?
Entrepreneurship is an endurance sport.
That means you get back up when you fall and skin your knee. You make sure you know what the finish line looks like and put one foot in front of the other to bring it closer. …and when fate places the wind at your back, you keep on running and enjoy your good fortune!
Can you do that? I know I can!
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So what's the takeaway here?
Entrepreneurship is an endurance sport. That means you get back up when you fall and skin your knee. You make sure you know what the finish line looks like and put one foot in front of the other to bring it closer. …and when fate places the wind at your back, you keep on running and enjoy your good fortune!