Are You Wandering in Search of an Entrepreneur’s Promised Land?

Exodus tells us that Moses set out of Egypt with gusto. In dramatic fashion, he flipped Pharaoh the metaphoric bird and took off with his enslaved Hebrew friends, pursuing freedom in a Promised Land of milk and honey.

This reminds me of many stories that I heard during a research project I undertook a few years ago. I was chiefly looking at risk-perception among small and medium size business owners, start up founders and entrepreneurs. But what I stumbled upon was an intriguingly common set of attitudes and backstories.

These 1000+ business people in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand recounted their initial journey into entrepreneurship. Overwhelmingly, they described a transition into business ownership as the pursuit of freedom and flexibility and a sense of self-governance.

In most cases, they left an employed role, throwing off the predictable comfort of a monthly paycheck in favor of something more liberating and exciting. Even after being in business for years, their tone of voice and the sparkle in their eye as they recalled their start in business convinced me that this event was a thrilling watershed moment. It was a mix of passion and hopefulness, with a dash of apprehension and nervousness. Even where the catalyst was circumstantial (e.g. losing a job, or inheriting a family business) more than 90% seemed to recount Six Big Desires when starting out:

  1. To Be My Own Boss
  2. To Create More Wealth
  3. To Have More Freedom & Flexibility
  4. To Enjoy More Time With Family or In Leisure
  5. To Work in A Field of Enjoyment or Natural Talent
  6. To Create Something To Be Proud Of

These common drivers seem intuitive to me. I’ve been there myself in several businesses, and can identify. Perhaps you can, too.

It’s not that being an employee is bad per se (it’s my belief that employee and industry experience can be exceedingly helpful for entrepreneurs, and there’s evidence to back this up). That said, it strikes me that the entrepreneurial itch seems to be woven into some of our DNA, and when that scratch is prevented because of the requirements of a 9 to 5, that job can feel like a set of comfortable shackles.

My study also pointed Four Common Worries. These are the day-to-day concerns that were most pronounced in stealing the joy of business owners:

  1. Money Worries – not just cashflow, but also chasing invoices, juggling debts, feast and famine cycles, and lack of retirement savings for the owner.
  2. Time Worries – a sense of perpetual rushing and multitasking, working too many hours without a break, and a focus on time-consuming but low-productivity tasks.
  3. Generalized Stress & Anxiety – feeling uncertain, incomplete, or precarious. Some report fear that “the buck stops with me”, imposter syndrome, and a fear of unknown compliance requirements or legal issues.
  4. No Clear Path Forward – for those who identify as being innately entrepreneurial and ambitious, most describe a sense of not having a means to progress from their current state of survival to a desired future state of success.

Also interestingly, I found correlation between entrepreneurs who over-indexed for self-reported occupational happiness, and three common features of their businesses:

  1. Stability – this was the only concept with a noticeable connection to finances, though it went further than just dollars and cents. This was where the business owner had a sense of predictability in the business, and felt confident that they could see what was likely around the corner.
  2. Social – successful entrepreneurs may trend toward extraversion, but even when correcting for this, happier business owners reported that they liked to spend time with their staff, business partners, suppliers and regular customers.
  3. Social Good – when the business owner had a deliberate and purposeful aim to provide something of benefit to someone other than themselves, they were consistently happier. This includes grand gestures of philanthropy, as well as simple efforts to improve the lives of people impacted by the business such as employees or suppliers.

It’s interesting to me that even when the inevitable tough times in business came up, these happier business owners reported that one or more of these three factors helped to sustain them.

All of this leads me to one simple premise: business owners have common desires and concerns, and there are predictable ways for them to achieve success while increasing day-to-day happiness.

I’ve used this as a foundation for a business accelerator that I run, The CORE Marketing Method. This program teaches marketing excellence based on empirically proven methodologies that works in small business and start ups, and is brought to life in a proprietary business operations model to dramatically and predictably grow a business while containing risk.

So, what does this have to do with Moses?

It’s my belief that when an entrepreneur sets out in transition to become The Business Owner, they typically burst onto the scene with a heady mix of euphoric emotions that make them more susceptible to biases and cognitive blindspots. At the risk of sounding like an off-brand Dr. Phil, these entrepreneurs go in excitedly with both guns blazing, but totally unaware of their poor emotional and mental postures that provide a platform for making faulty critical decisions.

Dr. Phil would tell you what I’m telling you, but with a more charming Southern accent.

In most cases, this causes the business to fail early. Of those minority that remain afloat, these blindspots prevent them from growing and holds them in a cycle of “just-surviving”, critically exposed to just one bad market event that could cripple them. And, they typically leave the owner prone to those Four Common Worries I described above, causing them to be less happy at work.

All of this could be helped if they learned something from Moses and his posse. Like the business owner, the Israelites also had a bold idea when they shook off their shackles and set out. And like most entrepreneurs, they held an idealized belief about some wonderful (but mysterious and poorly defined) final destination. According to the Kid’s Picture Bible that my two little boys ignore in favor of The Adventures of Captain Underpants, Moses led the Israelites around the desert for 40 years, not quite sure where they were going and therefore, not quite sure how to get there.

I’ve been in the area described in Exodus. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place in many ways, but I wouldn’t want to be there without a functioning GPS and an air-con that can safely blast me back into sub-arctic temps. I’d also want a destination in mind, and way-points of interest along the journey.

Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be a blind leap toward an unarticulated, mysterious final destination. After all, you may be leaping in the completely wrong direction, spending years wandering toward short-term business pursuits when a much more deliberate journey could deliver you to a meaningful destination far more efficiently. To stretch the Moses analogy, some people estimate that his 40 years of meandering covered a distance that could have been walked by a large crowd in about three weeks. In business you don’t want to waste time and resources treading the same ground for years. You want to get somewhere as efficiently as possible.

Right at the birth of a business, the entrepreneur should be ready to start hypothesizing about a goal. In the CORE Marketing Method, I encourage entrepreneurs to recognize that their business is a vehicle that can carry them in a direction of their choosing. I repeat ad nauseam: the business is in service to the owner, not the other way around. For this reason, before we ever start looking at ways to drastically grow a business, the owner is asked to spend some time considering where they want to be in five years personally. At the very least, the plan for the business should be complimentary to those personal ambitions about life.

Then, the entrepreneur thinks about three 5-year goals for the business that align to financial objectives, time and lifestyle objectives, and legacy objectives. These are designed to capture those driving Six Big Desires that gets an owner pumped to do their own thing, mitigate the Four Common Worries, and harness those three common corollaries with increased day-to-day happiness. Working backwards from the audacious 5-year goals, the business owner plots a course with way points along the journey (which I title Growth Milestones in the program).

Moses should have grabbed some parchment and written down as follows:

  1. Big Goal: Get to Jerusalem where there’s milk and honey galore.
  2. Way Points: (i) Get to the Red Sea and leave the Egyptian army treading water (ii) compete with the Philistines who have dominant market share in our target geography, (iii) grow the milk and honey FMCG channel.
  3. Tactical Executions: (i) highly targeted sling campaign directed at the Cranky Giant persona. (ii) Facebook ads.
  4. Result: relax, enjoy knowing the Middle East will be a peaceful utopia without any troubles thereafter.

Three weeks journey time. All of those Sunday School lessons would have been so much shorter.

So what should I do, AJ?

Start by acknowledging that your foundational entrepreneurial excitement, normally related to some of those Six Big Desires, is a legitimate reason to do what you do. Also recognize that as a normal human, these emotional drivers may expose you to involuntary irrational thinking that you’d be wise to account for. The best remedy is a clear plan based on insights over assumptions. That means committing to being Constantly Curious (desperate to learn), adopting a culture of ongoing insight gathering in your business.

At the crux of this plan is a destination that you ambitiously aim for. There’s a glut of evidence for how goal-setting delivers business success, and unfortunately a similar trend for entrepreneurs and SME owners lacking a clearly articulated goal.

I don’t advocate for heavy business plans that are uninspiring, dead documents that live in a drawer.

Instead, I strongly encourage the business owner to have a robust strategy that has a goal in mind, imperatives that are measurable and that cause us to arrive at the goal, and tactical executions that deliver the imperatives.

It’s often the audacity of the goal that provides the deepest well of excitement and passion in the business, which can spark amazing creativity in marketing efforts and inspire innovation for product refinement or breakthroughs in business development. The more agile nature of start ups and smaller businesses means that you can opportunistically take advantage of things as they come into view, but they should be guided by the goal and not derail the overall direction of the plan.

A quick note: I don’t love the emergence of a business philosophy that I think is a misreading of Eric Ries‘ brilliant Lean Start Up model. Ries brought into the mainstream the idea of launching rapidly with a minimal viable product (MVP), followed by insight gathering to fuel iterative product improvements. The misreading is where entrepreneurs think this replaces the need for directional purpose (i.e. a goal). Probably because it provides an excuse to find short-cuts around things that are hard, some also see this as permission to neglect a business plan altogether. That’s not good.

Yes, be responsive to learning and gather data deliberately. Yes, be ready to iterate to better meet your customer’s needs. If need be, discover a business model as you begin to operate. But overall, consider these Lean ideas as fine-tuning the path toward your goals. They aren’t in place of goals. You still want to have those in place and acting as a beacon for all of your efforts.

So, with that I’ll leave you with the most important part of this article, my relevant Dad-joke:

Q: How does Moses make beer?

A: Hebrews it.

I’ll show myself out.

If Moses had tried a joke like that, Pharaoh would have asked him to leave immediately.

2-hour Marathon? Breaking Records Will Be Your New Normal

The amazing achievement by Eliud Kipchoge – running the marathon in under two hours – is all over the news. And for good reason, the Kenyan three-time Olympic medalist had broken through a barrier many had thought impossible to achieve.

In reality, the dream result was a dream visualized, planned well, supported by innovation and executed flawlessly. There’s obvious parallels here for entrepreneurial business owners, but for now I want to focus mostly on one thing: the surprising effect of reaching an audacious goal.

This latest sporting feat has reminded the world of another historical achievement: the four-minute mile.

When Roger Bannister broke four minutes, he surprised many who speculated that this feat was beyond human potential. More recently, scientific journals have offered that the fastest time humanly possible for the marathon is a couple of seconds under 1:58.

For athletes like Kipchoge and Bannister though, these types of speculations would never get in the way of their ambitions. Once their mind was set on their objective, they pursued it with relentless intent. And like Kipchoge, Bannister had a remarkable journey to prove the doubters wrong.

Following a disappointing result at the 1952 Olympic Games, Bannister initially considered giving up competitive running. After some soul-searching, he was instead able to resolve himself to achieve his audacious goal: being the first person to break four minutes.

Any successful business owner who has faced a setback can relate to this process: self-doubt, followed by a determined resolve. But that determination alone would not be enough for Bannister, and nor is it enough for the entrepreneur.

In the face of that initial setback, and following his resolve to push on, Bannister chose to look for inspiration. He focused on other athletes who had staged similar comebacks. For Bannister this was Sydney Wooderson, a fellow British athlete who held a record time for the mile, was later beaten, but then used that defeat as motivation to come back and set his new record time. Bannister recognized inspirational examples and used them as fuel for his own comeback.

As an entrepreneur, it’s perfectly useful to find inspiration in successful people who’ve overcome similar hurdles to what you may be facing. Note, though, that there’s a difference between being inspired, and finding evidence to replicate. Don’t confuse their inspiring efforts with a prospective method to replicate success. Absolutely, be inspired by their spirit and focus on the broad principles they demonstrate, but don’t expect them to give you a reliable “how to win” methodology. For more on this, read my last article that clears up the difference between inspiring motivation and factual evidence that can be repeated.

To break the 4-minute mile, Bannister knew he needed to select a running-mate. Kipchoge did exactly the same this week, with a team of 41 pace-setters including Olympic gold medallists. “Remember, the 41 pacemakers are among the best athletes ever, in the whole world.” Kipchoge told reporters yesterday. For Bannister’s record, he asked two other world-class runners to set the pace.

In business, you can do the same thing. Find peers with a similar mindset who are also talented, ambitious, and committed to excellent process in their work. These peers can keep you accountable, demonstrate good entrepreneurial form, and help you to set the cadence in your business. I host a small business accelerator, the CORE Marketing Method, and one of the critical benefits of these programs is the chance for entrepreneurs to engage with similarly minded business people who are practicing entrepreneurial excellence in small business.

Bannister and Kipchoge weren’t bound by conventional rules, but were ready to reset the rules to accommodate their goals. For Kipchoge, the record he just achieved won’t be formally recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations as it wasn’t an open event. Likewise, Bannister’s record time was not achieved under normal race conditions. These two athletes didn’t worry about the convention or typical environment, recognizing that the achievement of their goals should be their single focus.

As an entrepreneur, you must be prepared to take an untrod path to your destination. Short of breaking the law or your ethical principles, be ready to bend or break the conventional rules. Change the environment if you need to, by choosing to play in a novel corner of the market or by finding a completely different way to engage with customers (as all the outstanding Direct to Consumer success stories have done). Bold agility is a weapon in the start up and small business armory. No conventional limitation can derail your dream if you refuse to follow convention, and create your own space in which to succeed.

Bannister and Kipchoge recognized that they could find advantage in innovation. For this week’s achievement, Kipchoge wore a new pair of Nike NEXT% running shoes with carbon-fiber plates, and he ran behind an electric car projecting a laser line for him to follow to stay within the record time. Bannister achieved his record on a newly surfaced track in Oxford and relied on newly developed ultralight spikes. In your business, look to create an unfair advantage in reaching your goals. Where can technology provide you an edge? How can you invest in innovating yourself, your systems, or your tools to move you closer? If the goal is worth it, the investment and creativity to innovate is worth it. At the very least, every entrepreneur should commit to a spirit of continual learning and improvement to innovate personally (I recommend looking into Kaizen). If it’s good enough for Bill Gates to keep learning, so can you. When Gates takes two weeks out every year to read and develop his knowledge, this investment theoretically costs him about $110 million in normal earnings. You can afford to invest in your own learning, too.

So, what does all of this have to do with the surprising effect of reaching an audacious goal? It comes down to remarkable phenomena that was demonstrated with Bannister, and I predict will be repeated with this week’s performance by Kipchoge. It’ll also be an important principle in your business.

Achieving the audacious goal redefines what’s possible.

After countless generations of athletes trying to break the 4-minute mile, within two months Lannister turned up to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver. At the Games, Lannister ran under 4 minutes again, along with his Australian competitor John Landy. More athletes soon matched the time. Within just ten years, high school athlete Jim Ryun would achieve the “impossible” 4-minute mile (and multiple 16 year olds have since run under 4-minutes). Since Bannister redefined what was possible, we’ve seen more than 1,400 runners beat Bannister’s record for the 4-minute mile. We’ve even seen 2 miles run in under 8 minutes.

Roger Bannister and Australian Jack Landy both running under 4 minutes in the Vancouver Commonwealth Games, just two months after the Bannister first broke the time barrier.

My prediction is that we’ll see more marathon distances under 2 hours coming very soon. Kipchoge has just proven to runners what they can achieve, and their visualizations just became living and breathing, modeled in front of their eyes. He’s proven what can be done.

In your business, achieving that first audacious goal is important because it opens the door to other huge goals to follow. If you’ve done it once, you’ll know you can do it again. This is the surprising effect of achieving what people thought couldn’t be done: it makes goal achievements happen more often from that point on. Your success will breed more success.

In the CORE Marketing Method, founders and business owners set three Wildly Important Goals (WIGs) that direct their focus for the coming year. What I’ve noticed is that the achievement of that first WIG can feel like an enormous challenge for the business owner. Interestingly, the second one is often achieved soon after, and momentum typically delivers the third, as if by magic. From that point, the entrepreneur becomes confident and internally motivated to achieve annual goals. Even though each subsequent year’s goals might be bigger by magnitudes of order, scaling the business up through multiplication, the CORE Business Owner has proven to themselves that these sorts of goals can be reached, and so they confidently focus and plough ahead. Just like with Bannister, and I predict with Kipchoge, the achievement of an audacious goal paves a way for many more similar breakthroughs in quick succession.

So, think about your own entrepreneurial challenge. Firstly, have you got that goal clearly defined, written down in a way that is measurable and time-bound? It should be a stretch, but you should be able to at least picture yourself getting there. Then, follow the sequence:

  1. Resolve Yourself – make initial setbacks your motivation.
  2. Look For Inspiration – find someone who’s already modeled the success you desire. Allow their success to spur you on.
  3. Select Your Running-Mates – who can run beside you (and you beside them) to encourage and hold you accountable?
  4. Reset the Rules – change the environment, the definitions, and any details if they get in the way. Be ready to do things differently.
  5. Find Advantage in Innovation – give yourself an edge by investing in your systems, your tools, and especially in your own skills and knowledge.

After this week’s brilliant result, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta congratulated Kipchoge on Twitter. “You’ve done it, you’ve made history and made Kenya proud while at it. Your win today, will inspire tens of future generations to dream big and to aspire for greatness.”

You can inspire yourself to future greatness by achieving your next audacious goal. Your dream business is a worthy pursuit, so dream big and make your own history. Make yourself and others proud by achieving that big dream. Make record-breaking achievements your new normal.