Facing a setback in your startup, the next move is always yours

Many successful entrepreneurs have had the experience of a business venture going wrong. The challenges of a startup can cause any enterprise to falter, stumble and hit the buffers. This can be due to external factors, but also the many moving cogs of a new venture can cause you to overlook essential internal drivers of success, resulting in a tough time.

Lotus blooms in the muddy pond is a famous Japanese allegory to reflect upon for any startup that has stalled. It is important to press pause and learn from your oversights and mistakes, and then resolve to never repeat them. In this way, a period of unforeseen challenge can become a springboard for future, productive growth.

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time, but if you have had a major setback, it may seem dauntingly impossible whilst you’re in the mire. Our personal lives are also full of bumps in the road, no matter who you are – financial problems, health issues, a relationship breakdown – they hit us all. The challenge is how you overcome a setback. How do you dig in and hit back?

There are many success stories from entrepreneurs who succeeded despite adversity, to inspire us today. For example. in 1955, Harlan Sanders was broke. A newly-built interstate had bypassed Corbin, Kentucky where Colonel Sanders had been cooking chicken at his restaurant for two decades. But the resourceful Sanders sold his building and started franchising his chicken restaurant concept. Within five years he had 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken locations

Walt Disney was once fired because he lacked imagination and had no good ideas. Decca Records rejected the Beatles, saying: We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. They have no future. Elvis Presley was fired after one performance. He was told: You ain’t goin’ nowhere, son. You ought to go back to drivin’ a truck. Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was too stupid to learn anything. He was also fired from his first two jobs.  Edison ended up holding 1,093 patents and is now known as The Wizard of Menlo Park.

Great personal comebacks. Of course, we also all love great sporting comebacks too, when a team or individual looks down-and-out on the ropes, the scoreboard showing the game is over yet somehow, they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them.

What’s your favourite sporting comeback? Many will cite the cricket in 1981, when Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley. Then Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second team to win a Test after following-on.

Memorable and with global attention, but for me, a game at my local rugby club is the greatest sporting comeback I’ve witnessed, and helped shape my thinking on startup fight backs. 

Rossendale RUFC are based in Rawtenstall, just up the road from the market, with a club house and pitches nestling in the scenic hillside, with stunning views looking down the Rossendale Valley to Manchester. On March 4, 2017 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable comeback from a 0-28 points deficit against Kendal, to win a National League 3 North game.

Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the final score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly to say the least, going in at half-time with a 0-21 deficit, and it seemed all hope was lost when Kendal scored their fourth try of the game shortly after the break. However, Fraser Lyndsay scored Rossendale’s first try and his first of two in the final half hour giving his side a ray of hope. Alex Isherwood, Nick Flynn and Curtis Strong added three more tries, as well as three out of five conversions from Steve Nutt, ensured victory was snatched from certain defeat.

At 0-28 down, generally speaking there’s no coming back. But the belief and never say die attitude, once they scored, kick-started the most remarkable sporting comeback I’ve ever seen. It was an 18-man effort with the substitutes; there was no one player who made the win, it was all of them, together. The beers flowed and raucous singing in the clubhouse after the game made it looked like Rossendale RUFC had won the Guinness Premiership!

Comeback stories like this from sport and the individuals earlier are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own situation in the face of adversity. There are some impressive business comebacks in the past twenty years to take inspiration from too.

Look no further than Apple, which foundered in the late 1990s before Steve Jobs resurrected it to become the most valuable company in the world. In my estimation, Apple’s triumph is the number one business comeback of the last two decades.

Marvel, founded in 1939, is another great bounce-back story. As the home of Spider Man, Captain America, and other iconic characters, Marvel had long been the comic-book world’s biggest player. But in the mid-1990s the comics market crashed, Marvel went broke, and there was no superhero to stave off bankruptcy.  But after restructuring to focus on movies, Iron Man, the Avengers and X-Men are all billion-dollar franchises, and the company’s master plan to connect many of its characters in a single cinematic universe has turned it into one of pop culture’s most powerful brands.

IBM nearly died in 1992, it lost $5Bn, more than any other American company ever at the time. New CEO Lou Gerstner turned things around, but at a cost. He fired close to 100,000 people, changed the marketing strategy and transitioned from product to services

It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have backed out of a deal, cashflow could be spiralling downwards, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.

Entrepreneurs choose the life of challenge and hardship, gambling for achievement, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos and disappointment. The entrepreneur consciously chooses a life in which they are likely to have higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made.

Entrepreneurs jump on the roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built. They’d have it no other way, happy going round blind corners and crazy inclines. A good part of it is fighting the urge to revert back to their comfort zone. Having to pick themselves up from setbacks, dust themselves off and go again, is an accepted part of the journey.

Is there a Playbook for this? Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, offers some valuable insight and guidance, drawing lessons from philosophy and history, showing how to be prepared for knock-backs and be bold and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup.

Here are some quotes from his book, which I think say a lot about building your mindset to make those stunning comebacks.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in your startup life.

I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to practice to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is to do nothing. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say ‘stop’, but that can be the best solution at times.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase comeback success.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism,observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same.  Equally, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Be prepared for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. Surround yourself with high achievers. Avoid toxic people like the plague. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself. In a startup, when you overcome one obstacle, another one waits in the shadows.

Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are, and go all in.

The path to entrepreneurial success is forged via breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because you have your eyes and ears wide open and you’re able to reflect and adjust time after time, with the resilient mindset to keep going. No one escapes heartache, uncertainty and disappointment, yet from these setbacks comes wisdom, if we have the virtue of resilience.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in turning a setback into a comeback. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your entrepreneurial thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, and expecting to go one better. Make sure the real enemy doesn’t live between your ears.

What makes a startup comeback special is not just what you have to gain, but what there is to lose. Do you know what my favourite part of playing a game of rugby was when I was younger? The opportunity to play, taking part, being on the field. I never let what I couldn’t achieve stop me from doing what I could achieve. The real story of entrepreneurship is being knocked to your knees and then coming back stronger. Look back to that Rossendale RUFC result – legs, hearts and minds. Facing any setback, the next move is always yours.

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