Friday, June 26, 2009

The Ride :: The Diary of a Young Entrepreneur #5

June 23, 2009
Fake n' Make

Back in my volleyball days, we often used the term, "Fake it 'til you make it". Now this is exactly what is says on the tin. If you are down, sideways or anything other than up, you need to fake to the world that you are up. Not just up, but confident, successful and leave no one with any doubt that you are going to do anything other than win. You literally need to fake that you are the best, you are winning, you are untouchable, you are amazing, before anyone else forms a different opinion and thus takes advantage of your chips being down.

I have found that confidence and momentum play a huge part, not only in sports, but in life. A recent example of this is the Champions League final this year between Manchester United and Barcelona. This is soccer for all the American readers. Over here this is like the NBA finals between the Lakers and the Celtics, just to give it some perspective. Anyway, Man U came out all confident, taking shots on goal from the first minute, and it appeared that no only were they going to win, but going to kill Barcelona. They dominated the entire field for the first 5 or 10 minutes with Barcelona not even having 1 single shot on goal. Then, Barcelona, given their first opportunity to score, did just that. And with that one single shot, took all the confidence and momentum away, and Manchester were never able to get it back or recover. Once your confidence is shaken, no matter what the playing field, you are at a distint disadvantage. The only way around this at times, is to fake it 'til you make it.

I still sit in awe when I see what being confident can bring you. It is just as amazing to see someone who loses confidence and how quickly the demise of their situation can come about. In my experience, confidence is king. Now, I am not talking about hip swaggering arrogance, but real confidence. The kind of confidence that only comes when you have been knocked down a few times and have had to get up. The kind that comes from suffering through 20 rejections to get 1 yes. Confidence that comes from putting yourself out there and having to face tough decisions and tough situations that shape you and make you. This is the kind of confidence it takes. The read kind. The kind that, because you are tried and test, you will come through even when the chips are down.

I have, in the past 12 months, gone through varying stages of confidence. In the early days, confidence is high. I had just started a new company and was finally my own boss and riding high on the coattails of that for at least the first 3 months. My parents and family were telling me how proud they were, friends complimented me and supported me on taking this step, and my peers sat in two categories. Some thought it was a natural decision for me and I was born to be a leader, while others were happy to get rid of me and I doubt would have minded if I crashed and burned in the first year. Then boom, Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock, RBS, crash burn crash burn. We were not immediately affected by it all, but the world changed. The next 6 months were decidely different. No one was riding high on the confidence wave. In fact, the people who had always faked it 'til they made it, now came across as either naive or not in touch with reality. The rules were changing, right along with pretty much everything else. During this time, my confidence was still in denial. I still thought I was pretty great, but seeing numerous greats either getting knocked down a few pegs, or some falling of the pedestal altogether, started making me question myself. Was I next? Was my market next? Would I be spared the back hand of discontent? No. I couldn't, and I wouldn't.

Which leads me to the last 3 months. Part of which are now chronicled here, and the confidence barometer reads like the Barclays share price. Up and down, but largely trending upwards and onwards. I have realised that there is no time for self doubt or self pity. There will always be knocks and if I let them show, I am losing. I always tell my guys, this whole thing called work, is all one big game. There are winners and losers and if you can simplify it to that level, and cut through all the crap, then you can start playing the game to win. Each day is like a point in tennis. There are no ties, no draws, someone wins and someone else loses. Just like a point in tennis (seems natural to use this analogy with Wimbledon on this week) the winning and losing is all in the mind. It's all in the confidence. If one player sees the other falter, even in the slightest, they will go in for the kill. Then they'll spend the rest of the game pushing their opponent further and further into self doubt, until they finish them off.

So while my confidence is trending upwards, I can look back at the confidence I had when I started this business or when I was playing volleyball and I can chuckle a bit to myself. Not because it wasn't real, but because it feels the confidence that comes with experience is so much more satisfying than the fake it 'til you make it kind, however necessary that is sometimes. I imagine it's how our parents look at us when we are teenagers adn I can hand on heart swear that I genuinely thought I knew everything. Confidence doesn't come with age, but with experience. And I am confident that the experiences that have come with starting a new business in one of the toughest economic climates ever, will allow me to keep playing this game long after a number of my opponents.

The Ride :: The Diary of a Young Entrepreneur #4 Comfortably Numb

June 16, 2009
Comforably Numb

One's comfort zone refers to the set of environments and behaviors with which one is comfortable without creating a sense of risk. A person's personality can be described by his or her comfort zones. Highly successful persons may routinely step outside their comfort zones, to accomplish what they wish. To step outside a person's comfort zone, they must experiment with new and different behaviors, and then experience the new and different responses that then occur within his environment.
~ Wikipedia Definition ~

I was thinking about topics this week, trying to narrow down the 1,000,001 things that I have learned, mostly the hard way, since I have started this business. One of the lessons that I have found continues to pop up, month after month, quarter after quarter, is stepping out of your comfort zone. Now this appears to be pretty simple rhetoric. You hear it all the time, "Push yourself", "Always be pushing the boundaries", "blah blah blah", the list goes on. But I have found that when faced with stepping outside of our comfort zones, 99% of us hesitate. Probably another 75% never make the jump at all .

One hears the statistics all the time that suggests we live in a world of comfortable boundaries. As an American in London, colleagues and acquaintances are constantly spouting out the statistic of the small percentage of Americans who own a passport. Or the one of how the average American will never travel more than 25 miles from where they are born, or some ridiculousness like that. But, while some may be more far-fetched than others, they all scream of not wanting to push the boundaries. It's easy to understand why. People who operate within their comfort zones tend to be happy enough, content, stable. They do their job, sometimes they do it well, and they stick to what they know. There is a lot to be said for sticking to what you know. But, I have found that if you really want to taste success, regardless of the scale, then at some point you are going to have to step outside your comfort zone and throw yourself into the frying pan.

I learned this when I left a high paying steady job at my last company, to start this business. I learned this when I travelled halfway across the world to live in London when I only knew one person and had no job, no place to live, and no friends. I learn this every time I travel to a new country and find myself eating the local food in the middle of the market, rather than in the upscale restaurant in our hotel. I am reminded of this every week when I try a new marketing tactic, open a new market, or even make a cold call to a new client. Essentially every time we put ourselves in a situation where we don't already know the outcome, we are stepping outside of our comfort zone, and in my opinion, making progress.

Now I know a lot of people who cannot think of anything worse than pushing those boundaries. The mere thought of looking foolish, getting rejected, getting lost or dumped, or failing, is enough to make sure they never so much as set a toe outside the little cocoon in which they have woven for themselves. There is nothing wrong with that, if that is what they want. But, I can categorically say those are not the people who have books written about them, articles published, or are celebrated on any level. Exiting your comfort zone gives so much more than anything that can be quantifiable. It gives you confidence, it shapes your character, it exposes your flaws, it sharpens your skills, and it allows you to have a life that is beyond what you currently have. It teaches you and burns you and praises you and often entralls you. Putting yourself out there, ultimately shapes you.

Where this has really hit home for me, has been going into new areas of business. Having spent my entire professional career in one sector of the market, it's been difficult to take the plunge and move almost entirely into something new and unknown. We could stick out the tough times and try and grow our business in the markets that I started out in, however, we would always be a minnow in a very large pond. So onto mapping out new markets it is. This exercise has been daunting and exciting all at the same time. There are few quick wins when you are navigating new waters .But in the long run, it's much more exciting popping and jumping and occasionally getting burned in the frying pan, that is it for settling for the ease of your comfort zone.

The Ride :: The Diary of a Young Entrepreneur # 3 Rocknroller

June 5, 2009

I know it's cliché, but the best way I can describe this year is by comparing it to a roller coaster ride. You wait in line for your turn, step off the platform on to the ride with anticipation, and then you hang on for dear life. At the beginning of the ride there is always a quick turn, then a medium sized ascent which is usually followed by a huge drop to ensure that there is that initial rush of adrenalin. You then bottom out and then slowly, and I do mean slowly, start the large ascent. I can hear it now: click click click as you slowly go higher and higher, the anticipation rises and rises, until you are finally at the top and are high enough to gain enough speed and momentum to rush you through the rest of the ride.

I am about two clicks up the ascent right now. A few weeks back, I was at the very bottom. You know the part where it bottoms out and goes flat for awhile and then slows up right before you start the ascent? You then stop completely, get jerked right back in your seat and then start going slowly up. That part where you are stopped and get jerked back... that is where I was a few weeks back. I am sure it came out pretty loud and clear in the blog. I was nearly at a standstill. In fact, it was a good thing that I was strapped in, because if I wasn't, I think I would've jumped off. I was pretty close to the edge. But now we are moving, albeit slowly. But more importantly, we are moving up and I am starting to remember why I wanted to go on the ride in the first place.

I was home about a month ago and was reading through the only diary I've ever kept in my life. It chronicles my life from when I was 16 and 17. It is absolutely hilarious. I was in love for the first time in my life, with the best friend of my boyfriend, who to make it even more complicated, was also my best friend. He broke my heart, but that was not the funny part. The funny part is reading the thoughts of a 16 year old who went from being deliriously happy to completely depressed, all in the span of 1 school week, every week, and all based on if a boy I liked was nice to me or not. I mentioned a few weeks back that life had not bee this hard since I was 16. I think what may be more accurate, is that life has not been this up and down. One week, my back is against the fall and I am grapsping for breath. Now, only 2 short weeks later, my back is a noticeable 2 inches from the wall and I am no longer thinking the grass is greener on the other side.

The slow ascent is rarely sexy, but if you get it right, then the rest of the ride is just that much sweeter. As we pull through each day, all of us trying to gather strength in the fact that we all look completely knackered and are going through this together, we push that much closer to the top. When you speak to successful entrepreneurs, they always say how it all goes by in the blink of an eye, and that that first year is just so crazy and how they always wish they could do those early days all over again. I don't have any children, but it must be similar. Sleepless nights, weary eyes, wondering how the hell you are going to wake up for that 6am alarm. But it all goes by so fast and I am conscience of the fact that I'll never get this first year of being a first time business owner back. It's like Freshman year at college. When you go back for your MBA or law degree, that first year doesn't touch our freshman year at university. Your freshman year you are new, everything is new, everyone is new adn you are fresh meat and all the seniors are waiting around to see which lambs will be the easiest to slaughter.

So while the view from where I am right now is still pretty dim. I have taken a huge boost from the fact that we are moving in the right direction again. Even though things are hard, I am trying to savor this year and these experiences. Because I know one day, when we've reached the top, have rushed around all the crazy jerks and turns and are going at mach speed, the ride will end just as quickly as it began. And as sure as there is a tomorrow, I will be standing at the platform thinking, "I want to go again."

The Ride :: The Diary of a Young Entrepreneur # 2 Burnt Fingers

May 28, 2009

Burnt Fingers

As a child you are constantly reminded that if you play too close to the fire, you will get burned. "Don't touch the hot pan/fire/stove/bbq", you'll get burned. Now as curious children, what do we do? Of course we get too close to the hot object and attempt to do the forbidden. We reach our chubby little fingers out when no one is looking, and promptly get burned. We then cry, get slathered with burn cream, and move on to find the next adventure, with our new burn marks to show off in the sandbox.

Fast forward 25 years and we are still doing the same thing. Except this time around, no one is there to lovingly apply burn cream. Now your investors are threatening you, your staff are questioning you, and your parents are worried it's all going to go up in smoke and you'll have to move back in. This leaves us in a bit of al quandary. If we don't get too close to the fire, if we don't take risks, then we risk living out our professional lives in the doldrums. But for most of us, every time we get burned we get a little more cautious. Now I am 29, still young enough to be bold and take risks, but too old to not be fully calculating the risks before I take them. Worse, with every risk I take that doesn't come off, I learn from it, but I also become just a little more risk adverse. That is not a good trait as a budding entrepreneur. Or is it? What about all the risks I've taken that have worked out? What about the biggest risk of all which is starting out on your own in the first place? Why do I brush those successes aside so quickly? Why do we only dissect our mistakes and failures?

This leads me onto a much larger and more complex topic. Mistakes and failures. They go hand in hand with burnt fingers and risk takers. Now we all know that if we don't make mistakes we don't learn. Many of us, even if we are told, will have to go on and make the mistake on our own anyway. Just like when our Mom told us not to touch the hot stove, your mentor/investor/boss will inevitably warn you of certain pitfalls that will befall you on your road to success. Some we will listen to and take guidance on, while others we will pretend to listen to and then go and do what we want. This is just part of life. I have recently come to terms with the fact that failure is a huge part of this whole experience. Does it make me a failure? No. Will I feel like a big fat failure? Yes. 100%, yes. But that must be the difference between the people who burn their fingers and then never stand close to the fire again and those who get burned put the burn cream on and continue on.

I never realised how much resiliency one needs when starting a company. That may seem like an obvious trait, alongside passion and sel-belief, but for most of us this is not innate. For most of us, resiliency is a learned trait. When you are young and playing a sport or piano or chess or whatever the hell our parents shove us overachieving kids into, the going gets tough, what do you want to do? Quit. I can still hear myself saying, "I don't want to sail anymore", "I hate the piano", "I want to quit volleyball for tennis". Do our parents let us? No What do they tell us? "Corre, it's too easy just to quit and walk away." "Once you become a quitter, you can never go back." Or my personal favorite, "Once a quitter, always a quitter." So what do we do? We give it another chance and the once we feel as though we've given whatever activity it is enough time to understand that you are walking away for solid reasons, our parents let us "quit." Although they don't call it quitting then, as you are just putting more focus on to whatever activity you happen to be excelling in and will inevitably become the next child genius in. I believe it's the same in business. A good leader knows when to stick through the tough times, and also when to walk away to pursue another path.

However, it's the resiliency in you that will inevitably get you through the tough times. It will be your parents/coach/older sister's voice in the back of your head telling you that quitting when the times get tough is for losers adn that you did not get to where you are by being a quitter. Hmmm.... I seem to have veered wildly off my original topic of burnt fingers, but that's alright. It's all relevant somehow.

So what have I learned this week? I have learned that burnt fingers are like the scars I have from childhood. They show that I pushed the boundaries, and always wanted more. They are the invisible scars all young entrepreneurs and professional wear and I am now understanding should wear with pride. They are not the scars of failures; in fact they are not even close. Rather, they are like the notches on your bed post. The more you have, the more around the block you have been. And if you have been around the block a few times, I bet you are damn good at what you do. They are the markings of experience and wisdom and hopefully mean that you have had and are still on, quite a ride.

The Ride :: The Diary of a Young Entrepreneur # 1 The Great Struggle

May 21, 2009

The Great Struggle

We are struggling. More pressing, I am struggling. I don't struggle that much in life so it kind of takes me by surprise when it happens. It's not that I don't struggle because I am so amazing; it's just that most things come relatively easy to me. So I am finding myself in unchartered territory.

The tricky thing now is that after 5 months of taking a beating, self doubt starts knocking on the door. You start questioning yourself and the decisions you have made. You start questioning what you are doing, your future, and if all this is really worth it.

Now when times are good, none of this is relevant. You are too busy making money, promoting people, entering new markets, and just generally being successful that you rarely reflect on the whirlwind happening around you. It's when you are down on your cards and you have no idea whether or not that last card up your sleeve is an Ace or a 2 of Queens.

I don't know if I mentioned here, but I run a small start up. Not wanting to go into a huge amount of detail, we operate within the sales industry. We started up about 2 months before the sh*t hit the fan last fall. It's a strange ol' time right now. Out of my close circle of 10 friends, 2 were laid off. This is just my close circle of friends. I can't recall the countless stories I have heard about people losing their jobs and some even their homes.

I was watching the Great British Menu last night. I am definitely one of those saddo's who Sky Plus' the whole series. Anyway, one of the chefs last night from the South East region, Tristan Welch, was just so full of positivity that I couldn't help but be happy just watching it. The other chef he was up against, Gordon Ramsey's new second hand man now that Marcus Wareing has left him, was a Michelin starred, Ferrari driving wanker. So jaded, so ensonced in his own world that even Tristan's positive attitude could not penetrate through. Walking to work this morning I tried to channel Tristan's positive attitude. It lasted right up until I got on the tube and someone stepped on my foot.

The trouble with trying to be positive all the time is that it is just so damn exhausting. Especially when the entire world is naturally in a negative state. Recession, wars, murder, everything being on sale and you still can't afford it. The truth is, we are in a world of trouble, and this time I am not going to walk through the pile of sh*t and come out smelling like roses.

So what to do.... the really terrible thing about my situation is that it's all my own doing. I don't actually have to be doing any of this. I could have some nice easy life somewhere, live comfortably off the family business, clock in my 9-5 and disappear into the world of comfort and nepotism. There are no school fees, making ends meet malarky with my life. My main concern is that my room in Capri this year will be "Garden View" instead of a view of the Faraglioni. I realise this makes me sound incredibly shallow, but everything is relative, right?

So it all comes down to what am I doing? Am I trying to prove myself? Do I want a yacht in 10 years time with the view, rather than the hotel room? Am I bored? Do other young entrepreneurs have these problems? It's a bit strange, I must admit. I started this company at 28, which still makes me a kid in my eyes. There are a large number of people out there who have started companies before they hit 30. There are also a large number of people who hit 30 and their companies had already gone under. Well at least that's what the stats say.

But what about the rest? What about those ridiculous success stories? What about the great entrepreneurs of our generation? Did they too go through the Great Struggle? It all feels so personal that the only way I can really open up about it is by anonymously posting this, well, I don't even know what this is. I don't think I can bear to be called a "blogger". Misery loves company and I can tell you right, I would love to hear someone else's story. It reminds me of being 16 years old, the last time that life was really hard, and I mean really hard. I think I used to send myself to sleep with the mantra of what doesn't kill me will only make me stronger and "only the strong survive". If anyone spent their teenage years watching the movie, "Dazed and Confused", you will remember OSS.

So whether you are the CEO of a company or vacuuming the carpets at night, remember, we are all struggling. No one wants to talk about it, but it's written in the newly formed lines on our young faces and the proof is in the smelly Tupperware container you now carry to and from work every day instead of buying a Big Bold from EAT.

If only the strong survive, what will become of everyone else?