3 First Year Business Lessons You’ll Likely Learn the Hard Way

Exactly two years ago, I was living in Canada with an impressive job, making great money. I was also spending great money on useless crap and trying hard to pretend like I wasn’t always searching for more. I was suddenly plucked from my happy but unfulfilled life and abruptly forced on a path that I didn’t yet know existed.

With no real plan, I moved 12,000km away to find a home in Auckland, NZ. I now call myself an entrepreneur — not because it’s sexy (I actually wish it wasn’t) — but because I’ve finally found a reason to explain a lifetime of refusing to accept rules at face value, challenging authority and questioning absolutely everything.

Unfortunately, entrepreneurship these days has been heavily glamourized: a bandwagon to be jumped on, like Pokemon Go or Game of Thrones. The truth is that it’s an extremely difficult life choice I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But for those of you out there who have made it yours, we both know there’s no other option.

For those of you just get started, here are a few truths I wish I had learned sooner.

1. You are going to suck at everything.

Say it with me, “I am going to SUCK at everything”. You’re going to look like an idiot, more than a handful of times. You’ll have no idea what you’re talking about — a lot. People will doubt you, for good reason: You know nothing. Your inner overachieving-OCD-perfectionist-butt is going to have a hernia. You might even have a hernia just at the thought of this.

It’s okay. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Everybody else sucks too (at least initially).

Hopefully you’re not completely hopeless at everything. I mean you must have a few talents somewhere. If you don’t, find a dark hole immediately, crawl in and never resurface. The world doesn’t need any more useless humans.

But assuming you’re relatively good at a couple of things, you can learn everything else.

Yes, I said it, everything.

Think about the things you now consider yourself to be good at. How did you get there?

You learned.

You read, watched and practiced the technique until you had achieved a level of competence that was, at a minimum, mildly above embarrassing. Maybe you’ve even mastered some art. This simply means that you invested more time and effort than the majority of the population was willing to devote to that particular talent and there is probably some subset of the population that is now even impressed by you and your ability.

Like a baby making it’s way from the dark, slobbery dependency of infancy, where even the art of procuring food or removal of faeces must be performed by it’s caretaker: The Almighty Mom or Dad (it’s only reason for survival). It eventually becomes a real human — an independent little being with skills (and ideas!) of it’s own and the ability to add value to the world beyond 30,00 dirty diapers.

If a baby can do that, you can learn how to make a business work.

Enter The Learning Cycle described by Noel Burch: an artful description of how we progress through four stages of growth when learning a skill.

Unconscious Incompetence

Also known as blissful ignorance. You suck and you have no idea you suck. Life is great. Like a tone deaf opera singer, you’re happy but totally useless.

Conscious Incompetence

This is the shittiest stage and, unfortunately, this is also the Entrepreneur’s Zone. This is where you will spend most of your life from here on out. Here is where you fall the most and feel the pain. You are scraped, bruised and beaten, as you make your way voraciously toward not sucking (also known as competence).

Conscious Competence

Hell yes! This is exhilarating. You’ve finally learned to ride the bike and are now falling less and less everyday. Wind blows through your sun-kissed hair as you race down the hill at top speed. As the ratio of bruises to wins improves, you begin to feel more confident.

Unconscious Competence

Like a teenager testing out a younger sibling’s new bike, you just jump on and ride. Your talent is now intuitive. You no longer need to look at the pedals or think to steady yourself before you take off. Your muscles have internalised the feeling of balance. Your feet seem to have an instinctive sense of where to go and your hands grip the handle bars in just the right place without any conscious direction from your monkey mind. Your right thumb grazes the toggle on the silver bell and with a small, sharp flick you hear the sound of pure exhilaration and you’re off!

Life in #4 is beautiful. There’s nothing better. The crucial bit here is that if you cannot learn to enjoy #2, it’s going to be a long road.

You must get comfortable being uncomfortable.

As you make your way up the competence ladder determined to achieve mastery of a particular skill, there are a handful of others waiting just around the corner to test your little patient heart.

All you need to do is shift your thinking. Get excited by this phase. It means that you’re a notch above the tone deaf opera singer and are well on your way toward becoming the fire-juggling-unicycle-riding-tight-rope-walking-acrobat who could do it all in his or her sleep.

You are capable of anything.

Here’s how: You must learn, Grasshopper.

Identify the things you suck most at and find a way to get better. There are at least 127 things that your business needs and if you can’t master the most important ones you must find someone who can and pay them well. Those are your only options, assuming you don’t have your heart set on a fiery business death.

As a start, three things are vital for the success of almost any business out there: Understanding your numbers, getting customers and being a leader (I’m assuming that at some point you will be leading a team, otherwise you’ve started a business to give yourself a job).

Be brutally honest with yourself about where you suck. It’s okay, remember, this is where everyone starts.

How to learn stuff.

  1. Great questions are your best friend. Reach out to people who are good at the things you aren’t. Take them for coffee, ask them what they know. Ask specific, relevant questions that will help you through your stickiest bits. Let go of your ego here and don’t worry about sounding stupid. If you’re afraid to ask questions, you’ll never learn the answers. Some of the smartest people I’ve known have been the ones willing to ask the dumb questions everyone else in the room was wondering too.
  2. Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. Not only will they offer relevant guidance (as they’re likely to have experienced similar challenges), but they’ll understand your pain and will be a rock during tough times.
  3. Read (or my lazy version: podcasts or audiobooks). Find the people who have spent years searching for the most effective strategies for navigating life and business. Capitalize on their effort and steal all of their best techniques. Steal like you’re George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven where you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It’s exciting. This is the journey. Enjoy it. You might even end up with Julia Roberts in the end.

2. Test, Measure and Fail.

Try things. Try things you think are a reasonably good idea and don’t be afraid to fail. The only sure-fire way to not fail is to take zero risk, do only the very easy and never be remarkable.

Why don’t you just kill yourself now.

As an entrepreneur, you’re helping create a world that doesn’t yet exist. This means that although constantly learning from others is important, just as mission-critical is your willingness to fail.

Fall hard and get up fast. Become an unstoppable little bullet of resilience.

Measure everything you can. Put numbers to things. Count customers, revenue, profit, employees, hours, products, website visits, positive responses, repeat business. Count everything you can. Find out which numbers matter most to your business and look for trends.

If you’re not sure which numbers should you focus on, ask yourself what you care most about. Maybe cash in your pocket is the end-game or for others it will be the number of people you impact.

Keep in mind that if money isn’t your primary driver, the bottom line is still important. Profitability is the only way to ensure sustainability of your business, which means greater impact, wider reach and a greater likelihood that you’ll have the resources required to achieve your goals.

There are only three ways to improve profitability: Sell more, charge more or spend less. Which has the most impact for your business?

Be strategic about where you invest your effort and resources but don’t be afraid to throw a curve ball in there. Often applying tactics from other industries can be a great way to find a new path to success. Tim Ferriss, a notoriously data-driven, experiment-junkie, demonstrated this beautifully when when he applied growth hacking strategies — a marketing method previously known only to the world of tech startups — to his third book launch. Growth hacking, borne out of the need for startups to find low-cost ways to acquire customers, is characterised by rapid experimentation of creative marketing strategies that focus on testing and measurement.

Ferriss tested early excerpts from his book as well as the title and cover photos to find out which resonated most with his audience. He avoided expensive radio and TV coverage, opting instead to leverage the networks of well-connected bloggers who offered exposure to relevant and specific audiences. Finally, unable to use conventional distribution channels (retail outlets), he released a bundle more than 250 pages of interviews, extras, videos, and photos on BitTorrent, to be downloaded for free by anyone with in internet connection.

The result?
2 million downloads
1,261,152 page visits
880,009 Amazon impressions
327,555 Tim Ferriss website impressions

The recipe for success is figuring out when the classic approach is in the cookbook for a reason and when to throw the day-old tuna salad in the bin and dare greatly. You’ll never know if the Green Eggs and Ham really are better if you never give them a go. The truth is, it’s the only way any of us ever find out.

3. A 5 or 10 year plan is absolute lunacy.

Even three is a bit crazy. Pick a moment in your life — any moment. Now imagine where you were at that age — 27, 18, 11, 42. Now imagine 5 or 10 years before that. Could you have predicted what unfolded in that decade to allow you to arrive at said selected age?

Maybe you moved cities or countries, changed jobs, met Partner-Right, ditched Partner-Right, had a kid, inherited some cash, lost someone, or had a mid-life crisis and became a pole-dancer. I can think of at least five things that have changed my life in the past three years that I couldn’t possibly have predicted; people or opportunities or ideas that my monkey mind wouldn’t have dreamed up on it’s wildest days.

I’m not saying don’t plan. It’s okay to have a plan. Know where you’re going (or at least where you think you’re going). Set goals and set them big. But if you end up, in five years, exactly where your mind is dreaming today, you’ve precluding building into that dream all of the things that you will learn, all of the people you will meet and all of the new experiences you will have along the way.

Rather than being fundamentally fixated on where you think you need to be in five years (or even more insane, ten), have the goal in your periphery and allow for the flexibility to take advantage of the crazy (and probably equally incredible) opportunities that come your way as you move forward.

Give yourself the space to jump on that wild little stallion and ride it off into the sunset of possibility.

Don’t listen to me though. What the hell do I know? This is just what I’ve learned, hopefully it helps. If not, forget everything you just read and go watch some cat videos. Do what works for you.

Whatever you do though, just go and be awesome.

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