It Won’t Always Be Great

At networking events the most toxic part is everyone going around the room talking about how great things are, creating the impression that if you don’t keep repeating the message that you’re the one person in the room up against it.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

It won’t always be great. More often than not, it won’t be.

Running a business is lurching from working flat-out, all hours of the day to wondering where all the hot leads have gone. It’s hiring an incredible person to lead your new ground-breaking project only to have them poached a month later. It’s hot streaks and fallow months.

Unless you’re at a networking event — then it’s all good, all the time.

Our obsession with busyness is a part of this, I’ll talk more about this in a future post but it is easily confused with productive and profitable busyness.

But this post isn’t just calling out that part, there’s something more dangerous at play.

If you keep telling everyone that everything is great, you might just believe it yourself. You need to create space for crisis. You need to be able to take a step back and accept that things aren’t all rosy.

You need to be able to deal with the problems rather than pretending they’re not happening.

I’ve seen way too many founders get sucked into the public narrative that they’re a really exciting, ethical, or high-growth company who make a rod for their own back by not feeling they can do an about turn or change approach. The high-growth founder who won’t lay off staff when they need the cash because they don’t want to look like they’re failing. The policies that seemed like a good idea when things were going well but that become a burden when you need extra capacity or the team to go the extra mile.

One important part of this is having a group of people that you can tell the full truth. I’ve found chats with those people at the right time to be the difference between coping and drowning.

You need people around you who understand what you’re going through, the context of what you’re going through, and how you’re personally experiencing it and reacting to it. You want people who have experienced similar things so as to avoid clichéd responses and shallow feedback. There has to be deep empathy.

This can go too far, if you spend too much time focusing on the challenges and issues that need addressing then you can believe that is all that there is, which can be dispiriting and momentum sapping.

In the Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz talks about the wartime and peacetime CEOs — not the best language right now. It’s an important guide for all founders to better understand what it means when people say starting a business is hard.

His idea is that the peacetime CEO has a totally different psychology and approach to a wartime CEO but that before long you have to become a wartime CEO when your company faces existential threats.

As a wartime CEO you engage with everything in a different way: your competition, your team, your policies, the way you communicate with everyone.

Nobody necessarily plans to be this version, but your priority is to see the company through the storm.

The all important “this too shall pass” adage is a good thing to keep in mind. It can be hard to see all of the good when you feel deep in the bad, same as how it is easy to miss the bad when you’re riding a wave of good.

Bad things are going to happen, contracts are going to fall through, customers will leave you, things will go too slowly, team members will move on. All of these things are fine. You need to learn, spot patterns, adapt, and overcome. It is in those patterns that you can spot things that are more fundamentally problematic, like if customers keep leaving at a similar stage of the cycle, or if the promises you make can’t be fulfilled.

And then there’s the good vs bad argument, I’ll write more in the future about the futility and inaccuracy of that thinking.

And when the fallow months and chaos don’t come then I find it’s important to keep this philosophy in mind so as to not take the good times for granted and sleepwalk into disaster.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.