When the going gets tough…

“Where ya goin?” The local van driver spoke as he leant over from his seat and looked at me shouldering my heavy rucksack and holding the passenger door open.

“Lake District!” I replied. The prospect of a lift adding eagerness to my voice.

“Get in… but I’m only going to ‘arrogate’.”

I forget how many times I had the ‘Harrogate’ conversation with drivers. I have nothing against the place; in fact it’s a beautiful Yorkshire Dales spa town and definitely worth a visit if you like good food, antique shops and a bit of healthy living. But it was a buggar of a place for hitchhiking because all the main roads went through rather than around Harrogate. As a consequence, I was typically dropped off on one side of town and then had to walk 2 or 3 miles to get somewhere suitable to hitch another lift.

Such occurrences were not too bad if the sun was shining and time was on my side. But when raindrops were bouncing off the pavement and/or daylight hours were in short supply it wasn’t much fun. Being alone, ‘giving up’ was an option; however, I always sensed the situation was a problem to solve. Put another way, it was an opportunity to achieve something in difficult circumstances that might help ‘build character’ and even teach me a thing a two.

Expect the hurdles

The journey for the entrepreneur is very similar. Whilst the freedom to make your own way can be exhilarating, there are always obstacles to overcome. Most of the time the test isn’t too trying, but the real trial is when a number of problems combine at the same time and you have to dig (sometimes quite deep) in order to get through.

Weak finances, personal stress and insufficient sales are common problems that most start-up businesses face. And when they combine, the task of resolving the overall situation can seem quite daunting.  The easy thing to do is to do nothing, pretend the problems don’t exist and/or run away from them. Unsurprisingly, this approach can have catastrophic consequences for the business.

What you must do is face up to and focus on the biggest problem first and address it properly. This will be uncomfortable initially and almost certainly means more work; but invariably the moment the extra effort goes in, things start to ease or at least new perspectives are gained.

Fresh perspectives

In addition, tackling/resolving the biggest issue, gives you confidence and energy to attend to the other problems. And as you make progress so you learn about business and discover things about yourself.

Interestingly, when you reflect on what you achieve, you discover one of the keys to sorting things out was simply getting out of the tunnel vision ‘doom’ perspective that clouded thinking. This is probably where the phase ‘things are never as bad as they seem’ comes from.

By just taking action you realise that you’re allowed the luxury of viewing things differently – and then you realise the issues were perhaps not as big as you thought. Whilst this might not always be the case, it is also the experience you have gained which has given you a new perspective and made you better, more resilient and more confident in the job.

Hitchhiking alone taught me the value of being able to depend on myself. Travelling thousands of miles, sometimes in difficult circumstances, also helped prepare me for the life of self-employment. Since starting in business I’ve discovered I am motivated by achievement and being tested. Such circumstances give me a sense of purpose and perhaps identity. And If like me you enjoy making things happen and get a buzz from overcoming difficult challenges, then running your own business is almost certainly always going to appeal to you.

Key Learning Points: Self-employment is not a fair-weather pastime and resilience, and preparedness for hard work are important character traits. When problems arrive simultaneously, tackle the biggest one first and always learn from the experience.

Trust: The one thing that matters most

Have you experienced a situation where one person trusts you when nobody else does? And what happens next?

In little time a strong bond can build between you both, sometimes at remarkable speed.

Why does this happen, what forces are at play and how can you apply the experience and knowledge to your own entrepreneurial journey?

Hitchhikers constantly seek one person who will believe in them. And I’ll never forget how countless drivers passed me one autumn afternoon as I grew increasingly desperate in the fading light for a lift to get me home. Rejection followed rejection but eventually a car pulled over.

Being a young 17 year-old, I naively (but eagerly) held out my last £1 note to the smartly dressed driver as I got in. Wiser and older, he waved away my offer but happily became engrossed in a fascinating conversation about his life as we sped northwards up the motorway.

Reciprocation 

The total journey lasted no more than an hour; he went five miles out of his way to get me to my parent’s home; and in that time he talked to me in detail about how the sad death of his wife had impacted on his recent life. We were like best friends when we said our goodbyes.

Critical to that meeting of minds and the speed at which things unfolded was the issue of trust. And underpinning the trust between us was a desire to give back to the other person because we both valued what was offered and wished to reciprocate.

In his excellent book ‘Influence: Science & Practice’, the author Robert Cialdini writes eloquently about the power of ‘Reciprocation’ and ‘Liking’ as highly influential forces. Giving first has powerful consequences but the potential value of such a gift only becomes fully apparent if the receiver really trusts you.

Speed of Trust

More recently, Stephen Covey has published ‘The Speed of Trust’ which is a truly ground-breaking piece of work. The author contends that Trust is at the heart of everything we do and once it is present, individuals and teams can achieve great things – very quickly (Covey refers to this as trust dividends). The opposite is true when there is a breakdown of trust (Covey refers to this as a trust tax).

Early on in his text, Covey even provides mathematical equations to demonstrate why trust can be gained at speed (as per the hitch hiking example) but also explains in detail how and why our behaviour can destroy relationships faster than they were built.

Entrepreneurs who typically find greatest success are very good at building strong long-term relationships with a lot of people. The glue that binds them together is the trust that they will behave consistently, congruently and reliably – in other words customers know they will provide their great service or product on-time and every time.

As an issue, ‘Trust’ sounds simple, yet making it really work for you is truly complex. But if you thumb through the pages of  ‘The Speed of Trust’ and apply the recommendations Covey makes, I am certain you will get to where you want to be with your own project or business sooner than you think.

Key Learning Points: Trust (or mistrust) is at the heart of all the work we do with people. Understanding the key theoretical & practical principles that underpin this subject will accelerate you along your entrepreneurial journey.

What to do when demand dries up

After 5 hours stood by the roadside that hot summer’s day back in 1988 I was beginning to doubt my chances. Was I ever going to get out of Wales and reach home?

I was learning the hard way. Trying to hitch when everyone else was going away on holiday was proving to be a bad idea. The previous day on the road had been easy. But today cars were full of people and there was seemingly little appetite for picking up strangers; even though I was exactly the same person as the day before and was smiling at every passing driver…

With no other help to draw on, I wasn’t going to give up. My luck had to change at some point. Or so I thought.

Business parallels

And it’s the same in business. Customer demand is rarely constant and this can be the cause of much anxiety when orders unexpectedly dry up and cash stops flowing into the business – particularly if it’s for a sustained period. The process is all the more unnerving in the early years of business since you have no historical trading patterns from which to forecast demand lulls.

Self-reliance

Every business should have some kind of financial buffer for tougher times.  However, since it’s never pleasant spending reserves, you need to be able to draw from your own mental strength. Holding your nerve and staying focused on what makes your business perform is critical.

So what do you do?

  • First – since your business will be no different to the one that attracted high demand levels before the lull, you need to remind yourself that your product/service is sound. Don’t panic or do anything rash.
  • Second – research what’s happening in the market (e.g. talk to customers) and learn the cause for the lull. In most cases you will find demand is affected by external issues outside your control. Don’t think everyone as a collective has suddenly forgotten you. One business I work with (Print Revolution) learn much from their paper delivery drivers because these people know how much paper is being ordered by all printers. When it’s quiet, it’s typically quiet for everyone.
  • Third – Use the research to give you peace of mind and/or construct sensible promotional offers that can be communicated to the market at low cost to create demand. Don’t sit around waiting for things to happen and don’t give away your work.
  • Fourth – Ensure that the ‘sensible offers’ you make are justifiable for the moment in time and ensure they are time-bound so decisions to buy your product/service are made quickly.
  • Fifth - Use some of the available time to work on the business and get things done that you can’t when you are busy.

In all my experience of demand lulls (they’ve happened at least twice a year for 20+ years) I find I get some-way into the fourth action point only to find demand picking up quickly. And each time this has happened I have grown a little bit stronger and more resilient.

And so it was in South Wales. I was beginning to eye a place to sleep when after 5 and a half hours a car did eventually respond to my outstretched thumb. The driver was only going 30 miles but critically the lift re-energised my self belief, determination to get home as well as confidence in people who might pick me up. And once we reached the M5 motorway lifts became far more frequent and I was home just before nightfall.

Key Learning Points: Persistence and resilience are common traits in successful entrepreneurs. Since demand is rarely constant (because of external factors outside your control) develop strategies for managing the business when orders dry up.