“Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”
~ Thomas Huxley
Have you ever played a sport like tennis, golf or soccer? Do you engage at all in recreational sports like skiing, biking or rock climbing? Did you ever play a board game like Monopoly, Game of Life or even Chutes and Ladders?
Since I was a little kid, I wanted to play tennis. One Friday evening a few years ago, a burst of inspiration hit me. So I went to the local bookstore and bought a book called Learn How to Play Tennis in a Weekend. I read the book cover to cover over the weekend. I called my friend, Craig, Monday morning and asked him if he wanted to play a game of tennis with me. “Sure,” he said, “but I didn’t know you played tennis.” “I do now!” - came a confident reply from me.
A little bit about Craig here. He is no Wimbledon Champion by any means, but he had won many tournaments in his days of college and had stayed reasonably fit after graduation. So when we got to the tennis court, it took him exactly 10 minutes to get me to the point where I had to be picked up off of the floor of the tennis court. We remained friends afterwards, but I never picked up the racket again. And I still don’t play tennis.
“Truth comes out of error more readily than confusion.”
~ Francis Bacon
I jumped into starting my first business in pretty much the same way. I struggled a lot in the first year of business. Luckily, I was able to make some changes in the second year that allowed me to do much better for the next five years reaching 2.5 million in revenues in 1999. I ended up selling the company. Then I started an internet startup, raised some venture capital and ended up folding it in 2001. I have had some ups and downs in my life. So I have some stories to tell. These ups and down forced me to do some deep soul searching around the years 2001 and 2002. What I found out was that my real passion was helping others build their businesses. And I was good at it. My current business is my third one that I formulated in 2002 and have been building since.
Back to business. I am sure you have heard the statistics: something like 95% of the businesses fail in the first five years. What you may not have heard is the other statistic which says that about 80% of those who do stay in business, 4 out of the 5 of the 100, never achieve the kind of success they thought they would achieve when they started the business. Which means that only 1 out of 100 business builders actually end up building the fabled business of their dreams. And these statistics are from before the great recession of 2008-2009. The post-recession statistics might be much worse.
“We are generally the better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”
~ Blaise Pascal
Do you remember the time before you started your business? May be there was a time you were thinking about starting your business and you asked around for some advice. There is a pretty good chance that you heard two kinds of advice.
One was some version of “Don’t Do It”. These words most likely came from family and friends. They obviously were not being very helpful and encouraging. In fact, after you started your business, there is a pretty good chance that these “naysayers” around you became a pretty big liability for you as you went about building your business.
But the other advice you may have heard, in my opinion, might be much more damaging and, in fact, dangerous. This advice is: “Just Do It.”
I know. I got that advice, too. And I took it. Now I cringe every time I hear it. Why? Think of it this way. If you don’t know how to box and get in the ring with Muhammad Ali, how long does it take before the knockout? About 10 seconds? If you’re lucky! That’s what many of us do with starting our businesses.
You see, the reason why so many of us fail at building a successful business is very simple: We Don’t Know How to Play the Game - the Game of Business-Building.
“Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.”
~ Maria Montessori
The school and the college, and yes, our MBA degree, didn’t prepare us to be business owners. They prepared us to be employees: nurses, doctors, engineers, lawyers and even vice presidents, CFO’s and CEO’s. Nothing wrong with that, except that if we expect the traditional educational system to teach us the skill of business-building, we are very likely to be disappointed.
Here’s what I mean. Learning a skill, like business-building, is a journey from the head, to heart, to gut and then to actions. You see, building a business is not really an intellectual exercise. It’s also not just a physical or even an emotional exercise. It’s a combination of it all. It’s a skill. It’s an art-form.
The reason why small businesses are failing is because most business owners who start their businesses are entering the business arena at the novice level while other businesses - their competitors - are playing the same game at the expert level. They are entering the tennis court without having ever hit a ball across the net and their competitors are tournament champions and trophy winners. They are entering the Karate competition at the white-belt level while their competitors are 4th degree black-belts. They have never been into a boxing match before and yet they enter the ring to fight with a heavy-weight champion.
“Don’t just do it. Know what you are doing.”
~ Bhavesh Naik
Now, I am a realist. In my experience in helping more than a 100 business owners develop their businesses, I know that most people who are about to start their businesses will still jump into it prematurely, regardless of what statistics say. Entrepreneurs are notoriously hard-headed. And to an extent, that’s a positive quality. They will need that sense of supreme self-confidence to hack it in the world.
My message is really meant for those business owners who have been at the game of business-building for a while. They are the ones who really “get” what I am talking about here. They have experienced the trials and tribulations of building a business. That’s why, they are more open to my message.
But they have a serious dilemma. Many, if not most business owners accept and recognize that they need to continue to develop their skills in business-building. But they don’t have the luxury of taking two years off and disappearing onto a college campus. Even if they did, it would not help much because the world of academics is far removed from the real world.
They need to learn how to build their business while they are engaged in the process of building it. They need the intellectual help - the best practices and principles of successful businesses. But that’s only 25% of the way to mastering the sport of business building. They also need help in internalizing that knowledge by engaging with it emotionally, making it a part of their gut system and taking meaningful actions. As I like to say, they need to take the knowledge from the head to the heart, from the heart to the gut and form the gut to the actions.
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
~ Albert Einstein
What business-builders need is a change in the mindset, a shift in thinking. If they went from merely building a business to learning how to build one, the actual building of their business will happen almost as a by-product.
One of the sports I love is Martial Arts or Karate. Karate has intricately woven both the Art and the Science of the sport together in a system that could be taught and learned, step-by-step, incrementally and by practicing it. In other words, Karate is more about how to fight, rather than actually fighting.
Business-builders can take their inspiration from this model. They can treat their business not just as the means to achieve their dreams – which, of course, it is - but also as a way to learn how to build a business, by building it. When they do this, they can easily detach themselves from the act of building a business and see it as a sport they enjoy, a sport they look forward to playing every Monday morning.
“I am not a teacher; only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead–ahead of myself as well as of you.”
~ George Bernard Shaw