During this strange and challenging year, fear has become its own kind of pandemic. Fear for peoples’ health. Fear for jobs. Fear of the unknown. And in the business/entrepreneurial realm, fear of failure. Each of those (and all the other fears I have not mentioned) has variations too, but I want to focus on the fear of failure, especially when it comes to entrepreneurism.
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy
“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford
Most of these, while inspirational, miss the mark of accuracy for me. “Failure” is defined by Oxford Languages as “lack of success”. That is not temporary; it is permanent. Failure is final. I think Thomas Edison’s famous quote on failure (in reference to inventing the incandescent light bulb) does a better job of illustrating this perspective, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Back in 2015, I bought a coffee truck. It was a complete coffee-shop-on-wheels.
My idea was to gradually build a route in my city so that I could quit my job and run the truck Mon-Fri with only occasional weekend/evening events as “gravy”. I live about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, and my city offers a bus service for commuters. Every weekday, 3 to 4 greyhound-style buses leave from a parking lot in my city between 7am and 8am. This was my opportunity to get my new business off the ground while staying employed full time.
So, (with appropriate permission) I parked near the bus stop. I knew that the riders would need to see me consistently; they would have to be able to rely on me being there if they were going to become regulars. I was prepared for things to begin slowly and build… I figured it would be a couple of weeks before that would start.
I was there every weekday from 6:15am until the last bus left around 8am for 6 weeks. By the end of the 6th week, I was selling a whopping one or two coffees per morning (out of about 200 people riding the buses). My one regular customer was a friend with whom I used to attend church, and he did not even ride the bus! He was just walking his wife to the bus stop every morning (she did not drink coffee).
After that I tried a few other locations, but nothing ever worked. I sold the truck and moved on to other things. Prior to executing my plan with the truck at the bus stop, and every single time I have mentioned it afterwards, the response from each person I have told has been the same: “That’s a great idea!” I thought so too. We were all wrong.
Maybe I did not give it enough time. Perhaps I was not visible enough. It might have worked better if I had more breakfast foods. Regardless, my plan was not successful at that time in that place. But did I fail? I prefer Edison’s perspective. I found one way it absolutely did not work, and I chose to change directions rather than persist down that road. Had I been willing to work events (fairs, shows, farmers markets, weddings, etc.), I have no doubt that the truck would have been profitable.
Some people in my life would say that my coffee truck adventure was a “failed business”. When I look back however, I glimpsed an opportunity and was not afraid to go after it. Had I not done so, I would always wonder what might have happened. Instead, now I know. I can put that idea to rest knowing that I strove for it. For me, that is not failure, nor is it success. It is something else.
“Pre-success” is perhaps the best way to express this “temporary lack of success”. While I had never heard this word, I am not the first to use it. I do think Edison would endorse it too though.
Failure is a mindset. I consider myself an optimistic realist which simply means that I view the world through a lens of slightly rose-tinted realism. I see positive outcomes for the future while simultaneously planning for times when things do not go according to plan. That it my mindset. Positivity is absolutely essential for life and for business. Having a positive mindset is infectious to those around you, frames your own thought processes to find solutions rather than dwell on problems, and leads to a much more joyful existence.
In order to maintain positivity when taking a risk, there are a few methods I recommend. First of all, consider the worst-case scenario. Re-frame it by asking yourself, “Then what would happen?”. So, for example, if you want to start a food tuck… What would happen if you couldn’t make it profitable? You would have to shut it down. Maybe find a new job? Sell the truck for a loss? File bankruptcy?
I do not want to minimize those outcomes; they are all unpleasant. I know, because I’ve been through all of them (not all related to the coffee truck though). However, I survived. You have survived all the bad things that have happened to you too. Do you want to have something bad happen again? Of course not. But thinking through the worst-case scenario of a situation can help you see that it is also survivable.
Another thing to consider: choosing to not start a business is risky too. I had a great job with fantastic people, and I was doing things I am really good at doing. Then Covid hit, and the company eliminated my position. There is risk in leaving your fate in the hands of other people. And a “secure” job can be just as risky in today’s economy as self-employment.
We often learn by doing things… and by doing things wrong. Pre-successes provide invaluable education. Like Edison, we often we have to learn the ways “it” will not work in order to find the way that does. Whether it is light bulbs or a new business venture, mistakes are going to happen. Fortunately, there are many more business-owners in the world who can help you avoid some of the mistakes than there are light-bulb inventors.
As part of this positive mindset, if is important to view difficulties as opportunities. When the company for which I worked furloughed me in May of this year, I had a couple days of panic, frustration, and anger. Then I realized that this was an opportunity. I believed that I would be going back to work in August, and with unemployment plus the additional Federal PUA, I realized I had 3 months to work on things that I had never had time to do. So, I completed a siding project on a rental property I own, and then I wrote a book. It was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime period of freedom. I even got to enjoy extra time with my family.
Then, mid-July, I was informed that I would not be coming back to my job. Again, that was unpleasant (remember, I loved my job). Once again, I decided to take this opportunity to build the consulting business I always wanted but never had time to start. And here we are… I now have a published book (with other books in mind), I am writing articles like this, and I’m building my dream business.
Once you have the right mindset, there are 2 principles that are essential, 1) Big Plans + Small Habits and 2) Decision + Action. Starting with the first of these, success comes from Big Plans + Small Habits. In terms of the business you want to start, dream big. Think big. Plan big. Your dream should be so big you have no idea (yet) how you will get there. In the words of Steven Covey in his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind”. Once you know what you want to accomplish, orchestrate a plan to get to that ideal destination. Construct a strategic plan (hire a consultant if you need to. This is my specialty, by the way.) Your values grow your purpose. Your purpose demands a destination. Your destination charters goals which determine action plans that, in turn, define what your daily activity should be.
PLUS, when it comes to that daily activity, you need to execute small. Developing a system of small habits is arguably the most effective means of making significant change/growth. James Clear does an excellent job of articulating the importance of small habits in his book Atomic Habits. He says, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” Also, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.” Habits are powerful because they become part of your routine and your identity. On a personal level, habits can help you lose weight, read more, write more, encourage more, or just about any behavior modification you would want to achieve. For business, habits can help you read/write more, focus better, manage time better, learn more, communicate better, or improve your work performance.
There are many ways of developing new habits; some of my favorites are “don’t break the chain”, tracking/logging, rewards, habit pairing, and environmental design. Here are brief explanations:
- Don’t break the chain – Keep a visual calendar, and every day you complete a new habit make an “X” on that day. After a few days you will have a chain of “X’s”… There is something in your brain that will not want you to break the chain. Even that little bit of self-accountability may be all it takes to create a new habit.
- Tracking/logging – Just keeping track of stats (your weight, for example) brings sub-conscious awareness. Not only do we like to see things trending in the direction we want to go, but that very simple awareness often helps bring about change.
- Rewards – Rewards are powerful, and it doesn’t have to be significant. A treat, a $1 bill in a jar, the new shoes you have been wanting, or even a sticker (yes, stickers can sometimes motivate adults) can be enough to provide incentive to stick to a new habit.
- Habit pairing – You already have habits. It’s much easier to pair a new habit with an existing one than trying to initiate it “out of the blue”. For example, if you want to start a journal, pair your writing with your daily cup of coffee. Rather than watch TV or vegetate while enjoying your brew, use that time to write in a journal.
- Environmental design – This is all about setting yourself up for success. Using the previous example, environmental design would involve getting the journal and pen, placing them on your table where you drink your coffee, printing a list of writing prompts, and doing all of that the night before! That way, when you sit down with your coffee the next morning, you have removed all of the obstacles preventing you from writing (such as, “I don’t know what to write” or “My pen is in the other room”, both of which might lead you to think, “I’ll just start tomorrow.”)
Incremental actions (small habits) are manageable, additive, and “easy wins”, and each is taking you closer to your destination.
The second principle is Decision + Action. Indecision is paralysis. Success is dependent on decision. I’m a planner, so I like to think about possibilities, scenarios, and how to arrive at them. I believe in the power of planning, but not to the point of indecision. There is no such thing as a perfect plan. While clarity (from planning) may help you make a decision, making the decision also provides clarity.
I recently experienced this phenomenon. On a Sunday morning in September while driving to weekly church services with my family, I had the beginnings of an epiphany. I had been considering how to effect change in the world through my company and through generosity as my business grows. Part of that involved thinking through the non-profits and charities I wanted to support. The heartbreaking plight of victims of human trafficking had been on my mind. So, I researched several organizations and decided to contribute to that cause nationally and internationally. Moving forward, a portion of all book and consulting proceeds will be donated to Operation Underground Railroad (www.ourrescue.org) and Love Justice International (www.lovejustice.ngo). Decision —> Clarity.
That wasn’t all though. Throughout that morning, a new idea for how to charge for my services began to develop. I had been deliberating about investing in a coaching program designed to help me get new clients while setting a high price for my own consulting programs. Instead of charging $1000 to $2000 per month for organizational consulting, however, I felt called to something completely different. I decided that small to medium sized organizations would be my “mission field”, and I would be a “B2B Missionary”. With that decision, I opted to forego the coaching and strike out on the less-traveled road.
What that means is that I tell prospective clients that they pay based on the value they receive from me. They pay what they feel is right when they feel it is right. My services are definitely not free, and I make that clear as I begin working with a new client. But I believe what Zig Ziglar said in his famous quote, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” With that in mind, if I help my clients, then I don’t need to be concerned about the money. It will come.” This Missionary mindset is not new in the business world, but it is definitely less common and somewhat counter-intuitive.
Am I worried about people taking advantage of me? Not really… I intend to be selective about the clients I choose. Integrity is key, and I will look for a like-minded desire to help people. Will that guarantee that I will always get paid equitably? Absolutely not. Regardless, I believe that the value I provide and the generous nature of most people will far outweigh any negative experiences. Decision —> Clarity.
Decision brought clarity for me. Sometimes you must step out of the fog instead of waiting for it to clear.
After planning big + creating small habits and making a decision, that is all for naught without action. The first real step toward success is simply to begin, to actually take a step. Plan imperfectly, decide, and then act. Movement in the wrong direction can be corrected, but a stationary ship cannot be steered.
I love math and science, and one of the concepts I remember from high school physics involves coefficients of friction. There are 2 of them… the coefficient of static friction and the coefficient of kinetic friction. Essentially, these are constants determined by the amount of force necessary to start and keep an object moving on a surface. The coefficient of static friction is always higher than the coefficient of kinetic friction. Translated, that means that it always requires more force to start an object moving than to keep it moving. The flywheel in an engine is similar. It is a heavy wheel that is difficult to begin rotating, but once it is up to speed, its inertia helps keep the engine running. The theme here is that it is easier to keep things moving than to start them. So, start. Get your business moving. The rest will not be easy, but you will never have to overcome the coefficient of static friction again.
Learn from your past pre-successes, and let each one bring you one step closer to success. Keep finding the ways that do not work until you find the one that does. Make Big Plans + Small Habits AND enable Decision + Action.
Fear inaction, not failure.
Eric Beschinski is an organizational consultant and author. As Chief Navigation Officer for Greenfire Innovations, LLC he is a B2B Missionary, helping small to medium sized business and non-profit leaders take their organizations to the next level. For more information about his consulting services and his book, visit www.GreenfireInnovations.com.