Why you’ve got to be fearless for success
“Most people have a highway to frustration, and they have a dirt road to happiness neurologically” – Tony Robbins
Start Up Life is Brutal
Running a start up or an early stage company is not easy but it certainly has its rewards*. I know, I’m running one based in Shanghai as I write this. In fact, it is hellish scary because there is absolutely no buffer if you mess up. Messing up is a constant, if not inevitable, part of the hard-knock start up life – this you must accept. Unlike an S.M.E there are no tiers of middle management to pass the buck through. The buck stops with you. A start up is my version of a real life MBA – it is a Messy way of testing your Business Acumen. It is a real life hackerthon and each day you are bleeding hundreds if not thousands of dollars – this fact alone illustrates the pace at which things move or should move in order to scale. The market wants growth, investors want a return and the start up wants to survive. In start up life, a day is a lifetime. One bad customer can ruin your market segment approach. It is a game of do or die (literally) and those in it know what it means to live in flux. Staring death in the face like that makes you tough…makes you fearless…if it doesn’t, your beloved start up will chew you up and spit you back out. Dan Lyons’ Disrupted is a hilarious way of illustrating this – there are days when I can’t help but feel a bit like Dan myself.
*For simplicity, I define “startup” or “early stage” company as: a company generating revenue, focused on customer acquisition,and implementing its sales channel strategy but not yet positoned for an IPO.
Recovery is Key
“90% Of Startups Fail: Here’s What You Need To Know About The 10%” – Neil Patel
Neil Patel’s Forbes article summarises four key success factors for start up survival:
- have a product that meets a need
- don’t ignore anything – work on your business not in your business
- grow fast – it’s all about scale
- recover from the hard-knock startup life
The ability to recover from constant blows can make start up life seem vaguely similar to being on the firing line. While I recognise that the top three points are necessary for any business, my short flirt thus far with start up experience has proved that recovery is by far the most critical if you want to survive. One can suffer cell shock from prolonged exposure to the mental trauma. Will we lose a customer today? Will we run into some code issues and delay the launch of the new product feature? Will the server bomb on us? Will we run out of money before we scale? Can we scale? Yes, these are real issues that many start ups face. CB Insights Top 20 reasons Start Ups Fail provide key drivers of start up failure in the image below:
Prolonged disturbance of mental equilibrium can threaten the nervous system and the team running the show needs to be resilient to withstand the pounding. With a 10% success rate, the odds of winning are certainly not in your favour. The stoicism needed to stomach this is not for the faint of heart – bouncing back from bruised egos and market faux pas is a must!
Let Go of the Safety Cushion
“…some of the best ideas arise from the ashes of a shuttered business…” – Richard Branson
Entrepreneurship necessitates fearlessness – this is what start up life is all about. I used to possess a corporate mindset: a view that corporate life was the stable choice for me and regarded entrepreneurship as a risky venture. I’ve never imagined living my life “on the edge”, certainly not in a business sense. Not knowing whether the start up I’m building (or the thousands like it) will be around for the next versions of GREXIT, BREXIT or $29 ppb oil price fills me with adrenaline like I’ve never felt before. I’ve had to let go of the “corporate safety cushion” in order to show up on a daily basis. To embrace the uncertainty, be fully present and kill it even when I see the competition out there knocking on the doors I’ve just left open. Its swift, its rough and the likelihood of trauma is real. The old me who clung onto the corporate safety cushion would have suffered complete system failure from the sheer insanity of it: cmd-alt-esc and force quit. Nowadays, living life “on the edge” means embracing uncertainty and seeing each knock as the training ground. Perhaps this is why the characters I’ve met in this entrepreneur scene all seem to have a bit of “badass” in them.
35% of Forbes 2017 30 under 30 site grit as a necessary trait for entrepreneurship. Here’s some other interesting stats about these pre-30 billionaires:
Richard Branson exemplifies that experiencing setbacks is part of the DNA of every successful entrepreneur – does anyone remember Virgin Brides? Yes, the image below was PR done to promote the launch of Virgin Brides in 1996. This venture was short lived and the venture closed in 2007. Photo Credit: Virgin.com
So be fearless in the face of failure, it will happen, embrace it, make mistakes, learn from it and go at it again – Be a Badass!
Dance to The Beat of Sales
“Selling is about helping” – Marc Cuban
Many start ups don’t get traction because the founder focuses on doing and forgets to sell! There’s always a slew of half-baked million dollar backed products just waiting to take the market you’ve built (or are building). There’s no whiling away your time and hiding behind bureaucracy here. Shanghai is just as brutal as the Valley. Its bang bang bang or you’re dead. You’ve got to be able to take the beating and pull it through else its millions of dollars out the window and you’re left with another juicy failure post mortem to add to the list. My professional experience in Trade Marketing and Brand Management means I’ve always worked with sales but only after joining startup life did I realise that everyone here is sales – even the tech guys are selling (god bless em). In this life, the functions of marketing, IT, customer service, operations, delivery all blur and the hard truth is we’re all dancing to the ticking clock of sell, sell, sell! What’s important to note, and so many underestimate this, is selling is helping, it is not convincing. Marc Cuban puts it nicely in his description of putting yourself in the shoes of the other person. If you’ve come from traditional corporate life like I have, where the sales department alone sells, and you’ve managed to transform yourself into Dale Carnegie’s version of a master “sales whisperer” – I salute you. Admittedly, not everyone is blessed with the self awareness to understand their customers and the struggle is real. If this truth happens to be yours, take the time to create value for your customers before you expect to capture value and have patience until they’re ready to dance with you. You wouldn’t force a stranger to dance with you, so establish a value-based relationship first and don’t rush to third base. Start up life teaches you how to be fearless and what it truly means to sell – you are in fact creating value.
Flex Your Inner Strength Muscle
“… there is always gain from hardship…it allows you to flex a muscle you never knew you had.” – Oprah
Anyone who’s gone bankrupt, got fired, lost their home, lost their family, lost dignity and built themselves back up possesses the Inner Strength muscle. They know more about this than I can ever dream to convey here. I know this is true, I’ve stared my own death in the face in a precariously abusive situation back in early 2014 and I am still rebuilding my sense of self to this day. What I can say is this muscle twitches constantly and with every whim of self doubt, minutia of questions or unanswered “what ifs” that come my way, business or otherwise, I get a familiar “you got this” twitch from the inside. This fast-twitch Inner Strength muscle slaps me back into place and keeps me from drudging myself into the familiar hopeless situation too many of us face when we can’t find the answers we’re looking for. It seems like muscle memory can also apply to your sense of will. Serial entrepreneurs, they say, have this twitch innately – a fearlessness and risk threshold that I once regarded as “not me”. Well there are many things that are perhaps “not you” and still “not me”, it doesn’t mean we ought to scratch it off of our possibility check box…yet.
Be Fearless You Badass
“I imagine I’m a bit of a badass even when all I’m doing is keeping the rudder on course.” – Anonymous
What I’ve observed over the past nine months, ample time to say I’ve birthed something in a biological sense, is start up life parallels actual life. Tomorrow is not certain, today is a work in progress and best to make the most of what you’ve lost yesterday by moulding that f*ck up into something brilliant. Eckhart Tolle says that Life is an adventure – not a packaged tour. So be at ease with not knowing, making decisions without all the answers and giving yourself a break if it bombs…chances are it will and so what…we’ll all move forward if you recognise this is part of the process. How you respond to the things that happen to you determines whether you will live a life of fear, anger or hope. If you’re facing uncertainty, this is life saying something is off balance: clear space, allow the mud to settle and let the answers show themselves…they will when you allow them to.
In every situation you have two choices: hope and despair. Hope opens you up to new possibilities, most of which are already in front of you. The alternative is despair often coupled with resistance…what I know about resistance is resistance will try to take you down.
[Hope] can manifest itself as: - finding wisdom in setbacks - fulfillment in your craft - growing sense of self - continuous process of learning [Despair] can manifest itself as: - unfulfilling relationships - lack of stimulation at work - low expectations of self and of others - self entitled behavior
With these two choices comes several paths, Tony Robbins likes to say that we can choose the highway to upset or the dirt road to happiness. I like to think happiness is success, that’s why the title of this article is “Dirt Road to Success”. Chances are we cross back and forth on the great interchange of life and forget to use our rearview mirrors – we are often unconscious when we switch over to the fast lane of despair. Stop for a moment and consider: what road are you on? And what’s standing in your way?
Embrace your dirt road. Be fearless. Be a badass. It’s in you!
I have spent the past nine months developing the market for a clean tech company based in Shanghai, China. Our competencies focus on data analytics in the air quality industry. My experience has been every bit as nail biting as the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back. If you’ve recently switched lanes from corporate life to start up life I am interested in hearing your experiences: the good, the bad and the painfully humorous. Drop me a comment, I’d love to know your thoughts. I can’t yet say whether I will rejoin corporate life, what I do know is I have been rewired from the inside out.
In need of some badass inspiration? Check out our ladybosses and their tales of adopting a fearless mind.