By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO iVIBES
When I was in college, I had a football coach that was always good for a quote. Sometimes, quite honestly, I just wanted to choke him out because he usually berated us before motivating us to play better.
I remember there was one game that we were really getting it handed to us. He dished out a scathing critique of our play at halftime and then, just before we took the field to start the second half, he grabbed me by the face mask and told me that if I didn't play better, he'd bench me and put the next guy in the game. Yeah, that's exactly when I wanted to choke him. I punched a hole through a locker and vented my frustration by screaming all of the typical expletives. I caught the coach smiling in my direction from a distance, and as I passed him on the way out to the field, he grabbed me again and said: "I turned up the heat on you, didn't I? You feeling a little pressure now, Superstar? Lemme tell you one thing: pressure bursts pipes. But pressure also makes diamonds. It's up to you now."
In the second half, I had 3 sacks and forced a fumble and kept the second string guy on the bench, right where he belonged. We won the game, but more importantly, I vindicated myself. I was the guy that they had doubted because I was the kid from the 'hood that nobody was sure really belonged in college in the first place. While I'm sure there were people who looked at me as just a lump of coal, I knew I was a diamond. I just needed to prove it. Mission accomplished.
Entrepreneurship is a lot like sports in that way. No matter how many books you read, no matter how smart you are, no matter which school you graduated from, you will still get your butt kicked from time to time by any number of adversaries - and nobody wants to hear your excuses. What people do care about, on the other hand, is how well you bounce back after a setback. How well can you handle pressure?
Did I ever tell you why I think business plans are mostly useless? It's because they are like Disney stories - too idealistic to be realistic. It's always a best case scenario that typically goes right out the window within 30 days of your launch. You didn't foresee that you were going into business in an industry that had such low profit margins. Or the barriers to entry were so low that a half dozen competitors entered the market at the same time, but they have bigger budgets and scaled faster. Or you didn't beta test your product long enough and now you have thousands of customers returning their items for refunds. Or you found an equity investor and you actually thought equity was free money, and now the investor wants their cut before you've become profitable. Or...or...or.
That's the thing that nobody tells you before they sell you the pie in the sky dream of becoming an entrepreneur. It's going to be tough. So you need to be tougher. I was talking to an aspiring entrepreneur the other day and after our meeting, I had two observations: 1) He's got absolutely no idea what he's getting himself into because he's never really been challenged in his whole life; 2) If he doesn't get much more focused on the strategic aspects of doing business, he'll be out of business before he gets started. I guess it's not his fault that he comes from a privileged background. But I don't know if he's got the fortitude and the stamina to weather the storms that he will eventually meet. I tried to bring some things to his attention to help him set realistic expectations and, more importantly, develop viable contingency plans (ie. a pivot) if things don't go as expected with his tech product that has not been market tested.
As I always say, entrepreneurship (as is life) is a marathon, not a sprint. It's usually an uphill climb. In the rain. However, if you can tough it out when things are a little rough, the rewards of being able to be your own boss, creating jobs, and having an impact are well worth the difficulty. Here are 3 things you can do to change the narrative and make sure you become a diamond, in the end.
Get a Coach
Michael Jordan had one. Mike Tyson had one. Tom Brady has one. If people who can legitimately be considered the best ever at their sports need coaches, then you do, too. One of the best advantages of having a coach is that coaches can lend their experience so you can avoid the pitfalls they experienced in their respective journeys. Additionally, they can see things from a different perspective and give you a more balanced view of where your business is performing, since they won't have an emotional attachment to your business or your product/service offerings.
Avoid Early-Stage Equity Finance
Unless you've successfully started multiple businesses already and really know what you're doing, avoid bringing in equity investors while you are still an early-stage startup. The thing is that early-stage businesses are typically in a position of relative weakness, as it relates to the investors. The valuation is likely to strongly favor the investors, and, as I mentioned before, the investors get paid first. The upside is supposed to be the management support that sometimes comes with private equity funding, which doesn't always happen, but this works much better when the investor has particular expertise in the industry your business is working in. However, it's crucially important that any equity agreement must be balanced enough to provide the entrepreneur appropriate incentives to continue to develop the business.
One of the core principles of lean startup is the pivot - recognizing that your plan isn't going the way you expected and moving in a different direction. One of the things that exacerbates the feeling of pressure is a dogged refusal to change the plan when it becomes clear that the current plan isn't working. It's important to note that changing the plan doesn't mean you're abandoning the goal, just finding a more efficient way to meet those goals. This actually aligns with the first strategy, getting a coach. Having another perspective to consider can help clarify whether you need a real pivot or just some tweaking of your original plan after you've validated consumer response.
At the end of the day, every entrepreneur must expect to experience difficulty along the journey - this is inevitable. However, your response to the pressure of starting a business determines your ultimate outcome. The choice is yours: when the pressure is overwhelming, will your response prove you to be a diamond? Or just a lump of coal?