3 Hard Lessons Most Entrepreneurs Learn Before Succeeding
You can have 12 mentors and read a thousand books but there is rarely a painless path to success.
Ask any leading entrepreneur about the secrets to their success and you’ll more than likely find that it’s often the valuable lessons that come through hardships, trials and challenges that best serve their long game. Statistically, 90 percent of startups fail. There’s much to learn from the minority 10 percent that strike it big, not the least of which is the simple fact that had they never even tried, they’d have failed by default.
In the search for insight on what it takes to win, I asked three successful entrepreneurs — the head of a corporation, the head of a family of related organizations and an individual businessowner — to share what they’ve distilled from the flow of collective experiences that channeled their paths to prosperity. Here is what they said.
1. Redefine your concept of failure.
Every startup dreams of making it big and sometimes that growth can’t come fast enough. But, fast growth can spell utter ruin when you lack the footing to keep pace. No one knows this better than Doug Andrew, who is still paying for this lesson that came in 1999, when his family was in the pre-Y2K emergency-preparedness kit business.
Andrew’s entire family, including his six children, were involved in this “family entrepreneur” experience of assembling the kits over an entire summer. Even the kids’ friends got involved. While the non-family employees received paychecks each week, the Andrew clan collected nothing, believing their position as stakeholders would pay off handsomely. They also knew that they’d risk it all should something go wrong. “Disaster struck, all right, but in a form that was unrelated to the feared Y2K rioting, computer failures or storms,” Andrew said.
That something came in the form of a giant purchase request. “We got to work like never before, creating the unprecedented number of kits,” he explained. “The order was delayed, postponed and delayed again — until January 1, 2000, came and went without much incident. At this point the order was canceled.”
Andrew was forced to liquidate inventory for pennies on the dollar, refusing to take the bankruptcy route. “The sum was large enough (in the multiple millions of dollars) that I am continuing to resolve the final portions of that experience today.”
However, what Andrew calls the “Summer of Failed Business” turned into a defining family experience. “My children, who had spent an entire summer in hard labor, learned the hardest entrepreneurship lesson of all: Sometimes deals fall through. But, as time has moved on in the 18 years since this failure, my now-grown children say, ‘We didn’t make any money, for the entire summer. But, that experience — side by side, as a family — was the best time of our lives.'”
Today, Andrew’s Live Abundant wealth and retirement strategies consulting enterprise has grown exponentially — by more than 1000 percent (10X) in just 48 months. He’s watched his company’s revenue increase 10-fold with many of his former competitors becoming clients. And he’s done this with two of his sons at his side: Emron Andrew as CEO and Aaron Andrew as the company’s top financial consultant. The “failed” family entrepreneurial endeavor compelled both sons to create financial footing for themselves at early ages. They co-authored Millionaire by Thirty with their father, whose work has landed on The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists.
2. Reconsider what you believe to be impossible
Who defines what’s “possible?” In many cases, when you approach problems from a new perspective, an obstacle you consider to be insurmountable turns out to be the construct of your own problem-solving approach. Take the case of Steve Down, founder of Even Stevens, a sandwich shop that donates a sandwich of equal nutritional value to the community’s hungry for every sandwich sold.
Several years ago, while enjoying a delicious hoagie at a Denver restaurant, Down’s assistant remarked, “How could a person possibly improve upon this?” His assistant challenged him to come up with an idea before lunch was over and he did. Compelled by the Tom’s Shoes model in which Tom’s gives away a pair of shoes for each pair sold, Down envisioned his concept for direct-match eatery altruism.
The model seemed impossible in the restaurant industry — a sector beset by high volume and low margin. To address this challenge, Down selected a CEO who had led two prior successful restaurant chains and paired that individual with a leader from an entirely different industry to find efficiencies that had never before been considered in food service.
Out of this thinking, not only has Even Stevens become a highly profitable venture with 19 locations, the company has contributed more than two million sandwiches to date. The principles employed have become a theme Down believes is even more important than “conscious capitalism” — he calls it “cause capitalism,” and is passionate about teaching and using its principles throughout his companies and speaks and writes about it everywhere he goes.
3. Focus on one thing
A longtime entrepreneur, Alysa Rushton noticed that most business owners are focused on far too many things at once, which means constantly divided attention, slow and incremental progress and an inability to realize huge leaps and gains. But, the magic happens, she’s learned, when you focus on one thing in your business.
Are you interested in strategy or execution? Are you trying to offer a broad range of products or services in hopes that something will truly take off? These are questions you should be asking yourself and at the core, you have to have a good grasp on your primary objective — the one thing that works, not the many that don’t.
In Rushton’s case, she zeroed in on one of her online courses. She soon realized that when she gave it her undivided focus, the single course produced six figures in revenue very quickly. “What I learned in this process is that you don’t necessarily get things right immediately out of the gate,” she said. “There is a process of refinement that needs to happen with any great new idea, but that if you stick with it and continue to improve and evolve your best idea, you’ll create a massive impact and generate great income.”
Struggles and setbacks are part of the startup game and all opportunities come at a cost. But, even the price of failure can yield great dividends. The sooner you embrace this reality and leverage it to your advantage by reframing your approach, the sooner you’ll succeed. It’s all just a matter of perspective.