From my “Entrepreneurial Rumblings” series. These are articles where I share my entrepreneurial experiences in the hope they are of use to other friends out there. They are not brilliantly written nor meant for an official publication: they are heartfelt thoughts straight to pen. No editing. Hence “rumblings”. Hope you will forgive any lack of flow in favour of the good intentions with sharing this.
Most of the seasoned entrepreneurs know that feeling when your business is just going no-where. Maybe some of you reading this right now are in that position. And maybe many of you have read that a succesful entrepreneurial quality is being persistent… but how do you know when you are being persistant vs just stubborn?
Having gone through a rather embarrassing large number of entrepreneurial failures, here is how I see it.
First — get over the nuclear power plant syndrome. In a nuclear power plant construction project the aim of those selling the plant is just to get a government to buy into it which is why they will quote dramatically lower costs than the power plant will end up costing. A few years into it and the seller has the governments hooked — for no politician is going to sign a document scrapping the whole project simply because by then they will have spent so much money already.
In the case of entrepreneurs, my advice is don’t look at the time and money spent, but rather the amount of knowledge and networks you have built during your endavour. If you view it this way, then you are not throwing away all the investment in your business idea, but rather preparing yourself for the next stage. You invested in your education and that will have a big payoff one day.
I have been through quite a few business failures in my life… They are never easy. And almost always never the same. But they are amazing lessons and for me where an enormous motivational lever. Almost as if I was even more energised to prove the world that I can do it. Not because what the world thinks should matter, but because I my passion is to make a difference in other’s lives and failure meant to me that I wasn’t then able to make as big a difference as I wished. With almost no exception none of the failures were a smooth experience: I didn’t wake up one day and realise the business was a failure, closed it and moved on. Sometime there were employees and customers involved. Sometime it was brand reputation (I had spent a lot of time trying to tell as many people as possible what I did…). The failures were akin to the end of a relationship with your partner — somewhere there is always the glimmer of hope that things will just work out.
An entrepreneurs’ failures are particularly painful because they are very visible. No shielding by a large organisation’s corporate firewalls. It is a raw failure that hits the nerves because it feels it is a reflection of your abilities. But here’s another thing I’ve learned: if you look at the human body, with its incredible complexity of interdependent functions, it is actually amazing that not more of us are sick. Similarly in entrepreneurship, once you are in it you are juggling a surprising array of roles and responsibilities — all important at different moments of the day (I recall how we would tell some clients that these clients were so important that we — the founders — would personally get involved… with the truth being that we couldn’t afford more staff so had to do it ourselves). With the understanding of how complex starting and growing your own business is, my advice is to be a little more tolerant of yourself. You will fuck up some aspects of your business. It is inevitable. So when that setbacks does hit you, don’t make it a soul crushing experience. It is just part of the adventure called entrepreneurship.
Being persistent or being stubborn is a very personal decision. But here are some tips to differentiate between the two:
- You are being stubborn if you think that “if only you had more money” your business would succeed. Business failure is a painful way of you being told that it is time to rework your business assumptions.
- You are being persistent if you are prepared to make seriously painful cuts to your pre-conceived needs (e.g. nice office, fancy car, anything ego related, assistant, non-performing staff (including you), etc).
- You are being stubborn if you are just doing the same things over and over again…
- You are being persistent if you are actually listening to people’s reaction to your pitch and adapting accordingly. You are being stubborn if you just repeat the same pitch over and over again wishfully hoping that one day you’ll meet the client who sees your brilliance.
- You are persistent if are prepared to make yourself vulnerable and aren’t just knocking on doors you know.
- You are being stubborn if you think you can run before you can crawl. Focus on finding a few clients first before planning to take on the world.
- You are being stubborn if you are continuing your venture because you worry what people might think of you.
We often tend to admire people with confidence. It is easy to understand why. But I would argue who we should admire are those who are a little quieter and perhaps more doubtful (not negative! There is no space for negativity in entrepreneurship). You need a degree of realism and healthy self-doubt with your business. Don’t fight it. It is part of the equation. A healthy dose of honest self doubt can be a wonderful step when you are thrown off your high horse of confidence.
But, having said all of the above, there will still come a time when you wonder if you should stick it out just that little longer… if you should borrow from someone to continue for just a few more months… if you should dip into your pension (if you haven’t already — which is normal). Such a difficult question to answer. In my experience, the trick is to ask yourself what it is you are really being persistent about. Your current business model or the end result you are trying to reach (for example, a specific solution like ending poverty or reducing the time people spend in traffic, etc)? If it is the end result you really care about and not the actual vessels you chose to get you there (i.e. your current business model) — well, then be persistent by all means! If you are truly pursuing the solution then you will quickly realise that there are many ways to get there. Maybe the business you setup was the wrong ship to take you to the end destination. A business is just a ship to get to a destination and it is often easy to pick the wrong ship for the job — especially at the beginning journey when you don’t know how rough the seas are out there. So make a call, cut your losses, head back to port (1 step back), choose the right ship this time (now you know what the sea of business looks like) and head out stronger and more confident. I went through quite a few ships in my years as an entrepreneur. And some of these ships were horribly expensive (I was on the verge of bankruptcy a few times… lights and water cut off… there was a time I was visiting the business school GIBS around the corner and showering there… without telling people — they kept wondering why I was hanging out there so often…).
You’ve heard of Elon Musk right? Did you know he was 24 hours away from having to shut down Tesla and SpaceX not long ago? There is no single entrepreneur out there who hasn’t had a stomach churning experience or two around cashflow — how to pay suppliers and staff at the end of the month. Cashflow is one of those words you might understand intellectually but you wont really grasp until you’ve gone through it yourself. Ditto with the difference between being persistent and stubborn. Until you’ve gone through it a few times and paid the fees you will not know when to call it quits.
Entrepreneurship is not supposed to be easy. Like the saying goes, nothing worth doing is easy. If it turns out you are not entrepreneurial material, no big deal. Go back and work a little until you find the courage (and funds) to try again. Entrepreneurship is sometime being the right person at the right place with the right partners in front of the right clients. There are MANY ways to be an entrepreneur: starting your own business is just one. You could start a business within an existing business, inside a client, help another SME grow their business, etc. Don’t be stubborn around the ship you choose — be stubborn around the destination and why you chose to sail in the first place.
Persistence is a quality often admired in the world. Stubborness is not. But the difference is often ridiculously thin. Only a wiser older bolder you will know which is which. In the meantime, do your best, stay open minded, enjoy the journey and see your setbacks not as failures but as investments in yourself. If you do the latter I promise you will live a full life on no regrets, regardless if you achieve your goals or not.
Stay positive my friends! And feel free to drop me a line anytime should you need a shoulder to cry on (my email is email@example.com). Entrepreneurs should always support fellow entrepreneurs.
York Zucchi is the co-founder with Anke Schaffranek of The Business Opportunity Marketplace (www.JoinTheEquation.com), a portal created to help every single entrepreneur and business out there to connect with each other and do more business with each other. Only through working together will we raise the tide for all boats.