When I was growing up on a ranch in the hills of northern Canada, problem solving and creative thinking were just as valuable as the knife in my back pocket. Sometimes my ideas were the only tools available to get the job done.
I remember a time when I was in high school and a cold front had blown into the hills of Alberta. It averaged about 40 below that night, and I had a 5 o’clock wake up call with 200 head of cattle to feed. The sun was still in a deep sleep when I pulled myself out of bed and went to start the tractor. The “tick, tick, tick” of the starter was a sure sign that today wasn’t going to run in my favor.
I started grabbing hay bales two at a time and packing them across the snow to the feeders by hand. On my fourth trip out to the feeder, the hay bales started to seem a little heavier and the snow felt a whole lot deeper. By about my twelfth trip, I was drained and madder than hell at my situation.
I was determined to never let that tractor get too cold again. So, I figured that if I supplemented the plug-in with a wood stove to heat the small building where we stored the tractor, I could get it started in the morning. However, I quickly learned if I didn’t wake up once a night to restock the stove with wood, the heat wouldn’t last. So I did.
I learned from those frigid Canadian winters that all good ideas require testing. And testing requires hard work and continuous dedication. Whether it was heating the shop with a wood stove or my plans to go to college, I had to be creative and work hard, every single day.
The time I spent in engineering school challenged everything I knew. In school, we learned to look at a structure and view its weak points and strong points. I learned to find the value in what is good in an object and how to improve what is bad. My degree taught me to think like an engineer, but my cowboy roots remind me to bring a little bit of common sense into a world where we often times complicate things.
So what has this to do with “Fire-Ready-Aim”? On the farm, you are sometimes limited in your time to study a problem: when the cows have to get fed, you just have to use your gut and common sense and get started. I call this “Fire.” You may not have enough information, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Once you get started, do not blindly follow the plan, but be Ready to learn and adjust, like when I learned I had to get up in the night to feed the stove. Once you have the testing and learning completed, you can really Aim your final plan.
So when I started my first company, I Fired (it felt right and looked like it would work). I knew it would be both challenging and rewarding and that I would have to be Ready to adapt several times and, ultimately, Aim my plan with testing and learning. Just because you grow up on a farm in Canada doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful entrepreneur. But just because you have a good idea for a business doesn’t mean you will succeed.
I think all entrepreneurs should ask themselves these seven questions before taking the leap:
1. Will people want what I can offer?
Before rushing into anything, ask yourself, “Are people interested in what I have to offer, and can I build it?” Make sure you have the expertise to make a good product for your customers. Customers are your lifeline, and they should always be directing your decisions.
2. What resources can I use?
Sometimes the resources you need are not the ones available to you.
However, being successful is being resourceful. When I chose to build up a tech company in Spokane, Washington, I knew that I would have to overcome some obstacles. One of the difficulties of being located outside of Silicon Valley was finding high-level, experienced programmers who could design sophisticated technology. I went looking for men and women with roots in Spokane who had productive and successful careers elsewhere who might be interested in coming back.
One of the best advantages Spokane offers is that it is surrounded by some of the Northwest’s elite universities, meaning I had young, devoted students who were eager to work hard for any opportunity I could give them. I used the resources I had, to bring in what I didn’t.
3. Will I need a mentor?
In my opinion, the most important resource you can acquire is a good mentor. The best ones are the people who’ve been around the block before and have the scars and battle wounds to prove it. My mentors saw my mistakes before I even made them, and I owe much of my success to their intuition.
If you’re looking for a mentor, you will most always find that the best ones have been mentored themselves.
4. Who should I surround myself with?
The people you surround yourself with will determine the success of your ideas.
When I was traveling down the road from rodeo to rodeo, I learned the importance of keeping good company. I didn’t have to spend too many miles on the truck with someone who had a bad attitude before I realized how detrimental it was for me.
When the going gets tough, you want people who are uplifting, trustworthy and passionate about their work.
5. How will I develop my network?
Your network will come to be the most valuable thing you carry with you every day. People who went to school with you, friends you’ve known since childhood or somebody you met last week can all be beneficial to you in some way.
I have a unique network of people I know from being in the rodeo world. In 2006, when I was traveling to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, I met a group of Brazilian cowboys who happened to be some of the smartest businessmen I have ever met. Next IT has done a lot of business in Brazil because of this cowboy connection.
You never know how the people you meet might one day influence your career.
6. What can I offer employees other than money?
Finding trustworthy and hardworking individuals is only valuable if you offer the same type of relationship. I always aim to offer people a job that I believe will benefit them just as much as it will my business.
When I chose to start a company in Spokane, I knew I could offer my employees more than just a paycheck. I sold them on the beauties of the Inland Northwest and the numerous benefits this city has to offer. Beyond that, I knew I could give them opportunities they could never get in a highly competitive environment. The experience a person can gain by being part of a startup is undeniable.
7. How can I benefit the community?
I’ve learned that contribution equals compensation. The more you do for and bring into the community, the more the community will give back to your business. If you bring jobs and the opportunity for people to have successful careers in your community, you’ll begin to see tax incentives, developers willing to give you deals on rent, or other benefits.
It’s true in business and in life -- the more you give, the more you will get back.
So, are you ready to shoot?
My motto has always been, “Fire. Ready. Aim.”
The truth about starting a business is if you have confidence in your idea and believe in it without a doubt, then the success lies in your own hands.
When you have an idea, act quickly on it. You fire by starting to talk to investors, getting information from potential customers and building a prototype. You ready yourself by analyzing the data collected and refining the ideas. A smart entrepreneur learns from their mistakes, taking what is good and enhancing what is not. You then can feel confident enough to aim.
For some people, the aim becomes difficult; the product could always be improved and you will never have enough data to be absolutely certain. This step takes a certain blind faith and a serious reliance on your gut instincts.
But if you’re able to answer the questions above, your instincts will lead you in the right direction.