If you have your own business, you’re in a lifeboat. There is only room for one person -- you. One hand is on the tiller, the other is on the sail. You have an idea and a vision for your business, but it is beyond sight, a great distance away on the other shore. While it’d be convenient to just set the boat to autopilot and arrive smoothly at your destination, everything is guaranteed to change along the way. From weather events in your industry to other boats that might crowd your course, there is no way to predict what those changes will look like. Even your destination might look vastly different than what you envision. With so many unknowns involved in running your own business, it is essential to prepare for the unpredictable. Here are five principles that can help us prepare for whatever unknowns come our way as we steer our business towards that distant shore.
1. Keep your eyes toward the distant shore.
You need to remain steadfastly fixed and dedicated to your larger goal, even as it may change direction mid-course. As with any sailboat, you’re going to need to be able to tack. You’ll shift the rudder and the sail one way and then the next, while at the same time, you remain dedicated to reaching the other shore. The course between two points is rarely a straight line, especially when it comes to launching and steering a business in today’s competitive market. Being able to pivot on the fly is extremely valuable to your long term success.
2. Stay flexible and resilient.
Adapting to whatever comes your way is paramount to your success. You might not even arrive at the stretch of shore you first intended, because your course inevitably shifts due to circumstances described above. This might seem like a paradox -- don’t you launch a business, like a boat, with a specific destination in mind? But if you’re going to accomplish this mission, and reach the other shore at all, you need to get comfortable with paradox. Never lose sight of the great paradox of business: it requires you to remain simultaneously flexible and rigid. Don’t turn back at the first signs of stormy seas, but do consider changing your course to minimize damages along the way.
You’re the captain of the ship, steadfast, focused, and one-pointedly determined. Yet everything is swirling around you. Even the slightest breeze has its influence that must be taken into account. Yet if you’re not flexible, the sail will tear, the mast will crack, and the boat will capsize. You are living the paradox of infinite flexibility with infinite rigidity.
3. Keep the boat afloat.
Not only must you keep your boat in the water, but also the water out of the boat. When the skies are clear and the breeze is gentle, you can make great strides forward. During storms, your mission is to just keep afloat with a steady hand on the tiller. You don’t always need to have the sail filled with wind. For example, an MBA program might teach you to continually maintain a good return on investment. When the business climate is choppy, that can be risky. Like Mark Twain said, “I’m more concerned about the return of my money than the return on my money.”
Choppy business conditions can elicit fear and overreaction. When the market turns down, irrationality can kick in. Extrapolating that downturn into the future, you might even be convinced to close your business altogether. When the water is too choppy, it’s easy to lose your own direction as the currents of mass mentality wash into your boat. Once the water gets in, it’s easy to over-react. Successful business people are those who consider the climate and adjust accordingly without losing sight of the other shore.
4. Steer clear of the Sirens.
Just as in Homer’s Odyssey, Sirens will be calling you. They will frighten you with predictions of pending economic swings. Then they will bait you with the allure of greener pastures. In business, the Sirens are everywhere. They speak through the voices of friends and loved ones. They speak through experts on the news.
There will always be such experts to distract you with fear and greed. Remember that no one knows your business better than you do, and you are the captain of your ship. Learn to disregard the Sirens, keep a steady hand on the tiller, and tack as needed.
5. Beware the serpents.
Beneath the water, serpents loom. In the waters of business, they come in many forms. Some are friends or associates who turn sour. They may attack, criticize, abandon, or disrupt you in a number of ways. While these attacks can hurt, you have to be ready to adjust accordingly. You can’t let detractors or skeptics get you down or overwhelm you. As time goes by, you will gain more expertise in avoiding and not arousing the serpents. It’s a process that takes time. In your business, remember that you alone are steering the boat. Serpents come in many forms: competitors, bureaucrats, incompetent contractors, misguided experts, friends-turned-foe, narrow-visioned advisors, etc. Trust your judgment about people.