We Shut Down Our Business for A Year — Painful. Yes. Best Move Ever? Totally.
Let’s just state for the record:
We HATE the typical, business networking event. You know what we’re talking about: business cards, suits, the ‘hand-shake-while-looking-over-our-shoulder-at-someone-else’ kind of experience. But, knowing that we had to do some sort of networking, we decided to create our own party where there were only three rules:
- No business cards or suits of armour
- You had to be willing to keep it on-the-real and be there fully and authentically
- There must be amazing, kick-ass food, beer and wine
Our first event was held in Ann Arbor in 2012 and we found that we had discovered the equivalent of timber for a smoldering bonfire. Entre-SLAM was born and lost its training wheels all in one night. We held the events monthly at LIVE on First and Huron. Entre-SLAM was the equivalent example of what changing the wheels on a tractor trailer going 80mph down the highway looks like. In order to keep the events fresh, we did all kinds of crazy stuff: costume parties, flame throwers, improv teams, a Celtic bands, a rapper and lots of musicians. The word was getting out and once the article dropped about us in FORTUNE, calls started coming in and we felt like freaking rock stars.
So we decided to take our shiny toy to Detroit.
Incidently, our debut event ended up falling in the same week when Detroit declared bankruptcy. FABULOUS . . . Good times! But, when the lights came on for Entre-SLAM’s opening night, the steely determination of each person who walked through the doors showed us and by extension, the world, Detroiters were all in and ready to fight the good fight. The stories were powerful and being ‘on-the-real’ was a given. One entrepreneur even stated, ‘Hey we’re Detroit, the Rocky Balboa of the United States.’ By the end of the night, there were tears, laughter and a reminder that no matter how many times you get knocked down, as long as there is breath in your body, you get back up. Everybody left stepping a little higher. Entre-SLAM Detroit planted its seed. So, we kept things moving while literally putting Ann Arbor community business leaders on executive coaches to bring them to Detroit.
Then…we started getting phone calls and emails.
‘Hey, there is this group that’s coming to Detroit and they’re doing something similar, just thought we’d let you know.’ ‘Do you know these guys? They’re launching something similar but I’m sure it won’t be a big deal…just wanted to let you know, we’ve got your back.’ Then one sponsor wasn’t returning our call. Then another started to sound a bit weak in the knees as they admitted, sheepishly, ‘Hey, we’re throwing our support behnd this new event.’ We powered through regardless and felt that there is room for everybody, right? Then we found out that not only was this group launching in Detroit but they were doing so on the exact same night as our event, three doors down at one of the BIGGEST venues in the city. ‘shit…’ That oily feeling of ‘we’re screwed’ started to ease into our resolve.
Yup, we were screwed. They showed up, pulled in close to 1,000, we pulled in…oh 63…6 left to go to the other event…OUCH. Not a bad, shabby night, overall but certainly having 937 more people at our event would have been well, amazing. But hey, what’s fair is fair. This new crew had everything going for them, money, connections and quite frankly, they out hustled us. Touche. Game. Set. Match. They got the trophy that night, we got the ribbon where the edges are coming apart.
We deserved to get our asses kicked. That night showed that while we had something cool, it wasn’t bulletproof. We had to accept the realization that these types of shenanigans would happen again and again until we figured out what made us worth having a leader’s position in the crowded and highly competitive market of business events. So when that rough night ended, we turned the lights out on Entre-SLAM. For a year.
A 12-month sojourn begins . . .
So, during our first 4-month vacation in startup pergatory, we essentially went back to look at the step that we leapfrogged over in Ann Arbor when we first started. We had created a cool, ‘what’ but we hadn’t figured our ‘why’. Sexy Brit, Simon Sinek had just released his TED talk, ‘Start With Why’ and it felt like the heavens opened up. ‘That’s it!’ We need to figure out our ‘why’ so that we can be like Apple, NIKE and Starbucks. And we did figure out the ‘why’, ‘to create a level playing field for entrepreneurs to tell their stories where every story is worthy to be told at whatever stage it’s in.’ Not too shabby, pulls the heartstrings a little…but something was still missing.
We realized that Mr. Sinek’s concept, just like his famous concentric circles of awesomeness, missed one critical thing. A company must know its why, yes, absolutely. But what gives company life? Customers? Sales? Yes, to both but the real answer is: ‘The founder.’
The FOUNDER. The person who has to maintain the vision, stamina, passion and focus to see the business to success. They are the ones who have to weather the storms and the setbacks while savoring the occasional victories. The FOUNDERS are the ones who when they’ve spent and lost their last dime and the dimes of others, are exhausted beyond recognition and have nothing left in their emotional, psychological and financial tank…drag their sorry asses and bloody carcases out of bed the next day anyway.
Why? Why go back in the ring day after day only to experience one hit after another?
We asked entrepreneurs, from startup and second stage founders to non-profits, this question and purposely reached out to the Simon Sinek worshipers. We asked, ‘So what is the ‘why’, behind your business?’ Oh, you should have seen them, they perked up and rattled off some pretty decent answers.
Then we asked ‘Why you?’
Deer in the headlights.
We rephrased the question: ‘Why are YOU the one to lead this?’ The answers were typically one of the following:
- I love what I do
- I’m great at it
- I went to the University of ‘Whatever’
- I can do it all day and not get paid for it
- I can make a lot of money doing this
- I can’t do anything else
- Nobody else is doing it, so why not?
With each answer, we started noticing the uncomfortable shifting that the entrepreneur was making in their seats. We pressed further, ‘hm…lots of people could say the same thing’. Eventually, the majority would say, ‘Honestly, I don’t really know.’ Feeling like, we had a real problem (and opportunity) on our hands, we decided to eat our own dog food and figure out our ‘Why Behind the Why’.
It turns out that our ‘Why’ was tied to the remaining Entre-SLAM founder who had a powerful experience while serving in the Army over 25 years prior to Entre-SLAM even being on the radar. That experience created the cast from which all things were influenced going forward. That experience created the grit and determination needed to power through the challenges while generating an endless supply of reserve fuel that could be tapped into on those, ‘oh shit’ days.
So, we went back to the ‘scene of the crime’ where Entre-SLAM died in Detroit and started from square one. We created a process, a mapping tool to help entrepreneurs/founders dig in to find their unique, competitive advantage, their Formula X. The results and the breakthroughs were just extraordinary and stunning. Entrepreneurs committed to the process and either found their elusive answer or determined that they had to break their own businesses down further.
We had enough evidence to turn the lights back on for Entre-SLAM but now the stories wouldn’t be tied to perky themes but to the company’s and the founder’s purpose. No flame throwers, no extra-whatever. Just the entrepeneur, their grit and determination on full display at a mic in front of a community of business influencers. (wait…beer, wine and great food are still in the house. Let’s not get too crazy.)
So, the Entre-SLAM train is going back down the track knowing and connected to its deeper why and showing other founders how to tap into theirs. The train has some real heat that has a steady burn now because it’s fueled by the right stuff and is ready for the long road ahead of it.
If this moved you in any way, throw some love down below. Either you’ve considered shutting it down or know someone who should. It’s all good, either way. Consider yourself in good, no, great company.