Friday, March 28, 2014

Raise your hand, break your heart, grow your brain

Food is life’s binding agent.

It’s also an extremely difficult way to make a living.

Manhattan, for example, has twenty four thousand restaurants. But despite profound competition, the city still receives almost five thousand new applicants each year. Meaning the annual turnover is close to twenty percent.

Yikes.

This topic is fresh in my mind because I recently attended a small business panel for food entrepreneurs. The speakers ranged from chefs to farmers to distributors to public health officials to food truck operators. Pretty compelling stuff. Especially for someone who knows nothing about the food industry. I remember one of the restaurant owners summarizing her work experience with the following question:

How am I going to sell eight hundred of these sandwiches, at seven different locations, and have them all taste exactly the same?

Imagine asking yourself that question on a daily basis.

Yikes.

Then again, every small business owner has their own version of that moment. It comes with the territory. When you raise your hand to go down the entrepreneurial road, you end up slaying dragons you never could have imagined.

Kevin Smith, filmmaker and podcast king, uses a delicious metaphor in his book to describe this experience:

Imagine your plan was to walk down to the convenience store to get some chocolate milk, and while you were there, you were gifted with an entire milk production facility to run, complete with chocolatizer for all the milk. And from that moment forward, for twenty years, chocolate milk became your life. The making of, sampling of, bottling of, vending of, marketing of, balance sheets of, and while you love it all, this unexpected gift of a thriving chocolate milk concern, every once in a while, in the midst of it all, you think, “How’d I get here? All I wanted some chocolate milk.”

Proving, that if you stick around long enough, you’ll see everything.

And it’s not just the food industry, either.

After more than a decade running my publishing and consulting company, I’ve certainly seen my share of these moments, including, printing and shipping abominations, major television networks screwing me over, email and social media hackers, website shutdowns, consecutive years of revenue loss, multiple tax audits, septic tanks flooding my inventory storage, cockroaches living inside cases of my books, hatemail and death threats, stress induced hospital visits, vigilante newsletter subscribers threatening to report me to the government for not removing their name from my list, foreign customs officers confiscating my products at the border, major industry disruptions that obfuscated my business model, clients paying their bills five months late, one client who disappeared and never paid their bill at all, full blown technology meltdowns during live performances, one actual fire during a live performance, and my personal favorite, the disgruntled vendor who played a practical joke on my company that backfired and nearly cost me company fifteen thousand dollars.

And all I wanted was to write a book.

But that’s what entrepreneurs do.

We raise our hands.

The upside is, no matter how many times our heart breaks along the way, we’re still becoming more valuable as time goes on. Every one of those painful experiences teaches us something that becomes a shortcut for understanding something else. Everything we do is designed to give us a stronger base.

Scott Adams famously said that he never lets failure leave until he picks its pocket. He doesn’t want his failures to simply make him stronger, but to make him better able to survive future challenges. His job, he says, is to grab failure by the throat and squeeze it until it coughs up a hairball of success.

Damn right.

Back when I thought online training was the future of corporate learning and development, I invested considerable amounts of time, money and energy building my own production studio and proprietary video platform. 

Unfortunately, my prediction was wrong. Online training wasn’t the future I thought it was. Corporate clients just weren’t buying it. Literally or figuratively. With the exception of a few small scale projects, I never really cracked the online training code, despite my best efforts to create a great product.

So after five years, I finally turned enough of a profit to break even.

But along the way, I learned video production and design skills, unearthed talents I didn’t know I had, extended my brand and body of work into new places, and kicked open the door to future business opportunities that actually did make money. I also invented a new form of media to circulate my views and extend my sentiments and make my ideas accessible to as many people as possible. I built something I was proud of and that I can point to, and the person I became along the way is something nobody can take away from me. 

Ultimately, the summation of those experiences improved my personal value no matter how the project itself did, and the insight and perspective those experiences granted me have widened the dimensions of my world and intensified my participation in life.

So I viewed the experience as a net gain.

Because that’s what small business people do.

Raise your hand, break your heart, grow your brain.