Monday, May 22, 2020

Slow Leadership and Small Business

A week or so ago, an anonymous comment to this blog asked an important question. I said then I wanted to think about an answer, and promised to return to the topic shortly. This is that promise delivered. Here’s the key part of the question:
Can a startup company succeed without the intense pressure (and almost inevitable burnout) that is synonymous with startups in general? When there is a strict urgency to build one's reputation and beat larger (but slower) companies with more resources to market, what can one do to stay sane?
Start-ups, and all small businesses, have a unique advantage. Typically there are no shareholders applying external pressure for ever greater profits; no Wall Street analysts loudly proclaiming what results should be, though few have ever worked in the kinds of businesses they so boldly claim to understand. Of course, small business owners are keen to make money — and may well have large debts to service and pay off — but they can still make their own decision about what level of work and pressure they are going to accept. It may seem like a foregone conclusion in favor of working 25 hours out of every 24, but it’s still a choice.

Most of the pressure for long hours and excessive effort within small businesses and start-ups is internal. It comes from the minds of the business owner or owners. It’s my view that much of this pressure is caused by emotion and superstition rather than need. What is my qualification for saying this? The fact that I’ve started up several businesses on both sides of the Atlantic and made most of the mistakes I’m trying to point to here.

When you start a business, you’re naturally anxious. You know the majority of small businesses fail — and most large ones too, to be fair — and you’re doing your very best to make sure your business isn’t going to be one of them. How can you do this? Logic says it’s all to do with clear thinking about the business itself, its market, the plans and financial backing behind it and — in most cases — luck. Do you listen to logic? No. You listen to emotion.

Emotion has a different take on the risks. Emotionally — superstitiously — you believe you deserve success. Why do you deserve it? Because you’re working so damned hard to bring it about. How can you deserve it still more? By working even harder.

This sets up a cycle of “bargaining” with fortune. You’ll work so hard it hurts and fortune will — you hope — take note of your deserving efforts and give you the desired reward. So you fill every moment with activity. This might produce the desired result — superstitious or not — were it not for the probability much of this work is neither necessary nor useful. It’s busywork, designed to make you feel you’re keeping your side of the bargain. What you’re actually doing is wearing yourself out and probably lowering your business’s chances of success by doing so.

How can you stay sane? Let’s go back to logic. Hard work is always needed to start a business, but it needs to be clearly directed and balanced by enough rest to preserve that other necessity — resilience. You don’t know what problems may confront you next. In a small business, the chances are you’ll have to deal with them personally. You’re not likely to have enough employees to sit back and delegate. So if you’ve worn yourself to a frazzle on things that don’t much matter, you’ll find it that much harder to cope when a real problem comes along.

The sensible attitude to hard work during a start up is this: you know it’s needed; you have to be able and willing to provide it; but you should be as miserly with it as possible. Work hard when you must and relax whenever you can. Keep your resilience levels high and some energy available for the unforeseen. Above all, don’t allow superstition to tempt you into hard work in the belief it will make you more deserving of success. The hard truth is the universe has no interest in what you deserve; many deserving businesses will fold and some quite undeserving ones will succeed. Our world isn’t fair. However hard you work, you won’t change that.

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Hi! Thought you might want to know that I highlighted your blog today on mine. The post is here. I've been following your blog for a while, and I love what you're doing. Great stuff!

- EM
Thanks, EM Sky. I appreciate your kind comment.

- Carmine Coyote
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