I Was Blind, But Now I See

You know that feeling when you could not do the simplest thing in the world like putting the correct address? Well, guess what, we had three returns this week, all due to the same mistake: wrong address. The worst thing was, of course, it was all my fault.

I didn’t normally do this. It was not in my nature to make mistakes.

They used to call me ‘the machine’ back in Dog Swamp Distribution. I was so good even my supervisor started to doubt himself.

There was something wrong somewhere. I knew I needed to fix it. We could not afford customers missing their goods all the time because of my stupid mistakes.

“Hello?” I answered the phone.
“Hi, is this Fred’s Industrial Supplies?” the voice from the other end said.
“Yes, hi John,” I replied, recognising the voice straight away.
“Fred, how have you been?” he said.

John didn’t normally say “how have you been”, so something was wrong (again), must be my lucky day.

“Look, we have just decided,” John said.
“Decided .. yes?” I said nervously.
“O look, I feel bad, honestly, but we have decided to use another supplier,” John finally said. “I felt like I had to tell you directly.”

My senses were frozen. I wanted to say something but all I could gather in my head was silence. It was cold, dark, and just silent. I felt nauseous. I felt sick.

John was my biggest customer. His company contributed about 30% of our revenue. His departure was a major shock to me. Well, to be honest, it was not like he didn’t give us any warning. He had been telling us how we should review our pricing. I didn’t think it was that serious. I guess I was wrong. But I couldn’t be wrong, I knew what our competitors were selling at and we matched them, we matched everything.

“John, are you serious?” I said. “Can we talk about it?”
“We have talked about it, Fred,” John said. “You just didn’t listen.”

I was disappointed and angry. That was the moment when I decided that I couldn’t rely on my existing customers. I had to do something. These ungrateful people just kept disappointing me. I gave them the best services ever, the best prices, and the best of everything. And still, they went behind my back and left for useless competitors.

I kept myself composed and said my final words to John.

“Alright John, I get it. Well, let me know if you change your mind then.”

I made a commitment to myself that I would work harder than ever to get better customers. I would not let this incident destroy me. It was time for me to shine. At least that was what I had in mind.

I spent the following months trying everything I could think of to promote our products. I did land new customers. Some of them were pretty good customers too. I knew I could do it. There was nothing stopping me now.

But still, none of them was as good as John. These customers were ‘smallish’. They were like insects, while John was like a whale.

I tried harder. I went around door knocking. I called up potential customers for meetings. I mailed hundreds of sales materials. I faxed promos to everyone I knew would be interested. I did everything I could think of. I landed few more customers, but they were all ‘smallish’. All of them combined were still nothing compared to John’s purchases.

And in the meantime since John’s departure, we sank deeper into financial trouble. Losing 30% of revenue was not an easy matter. I cut cost everywhere I could think of. We even started to turn off the air conditioning during the day to save electricity. We let go everyone except Sam our loyal delivery driver. He agreed to take a pay cut to help us a little bit.

We were desperate. We were on the brink of bankruptcy.

There were times when I didn’t want to go to sleep because I knew I would wake up in the morning to face my nightmare all over again.

I would drive to work contemplating whether I should keep driving or going back home.

“Fred, this is Sam,” Sam my driver called me.
“Yes, Sam?” I said.
“I’m so sorry, I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said.
“What is it?” I said. My heart started to beat faster.
“I have been in an accident,” Sam replied. “I am ok but the van was damaged, badly.”

I felt the cold again, this time I could feel it creeping into my bones. I felt like a dark cloud was hovering around me. I could not say anything. I was just staring at the traffic.

“Fred, I am so sorry,” Sam said. “I will help to pay for the damages. I know things haven’t been easy for you.”

I didn’t say anything. Sam hung up the phone. It wasn’t his fault but he felt guilty nevertheless. He did end up paying for the insurance excess though. He resigned immediately afterwards.

We were out of whack for few weeks while the van was fixed. I ended up using our family car for delivery. We were lucky because we had a big family car. So we managed to fit quite a good volume of items into it.

My wife joined forces to mind the phone while I went around doing deliveries. She was very good with the phone. It was in her nature to build conversations. I had to say, I never knew she was that good.

Due to my activities with delivery, I got to meet with a lot of our existing customers. I didn’t use to talk to them because I was too busy trying to get new customers. This gave me refreshed perspectives.

My customers never said it but I could see they appreciated my efforts to stay afloat. Some of them even offered me cold drinks on hot days. I began to build great relationships with them. I never knew they were such a good bunch of people. I always thought of them as ‘smallish’ customers that I couldn’t care less. Boy, I was wrong. I was so wrong.

I guess there were a lot of things I didn’t know about them.

I began to really care for them, walking the extra miles when they needed help. There were times when I would do express delivery within the hour if I knew they needed the goods urgently. Some other time I would drop my prices heavily because I knew they also had difficulties with their own businesses. I thought it was important if we could weather the storm together.

My customers started to support me more. They gave me more business and they referred me to their friends. I could not thank them enough for their generosity.

John never came back to us, but we survived.

I looked at myself differently now. I thought I was so good that I could never make mistakes. Well, I did, a lot of them. I just didn’t realise it. I thought I was above my customers. In reality, I was beneath them. They were the ones who supported me during tough times.

They were the ones who gave me a second chance.

When that phone rang a few months ago, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how unlucky I was. I was wrong. It turned out to be the luckiest day of my life. It was the day my life was about to change. What I thought was the lowest point in my life turned out to be the highest point.

I went through hell to see heaven.

But it was worth it.

I was blind, but now I see.

 

 

 

The Hidden Price of Entrepreneurship

What is one of the most common characteristics amongst business owners? Is it ‘hustle’? Or ‘street smart’? Or ‘charisma’?

Well they have all of that, with different degrees of sophistication.

What about ‘drive’, ‘passion’, ‘hard work’?

Yeah these too.

Now there is one thing you and I have not thought a lot. And most of us would not readily admit it. This particular characteristic is commonly shared amongst business owners.

This is the dark side of entrepreneurship.

It’s ‘anxiety’.

Entrepreneurship does not come without its price. It is a constant battle in your head, constant worry and constant stress. Business is the ultimate sport, not physical nor intellectual. It is the ultimate 24/7 mental sport.

And it is mentally draining (very).

When we work with struggling business owners, we don’t just turnaround their business. We also turnaround the person. These owners are the ones who need to wake up the following morning to face their nightmare all over again. It doesn’t matter how good our turnaround strategy is, without them in their right mind nothing good will happen.

Have you bled throughout your entrepreneurial journey? Have you got your battle scars? We all have, and these marks, these scars, they are to forever remain within us. They have affected us, shaped us, turned us into who we are. Are we sane? Are we normal? Are we mentally strong? Or are we depressed, stressed, burnout?

Anxiety is real – that is the hidden price of entrepreneurship that no one is talking about.

Please remember that you are not alone. Find a support group, talk to someone. Admit that you feel weak and you feel anxious. In fact, talk to anyone, maybe those that you meet at coffee shop (or bus stop). Just being able to tell someone else will ease the pain – trust me.

Get another person to be your accountability partner. You need someone else to watch over you.

Do not go it alone.

 

What Marketing Budget?

When a business finds itself in financial trouble there is an inherent meaning which most consultants don’t get. The business has ‘financial’ trouble. It needs every dollar to survive. The last thing they need is another marketing budget for that campaign to get more leads which presumably will get them out of trouble.

We need to understand that there is no money left (well maybe a little bit).

We need to fix the cash flow first, cut cost, chase payment, move (not make) some cash into the bank (if there is any), and fix the fundamentals. Then we have a little bit wiggling room. These precious resources are all they have. That’s it, there is nothing else. If it is not enough then that’s it – it’s not enough – start to think about an exit strategy. The more time is wasted the worse it will get.

But don’t lose hope because it might be just enough for us. The challenge is to use these little resources to turnaround the business. And this is when we get a bit ‘creative’. The words ‘free’ and ‘creative’ will be your best friend in the next few months. In order to make all of these to work, we need to be creative in using freely available tools around us. The internet is a great place to find them. But also do some outreach to your friends, families, etc. – not to get free money but free contacts, advice, knowledge, etc.

Fix the fundamentals, hang on to every resource, and be creative to get and use more resources (free is preferable). Then we will have a good shot to turnaround the business.

Now one more thing. While it is great to have a strategy, the real impact will happen during execution. And things will change, the great strategy will be rewritten, and execution will stall.

So persevere, be flexible, focus, and take it one step at a time. We might not have the big budget enjoyed by larger companies. But our mind and mental strength will make up for it.

 

 

Breaking Point

Have you ever heard the story about a frog that gets boiled alive?

Well, there’s this little frog. It somehow ended up inside a big pot of water which was conveniently put on a stove. The stove was on by the way (but only with low fire) which means water got slightly warmer, then slowly got a bit hotter, and a bit hotter. Interestingly the frog didn’t try to jump out of the pot. Instead, it just sat there not moving a single muscle. So the water got even hotter until it finally reached boiling point. The frog didn’t move at all (you wonder why).

It eventually died, boiled alive.

This didn’t happen, of course, no frog was harmed during the writing of this story.

It could happen though. The science behind this is simple. The frog adjusted itself to the increasing heat of the water because it got hotter slowly. The poor frog would have jumped out of the pot if water got hotter quickly. But it didn’t, so it decided to stay and try to overcome (and persevere) in the midst of hot water. It got used to the new heat and when the heat went up it adjusted itself again. Then the time came when it was too late. It got to the boiling point and the frog realized it lost the battle – it was boiled alive.

Let’s use the same principles in overcoming tough times in business. The question we need to ask ourselves is similar to the frog. “Am I being boiled alive and I don’t even realize it?”

We also tend to adjust ourselves to difficult times. We become stronger so we could face adversity. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s us (the person). What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It is very true indeed.

However, when we go through tough times in business it’s not only us that gets pummeled. It is the business itself also. So let’s rephrase the question a little bit now focusing on the business. “Is our business getting boiled alive and I don’t even realize it?”

Business is made up of different substances. Its blood vessel is filled (as you have probably guessed) with “cash”. While its infrastructure is made up of a complex relationship between owners, staffs, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders the whole thing is run with cash.

Now, with tough times this complex infrastructure is damaged. Unlike the human race, a business does not get stronger after getting damaged. For example, a brand does not get stronger after it got bad publicity. A business does not lose customers and gets stronger as a result.

The people inside the business got stronger though. However, these experiences, skills, and everything else that the people learn during difficult times – they don’t always stay with the business. They move around following the footsteps of their owners.

The business itself would suffer. Its complex infrastructure split, its ability to earn and keep cash broke down. It would do that until such time that it would completely break. That is the breaking point.

So what’s the point of all these you might ask?

It is crucial to know the breaking point of your business.

As much as we want to persevere during tough times our business is separate from us. It does not have our brain, heart, and soul. We are the brain, heart, and soul. Just like the frog, we cannot control the heat around the business. On the other hand, we can control whether we want to make the jump or not.

Do you know your business’ breaking point?

 

 

Money The Necessary Evil

The only issue with money is either you use it or it uses you. How does that happen you might say. In reality, it doesn’t. It’s just an excuse we use when we couldn’t control ourselves when it comes to money. We are always in control, money is not.

Have you ever thought about how much money you can make? Or will make?

What about how great business will be if it makes ten times more than it does now?

It is the main currency used by most advertisers. It is how we measure our success, our dignity, our legacy. It is why we rank people based on their wealth.

Let’s face it money is addicting, probably the most addictive substance in the world.

We forget there are other more important things. We forget that money is temporary. We forget that money is only a means to an end. We forget that money is not the end goal.

But talking about a small business we cannot argue that money (or we prefer to call it ‘cash’) is necessary. We must not forget though that it is only necessary to a certain extent. A good business is not focused on cash, albeit it cannot function without it.

So how does this intricate relationship work? We need cash but we don’t want to focus on it? But if we don’t focus on making money how on earth are we going to build a great business?

In every great business, the focus is always on the customers. They exist to solve customers’ perceived problems. These problems do not have to exist – they only need to be perceived to exist. So if you ever felt ripped off by certain businesses, most probably because you are being ripped off. And this is how certain products command such high prices – because they solve ‘perceived’ problems that might not exist in the first place.

Anyway, back to our original discussion.

Regardless of how much you can rip off your customers by creating certain perceived problems and then charge an exorbitant amount to solve them, the focus is still on the customers. The exorbitant amount is the after-effect. Once you start focusing on the money your effort will shift to short-term activities such as reducing operational cost, renegotiating with suppliers, and so on. Not that these activities are bad – they are necessary but they are not the main focus. Your customers will figure out quickly if your business is solving their problems or not. They will sense very quickly if your only interest is their hard-earned cash.

Focus on solving their problems and they will never feel that they are being sold to.

Money is required to fund all these operations but it is never the focus. Never let the temptation of making money pull you down into never-ending addiction.

The Matter of The Heart

It is true that running a business is akin to sport. It is the ultimate 24/7 sport. We have players, opponents, rules, field conditions, luck, and so on. Those who have done a little bit of sport or are fans of sports would know an all-important aspect of winning. At the end of the day during a tough match, it all boils down to one thing: mental strength. It is the matter of the heart.

It is common that a weaker player beats better one because he could handle himself well during difficult times. He has nerves of steel.

Running a business has its ups and downs with nice and nasty surprises every day. However, most people forget that these ups and downs, these surprises – they don’t just happen in the business world. They happen after hours too. They happen at home. And quite often they transform themselves into problems in the business.

A meltdown at home can go a long way if not handled. It could accumulate and explode. The damages are not immediately seen. They slowly build up and then they go all at once. Each issue at home adds fresh petrol – it only takes a small spark to ignite the whole thing.

So what can we do?

Above all else, guard your heart for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23)

Guard your heart and guard your family’s hearts too. Peaceful hearts at home will translate into peaceful relationships in the business. Calm heart and mind will produce high-quality decision making and execution.

How do we guard our heart?

Learn to recognize troubling signs early and try to be more pro-active to prevent bigger issues from emerging to the surface. Do not leave any issues unresolved, talk about it, find solutions. It will not be perfect but every little action counts. Remember, it is not a competition we try to win, it is a relationship we try to build.

With all the stress in the business, why do we want to add problems and issues from home?

Those who could guard their hearts will have the winning edge.

They possess the mental strength required to fight in the marketplace.