Entrepreneurs are dreamers, a constant source of ideas that can change the world. They are willing to leap into the abyss for a chance to make those dreams a reality.
But what happens when the dream dies?
I would argue this is the single most important question any entrepreneur should ask themselves before starting a business. No matter that it’s also a total bummer. No one wants to think about failure when they’re launching a new venture, especially since entrepreneurs tend to have an optimism that borders on delusion.
But let’s face the facts. Launching a new product is a lesson in failure. Sure, we’ve all seen the news headlines touting the Ubers and Zenefits of the world. But too often we forget that, by definition, the news is anomalous; these businesses are the freaks, not the norm. According to Harvard Business School, 30,000 new consumer products hit the market every year, and 95 percent of them go down in flames.
Product success often feels like winning the lottery; anyone can play and strike it big. Because of this, we’ve created a culture that teaches entrepreneurs success is all about flash, buzz and, frankly, good old-fashioned luck. There’s very little emphasis placed on careful planning, day-to-day hard work and the forethought necessary to create a strong business. And this misplaced emphasis is harming generations of entrepreneurs.
There’s a far healthier approach to launching a business. I call it counter-culture entrepreneurialism. Instead of taking a shortsighted and high-cost approach to business building, counter-culture entrepreneurs start with that earlier question: What happens when the dream dies?
Starting with a focus on failure may seem like a recipe for disaster, but it can help an entrepreneur focus on long-term success. It’s an approach based on founding a business, not launching a product, and it forces the entrepreneur to think about sustainability, not just an exciting idea.
This is not to say the product is inconsequential, of course. But counter-culture entrepreneurs position the product to serve the business instead of the individuals that started or work for it.
Asking what happens when the dream dies forces you to look at your leadership, team and community engagement as primary focuses of your business, allowing it to outlive your initial product idea. Because even if the dream dies, counterculture entrepreneurs rarely walk away empty-handed; they’ve ensured they have invaluable skills, a ready-made team and strong community support in place so their next idea has an even better chance for success.
An entrepreneur is not necessarily a natural leader. Becoming one, however, pays dividends for the future no monetary investment can match. As you build your business, simultaneously focus on honing skills in product-pitching, marketing, finance, operations, management, logistics and design.
To do this, you should be constantly reading business books, following trends on social media, taking classes and seeking mentors. Additionally, find ways to gain experience outside of your business — join boards, committees or lead a volunteer project.
By doing these things, you’ll not only develop a strong foundation for your business and boost its chances for long-term success, but you’ll also gain lifelong, high-value expertise. So should the unthinkable happen and your product fails, you’ll retain your reputation as a business leader, which can help you find new investors and opportunities or launch your next big idea.
Too many entrepreneurs focus so much on their product that their teams become a commodity. They recruit with promises of future payoffs and stock up on “insta-experts” to do the work. This eye-on-the-prize strategy of paying for expertise seems to become a license to burn through workers. Then if the product fails or the payout is delayed, the team disappears as well. All of that time and effort is wasted if the company hasn’t built its team into its broader vision. And without that component, there’s no loyalty or emotional buy-in to keep staff connected.
Counter-culture entrepreneurs invest in the team for the business, not the product. You should spend each day building relationships with your team members and making sure they have opportunities to build their own relationships with each other. Be open to sharing your passions, not only for the product, but also for the business as a whole. Strive to create a culture that is invested in building something that will hold value beyond the founder.
Doing this involves continuously investing time away from the product, which is difficult but worth it. Create opportunities for culture-building by offering team training and staff outings, celebrating personal achievements, encouraging group interests and inviting discussion on business strategies. Doing this can result in a strong, established team that works efficiently and enthusiastically together, resulting in greater success in the long run. And even if that original product idea fails, it’s a team that is invested in sticking together.
Building a community presence is often the first outside-time investment thrown away by entrepreneurs. After all, time is everything when it comes to getting a product ready for launch. And when it comes to strengthening a business (especially for potential investment), spending time in the community may seem frivolous. Let me assure you, it is not.
Startup entrepreneurs often miss what counter-culture entrepreneurs embrace: how integral the community’s interests are to your business’ success. All too often entrepreneurs mistake the reach of social media for community building. While they may reach the masses, they’re missing the allies right outside their doorstep. Your physical address isn’t just the location where your business is stationed, it represents the community where your team, customers and partners live and, hopefully, thrive. Demonstrating your dedication to the community not only shows you’re invested in the lives of your employees, it shows you’re invested in the success of the entire business community. And when you show you’ve invested, that investment will often return tenfold.
What your business can gain from engaging with business chambers, networking groups and nonprofit organizations can be as beneficial as a cash investment. Becoming an integral member of your community’s business sector gets you large and powerful allies, ones that support your growth, can offer advice and have your back during tough times.
Every entrepreneur believes he or she will succeed. Very few get to be right. And while not every entrepreneur is in it for the long haul, you must ultimately decide whether to approach your business with the startup mentality or the counter-culture mentality; deciding if you are in it for the fast-paced, winner-take-all excitement of launching a product or are willing to work consistently for the slower, smarter growth that makes a business sustainable.