Nobody over the age of six expects success to be a straight march from first steps to global dominance. Everybody stumbles eventually. Most know there'll be setbacks and missteps along the way.
Of course, few people like to think about them. It can be so painful to consider the obstacles that some even fail to plan for them. But they happen. Smart leaders learn to see tough times coming, respond, recover, and get back in the race.
Recently, I spoke with two very different entrepreneurs--Brad Wardell and Colin Sprake--about what they've learned the hard way, and how to keep moving forward, even with the going gets tough.
Sprake is the founder and owner of Make Your Mark Training and Consulting Inc. and the author of Entrepreneur Success Recipe. Developed over his thirty years of working with entrepreneurs across a wide range of industries, Sprake says the sheer number who fail to realize their dreams finally inspired him to publish his secrets. It's a message people have been eager to learn, and his book has sold 30,0000 copies and made four best seller lists.
Looking for a way to help pay for college until he could land a "real job," Wardell founded Stardock in his dorm room in 1993. 23 years later, it's a thriving software company making everything from PC games such as Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire, to Windows utilities like Start10, Multiplicity, and Fences.
"Being an entrepreneur is a marathon, not a sprint," Wardell told me. Here's what he and Colin Sprake had to say about how they keep moving forward despite the setbacks that everyone encounters eventually.
1. Watch for Obstacles On The Horizon
It's easy not to notice you're gaining weight if you never get on a scale. "Live in your numbers," Wardell advises. "Know your income and expenses so well that you can always quickly put together multiple future scenarios." A solid understanding of your company's income and outlays lets you see impending setbacks earlier, and avoid some of them. Colin Sprake agrees. "Setup a 12-month cash flow projector to determine the profitability of each product, service, project and overall for your business," he told me. Forecasts built on solid data let you know when you're getting off track.
2. Iterate To Avoid Inertia
"Reinvent your business from time to time," Wardell recommends. "My company started out as a PC maker, became an OS/2 developer, then a desktop enhancement company for Windows, then a digital distributor and most recently a PC game developer." Being nimble allows you to react to challenging times, get ahead of trends, and avoid industry downturns. Sprake has done much the same thing, building four different multi-million dollar businesses from the ground up.
3. In A Slump, Get Active
Companies suffer from a sedentary lifestyle as much as people do. Both Wardell and Sprake have found ways to keep new energy coming in when things slow down. "Find ways to interact directly with your customers," Wardell suggests. "Assuming you make a good product or service, most of your customers will be glad to talk to you and their input and ideas can be invigorating."
Sprake finds similar inspiration in time with colleagues. "Hang out with massively successful business owners!" he suggests. "Who you hang out with determines your results!" Like exercise groups or diet accountability partners, one entrepreneur's success can increase everybody's.
Wardell even takes getting into motion literally. "Moving to a different location in your building to work or even working from different remote locations from time to time can help avoid getting into a rut," he told me. Getting a different view from your desk can actually create a new perspective on your business.
4. Take Action In A Crisis
Sometimes we get so bogged down in planning we never get around to execution. This tendency can be particularly pronounced and damaging in dealing with a crisis. "Don't overthink things, take action!" Sprake says. Even the worst product is better than the best idea if it's out in the marketplace rather than stuck between your ears. "I never really intended to be an entrepreneur," Wardell told me. "It just happened." When something works, do that.
5. Attack The Setback Aggressively
It can be tempting to ignore early symptoms and try to power through setbacks with the grit of a runner headed for the finish line on a twisted ankle. But strains turn into sprains, and colds into pneumonia if they're not dealt with aggressively. "Do a regular profit analysis on each product or service, and scrap or discontinue the ones that are not making you money," Sprake advises. Wardell agrees."Don't wait until it's too late," he told me. "The most common downfall for entrepreneurs is being unwilling to let people go when times get tough. As a result, what could have been a gentle workforce re-adjustment ends up being a mass downsizing which ruins morale." Dealing with problems early can shorten their duration and lessen their severity.
6. Respond To Adversity With Creativity
When times get tough, great leaders innovate. "Rather than laying someone off," Wardell suggests, "Find new tasks for talented employees, a new role for that employee that is more profitable." This not only preserves a valuable resource, but it builds loyalty and improves morale. Wardell recommends taking an equally creative approach to what your company produces. "Look at new markets and new channels," he told me. "Many products, particularly technology products, can be refitted for other markets relatively easily."
Creativity requires both courage and curiosity. "Do not take NO for an answer!" Sprake emphasizes. "The Best 3 letter work in business" he insists, "is ASK". If you can respond to setbacks by asking questions and re-thinking things, you're well ahead of the pack.
7. Reframe Setbacks To Motivate
Setbacks have a way of getting in your head. Nobody, after a single win, believes they're a success, but one failure and it can be tempting to define yourself that way. Don't do it! Every successful person has failed--multiple times. "I've made every mistake you can make," Wardell told me. "I've had my business come to the brink of failure multiple times due to changes in the market, my own bad decisions and just failed products and services." But he didn't let these experiences define him. See failure as something that happened, not who you are. Sprake takes the idea even one step further. "There are no bad experiences, failures, things done wrong," he insists. "They are all learning experiences to grow and prosper!"