Those first few months of starting a business are so exciting. It’s a feeling that cannot be explained, only felt.
You are going to be the best entrepreneur. You’ve read the books. You will dominate like Apple, lead like Jack Welch, create happiness like Zappos. You are going to compete in Blue Ocean, market like Branson, sell like Zig Ziglar and invest like Buffet.
The first team is amazing. Everyone is excited and committed and feeling a little like David against the Goliaths out there. The team meets everyday, officially or unofficially. The unofficial meetings are held at the foosball table (a requisite for all startups- that was also in the books). Your sales line, “We don’t have the overheads the big guys have, so we can charge you less.” works from time to time, and so does the “We are not a big corporate so we are far more responsive.”
You’re picking up customers slowly. You’re picking up staff slowly. Your investors are happy.
Who needs a raincoat in paradise?
And then one day you walk into the zone. All of a sudden, in what seems to be the most innocuous moment, you are not the Austin Powers of entrepreneurship anymore. Competitors are competing hard. Clients are demanding and even unhappy. Staff are split into camps, investors are getting edgy. A storm is brewing and you still have your Bermudas on, ‘cos who needs a raincoat in paradise?
Of course you try to fix things. You motivate your team, you meet your clients, you show graphs to your investors. But the thing that’s messing with your head the most, is that there are people in your company that don’t care like they did. Some don’t care at all. There are clients that think your product stinks. And your investors get down to business much quicker than before, no more chit chat, it’s all bottom line talk. Its a painful time.
The Two Doors
I see entrepreneurs in this situation take one of two doors. The Woosie Door door A and the other door (sorry no name). Let’s explore the Woosie Door.
Time at the foosball table has dropped significantly. Your team are required to get some tough deadlines out. You know how critical it is for your (and their) future to get these deals delivered, otherwise you lose that client forever. So you motivate, you work with them. But they are not having it. Drake, one of the new guys, is talking about the labour laws, and how this sort of pressure never happened at his previous company (the one you poached him from). Some are listening. Just enough of them to ensure that you were forced to negotiate with the client for more time to deliver. When you took on the job from the client you were certain that you could deliver in this time because you always had done so in the past. The client said no. You lost the client. Flip that hurts.
You have other clients. You’ve had them for a while. One always tries to bring your price down, the other wants you to make what your competitors make. They don’t really appreciate your “differentiator” that you have been working so hard on (well at least working hard on telling them about it).
Client A starts his negotiation. You don’t feel the level of confidence you once felt. You drop the price, only slightly, but enough to give the client the signal that you are weak for the next round. When you come back to the office you don’t feel the excitement of a hunter bringing back the kill. It’s more like waiter asking the chef to please cook up an order.
Client B asks you to make that mod. The mod that makes your product look and feel the same as the others. You do. You tell yourself you are being customer centric, you are doing what you need to do to save the business.
You are invited to an industry dinner by your client. There you see your competitor. He looks happy. It’s awkward. Do you great him, do you smile? But that night you don’t have the choice to decide the answer, he simply ignores you. Perhaps he even despises you. “Does he know I lost my client?” you think.
You don’t like not being liked. Some staff don’t like you now, your clients are out of the honeymoon phase and are looking around. There are men and woman at competitors sitting in boardrooms planning your demise. It’s oh so confrontational, its so hard, and it’s in your face everyday.
You long for the Austin Powers days. Everyone seemed to like you then. “Perhaps this is not for me” you think. “It’s a dog eat dog world when you grow a business. I prefer running a small operation.” you conclude. You choose door A, the Woosie door.
Stop shouting at me
I can hear you shouting at me. Building a big business is not for everyone, you are concluding. It’s a personal choice whether you want to grow a small business or a big one you are saying. And you are right. It is a personal choice.
But far too often I watch young entrepreneurs make compromises in order to be liked. In order not to offend. In order to appease. Had they not made those compromises, had they had the courage to stand up for their beliefs, stand up to their detractors, stand up to their wayward staff, they would have built the businesses they dreamed of building. In my opinion this is not a problem of choice, it’s a problem of courage. It’s not a problem of choice, it’s a problem of self esteem.
And the net result is either failure or a small entrepreneurial business with an entrepreneur inside wondering what might have been if he chose door B.