The Second Place Entrepreneur

I was talking to a woman the other day who told me that she had recently interviewed for a position that she really wanted but came in second. Her statement got me thinking that sometimes second place is the best outcome. We’re conditioned that winning is the only outcome for which we should strive. After all, who runs a race with a goal of coming in second? But what if second place really turns out to be first place? Let me explain.

I have always believed that there’s a reason that things work out the way they are supposed to. It’s not fate – it’s simply the way the world works. Here’s my story. When I was about to become a newly minted college graduate, I interviewed for a job managing a shopping center in a medium-sized Midwestern city. I pulled out the stops to prepare for the interview and dazzle the owner’s representative with my charm and good looks because I had no experience! But alas, the owner opted to hire someone else who actually did have experience. Naturally I was disappointed. But had I won that job, who knows where my career path might have led? Instead, I have been blessed with the most incredible opportunities to live my passion over the past 45+ years. In the end, I definitely ended up in first place!

Some may see this as a Pollyanna sort of mindset. After all, who really thinks that they’ve won when they’ve lost? But there’s a method to this madness. The key is to truly believe the notion that something better is always in store for us. When we succeed, it’s a reflection of this reality. When we are unsuccessful it’s a signal that what we wanted wasn’t meant to be . . . because we’re destined for something better. If we doubt that the latter is true, then it’s highly unlikely that we’ll experience that “something better.” We all know the power of the mind. And yes, it’s powerful enough to block and deny positive outcomes when we aren’t open to all possibilities.

It’s hard not to be disappointed when we take second place. But with practice we can learn how to quickly replace the feeling of disappointment with feelings of excitement and anticipation. I’ve reached an interesting point in my life. When I expend extreme effort, work smart and am innovative but still come up short, my heart pounds a little faster and I think to myself, “OK, something pretty amazing must be in store and I can’t wait to find out what it is.” I may even work with some positive affirmations at this point to ensure that I am open and receptive to however the script is about to be re-written.

Here’s a current example of how this actually worked for us. My wife and I have been spending time each winter in Florida (where it’s much warmer than in Kansas City). We decided to stop renting and purchase a condo. We found what we thought was the perfect unit and made an offer which was countered by the seller. We submitted a counteroffer to the seller’s counter and then heard nothing. I was fairly certain that another buyer had emerged which turned out to be the case. But rather than being disappointed, we chose to truly believe that something better was about to happen. And boy did it! A magnificent unit we had previously seen in another building came back on the market. Right after we had initially looked at this unit it went under contract. Apparently, the buyer backed out at the last minute and we quickly bought the unit. It has exceeded our wildest expectations. Had we wallowed in despair over the first unit we didn’t get, I’m absolutely convinced that we wouldn’t have connected with the unit we ended up purchasing.

By being open and receptive that something bigger and better is waiting to be revealed, our losses can become spectacular wins. Clearly there is no downside to embracing this mindset.

 This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

COVID-19 and the Entrepreneur’s State of Mind

This is surreal. It was a little bit like this after 9/11. But this time the uncertainty seems unprecedented. Many are locked down in their homes – some for weeks and maybe even months. Certain elements of society have decided that it’s a good idea to hoard toilet paper, water and other everyday staples. The reason for this is unclear. COVID-19 is turning out to be a major test of our collective resolve and common sense. Entrepreneurs have a lot riding on the resolution of this crisis. Much is out of our control. But one thing is for certain – our state of mind will be a major factor in the level of our success or failure.

OK, where to start? We acknowledge our fears and anxiety. It’s normal to feel this way. But we need to put this in perspective. For whatever reason, the human mind tends to gravitate to the most extreme and adverse outcome. Hence all the very dire predictions about casualties and economic cataclysm – few if any based upon a shred of solid evidence. We need to ignore the noise and understand that we can’t know all that is going to happen. However, it’s likely that things won’t be as bad as we conjure them in our minds. And, we’re all in this together. It’s not as if anyone is going to win from this situation.

We have a choice to make. It’s the most important choice that we can make during this unfortunate circumstance. We make a choice as to our mindset going forward. There’s no doubt that we’ll face significant challenges. Guess what? Everyone is going to face significant challenges. If we choose a mindset of panic, we won’t be productive. If we choose to dwell on loss, lack and limitation – that’s what will manifest. I’ve said it a million times – our mind is an incredibly powerful organism. Thus, we must take great care in how we form our thoughts.

We are entrepreneurs. Our middle name is “Resilience.” While others may wring their hands in despair, we will be strong and positive. We will not dwell on that which we can’t control. To maintain a strong mental state, we will reach out to others – family, friends and colleagues – to offer a shoulder to lean on. We will listen and comfort. We will listen and reassure. We will get out of ourselves by figuring out ways to serve others. In so doing, we build the strength of our character and demonstrate a resolve and commitment to not only endure the crisis but use the experience to be as creative as possible.

We wake up each morning in a spirit of gratitude. We express our appreciation to everyone around us for all that they mean to us and do for us. We smile and laugh. We take care of our bodies through continuing to exercise and eating in healthy ways. Developing a daily routine is important to our physical and mental wellbeing. We avoid spending an inordinate amount of time on social media for it is filled with misinformation and hyperbole. We spend our time working remotely if that is necessary, as effectively as we can. And we use a portion of our time to develop ways that we can deliver our products and services in an even more efficient and effective manner and provide an amazing experience for our customers. Think about it. It’s like an auto race. Every so often, we need to make a pit stop, but we don’t want to fall behind in the race. Right now, all drivers are under a caution flag. The race hasn’t been cancelled, but we’re driving slowly behind the pace car. We can take a little time to plan on new and improved ways to work ON our business, rather than always working IN it.

We are entrepreneurs. COVID-19 is our yellow caution flag but we’re not quitting the race. Far from it. We’re maintaining a positive mindset – always! We’re looking for ways to serve others each and every day. We don’t obsess over that which we can’t control. While times may be very different for a while, we adapt and are productive in the most positive of ways. We are entrepreneurs and we will survive . . . and then we will thrive.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Entrepreneur Under Siege

Consider this. One of your key employees just gave her two-week notice. Your company didn’t win a major contract for which it was bidding. The vice-president of production just informed you that delivery of a key component for manufacturing a product that is 30% of your sales has been indefinitely delayed. Your company website was hacked last night and decorated with cyber graffiti. Cash flow is a bit tight right now. Oh, and you haven’t been able to squeeze in a workout for a week. How does all of this feel right about now? Certainly, being under siege might be one way to describe it.

Let me assure you that similar situations like this are experienced by many entrepreneurs every single day. Perhaps some of it is preventable. But more importantly – how do you handle it? Are you able to stay calm, smile and find your way through the minefield? Or is it meltdown time and maybe a visit to the local tavern after work? The key is how we choose to view and respond to such events. If we see all that I’ve described as a crisis, then we may react with fear and panic. However, if we simply see this as a “Confluence of Events,” we may be a bit more sanguine about it. Let’s look at some of the reactions I’ve witnessed over the years when I see entrepreneurs encounter a “Confluence of Events.”

  • The Beginning of the End – those who go here lay awake at night conjuring images of complete and total disaster and destruction. They are convinced that their company is going down the tubes; they’ll personally go broke, and they’ll end up living under a bridge. They go to the office and try to slug it out, but they have this feeling of impending doom. Sometimes this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
  • Deny and Hide – others utilize the Deny and Hide approach. They refuse to acknowledge that something needs to be done and go play golf, take a “business” trip or find some other distraction. Rather than face the issues at hand, they rationalize their reaction by positing that “others need to step up and show leadership” in order to solve the problems.
  • Focus, Focus, Focus – I’ve watched leaders with the best of intentions sharpen their focus . . . in over-the-top ways! They tend to jump in and micro-manage a particular situation to the exclusion of everything else that is occurring. By plunging in this way, they believe that they are being productive – except that the rest of the issues that need solving are languishing.

These are just three of the reactions I’ve observed, and each demonstrates the classic fight or flight response. There is another way.

When the “siege” begins, and a Confluence of Events is in sight, the first thing we can do is take a deep breath. Seriously. Spending several minutes to become quiet will help clear the mind. There’s plenty of time to deal with the issues at hand and becoming centered will make the process easier. Next, we write down the specific facts surrounding each challenge that we’re facing. This helps move us away from dwelling on the emotional elements. I’ve found that when I push out the emotion, things generally aren’t as bad as they seem. Finally, we map out how we are going to tackle each situation that is contributing to our Confluence of Events. We identify the priorities and start working our way through them. At no time do we feel victimized or defeated. We show leadership by maintaining an even keel and demonstrating that no matter what the situation, there’s always a resolution.

A confluence of problems in our business and personal lives may seem insurmountable. Avoiding a siege mentality begins with remaining calm and unemotional. Then we’re able to methodically and successfully work through or around the obstacles we are facing.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Cold Calling Entrepreneur

My cell phone rang the other day. The person on the other end started by introducing himself but did not speak clearly so I couldn’t catch his name. He immediately launched with a hearty, “Mr. Harris, how are you doing today?” This sort of greeting is always a warning signal for me that someone is going to try and sell something. Being a polite person, I responded by saying that I was fine. Before I could say anything else, he began reading from his script. He was peddling the most amazing product since the invention of the light bulb and it was going to save me millions of dollars . . . or something like that. This guy literally filibustered for more than 30 seconds without taking a breath. He obviously had a lot of practice doing this.

Does this sort of old school cold calling really work? Perhaps it does to a point, but I question whether it is the most effective approach. Let’s examine all the ways I found this conversation to be off-putting. #1 – Failure to speak clearly – the fact that he spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand his name was certainly not the right way to get started. #2 – Cliché greeting – asking how I was doing is incredibly trite and inauthentic. #3 – No need-determination – this was at the heart of his ineffective approach. He arrogantly assumed that I needed his product or service and made no attempt to validate this assumption. #4 – Reading from a script – I had no confidence that he understood what he was supposed to be selling. After listening to him tout his product for a while I finally interrupted him and said, “I’m not interested, thank you.” And then I hung up. I wonder how many times this happens to him every day.

This type of cold calling utilizes a classic high-pressure technique and I’m surprised that in today’s business world there are still companies (and salespeople) who use it. Cold calling can be a thankless task yielding poor results except for a high degree of discouragement. Cold calling should be less about the product or service we are selling and more about building and collecting relationships that we can serve. The problem is that many companies still expect salespeople to meet quotas and apply extreme pressure to sell, sell and sell. The alternative (and much more effective) approach is to call without making any attempt whatsoever to sell anything. Instead the call is to introduce one’s self and build a rapport with the customer. This process includes attempting to understand how the customer does business and to identify his points of pain.

I would begin a call like this by indicating that I’m not calling to sell anything. This statement is usually somewhat disarming and increases the chance for a customer to stay on the phone. Instead, I’m doing some research to learn more about how customers are dealing with a certain issue. If my product is inventory management software, I’m going to ask open-ended questions that get the customer to talk about what problems he might be experiencing with his current inventory management system. And I’m going to carefully listen to his responses and ask pertinent follow-up questions based upon what he has told me. I will not read from a script. Once I have a greater understanding about my prospective customer and his needs, I’m going to thank him for his time and hang up.

I’ll follow-up with a handwritten note expressing appreciation to the customer for his time. Very few people write notes anymore. I won’t send it by e-mail because I won’t stand out as much. I may wait several days and send him something relating to the conversation we had – perhaps it’s an article that is applicable to his situation. But I’m still not selling him anything. Instead, I’m working to build a relationship. By the time I call him again, he knows who I am. And there’s a reasonable chance that I’ve differentiated myself from the high-pressure cold callers he hears from every day. When I finally call him days or even weeks later to help him buy my product, it’s now a warm call.

Effective selling isn’t about the product we’re pushing. It’s all about the customer and his or her needs. And while this premise seems so basic, it’s not practiced extensively. Thus, when we take the personal approach rather than the product approach, we have a real opportunity to stand out from our competition.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The “When” Entrepreneur

The minister in church one Sunday talked about his anticipation of future events and it got me to thinking about the subject in a different way. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ll be happy when . . .” or “I’ll have plenty of money when . . .” or “I’ll have more fun when . . .”?

As a classic Type A entrepreneur, I tend to focus on the future. Oh, I do live in the now, but I am constantly thinking about the next steps in building my businesses. But it goes beyond that. If I am going on a trip in a few days I’m thinking about what all will be involved in the travel process. I’m thinking about what I’ll do when I get to my destination. Once I’m on my trip and have reached my destination, I think about where we’ll eat dinner or an event that we’ll attend. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad thing to be planning ahead though I can easily flip over into the realm of obsession with planning. What’s more problematic is when the thinking ahead becomes the “When Affliction.”

The When Affliction manifests in several ways. It can occur when we are so focused on thinking about something that is to happen in the future that we don’t pay close enough attention to something critical that is happening right now. This is the perfect environment for mistakes to be made. The other day while driving I was so engrossed in thinking about an upcoming meeting that I nearly caused a wreck. I was changing lanes, turned on my blinker and quickly looked over my shoulder. There was a car in the other lane – I know I saw it – but it didn’t register as I pulled over anyway. Horns blared and my heart leapt into my throat. My focus on the moment was blinded by my focus on the future.

The When Affliction can have us so wrapped up in getting past the next milestone that we are unable to truly appreciate what we are experiencing in the process of getting there. So, here’s a question. How many magical moments do we miss with the When Affliction? I remember our youngest daughter’s wedding many years ago. It was a splendid affair and one where I was truly present every second of the day. I simply allowed myself to be swept up in the pomp and pageantry that is often woven into such an event. Not once was I contemplating a future action. And I am able to treasure the memories because I really was a part of making them. There are so many other things I don’t remember about what has happened in my life because I was looking forward so much of the time.

It’s OK to plan ahead. If we simply allow ourselves to float along the river of life without regard for the snags and rapids in front of us, our boat could easily be swamped. The key is to find the right balance between thinking ahead and maintaining a “now presence.” To accomplish this, I have discovered a game that I play with myself. Let’s say that someone is coming to my office to meet with me. Before the meeting I identify several things that I want to notice during this meeting. What color are the clothes this person is wearing? What color are his or her eyes? Is the person right-handed or left-handed? Sharpening my observation skills in this manner helps me focus on the other person and the moment, thereby avoiding the When Affliction.

We intuitively know that tomorrow never comes because there always is another tomorrow. Thus, we can avoid becoming obsessed with the future if we limit our planning to that which really matters, allowing us to revel in the now.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Fulfilled Entrepreneur

Here’s a question for entrepreneurs that can actually be a rather perplexing conundrum. What is the value that we are adding to what we do every day? Could a trained monkey do it too . . . and maybe even better? Here’s the thing. We sometimes tend to fall into a rut that’s usually within our comfort zone. And then we go through motions every day – over and over and over. Oftentimes we become very, very good at what we do and so it is really easy to keep doing it – over and over and over. But, is it a truly fulfilling experience?

My father-in-law was a funeral director. He was very, very good at what he did, and it was evident that he liked helping people. But he always said that when he turned 65, he was done and would retire. And that’s exactly what he did. I concluded that while he liked what he did, he didn’t love it enough to never want to stop doing it. I never did get a chance to ask him before he died what value he brought to what he did every day.

Entrepreneurs think a lot about money. Yet, those I’ve known who do what they do just to make a lot of money tend to become restless and bored. Making a lot of money may be great, but after a while it’s really just a way to keep score. And if we’re winning every day and only doing it for the money, how does one keep the “fire in the belly?” There must be something more.

There’s no denying that we entrepreneurs want to make money. And there’s nothing wrong with this – after all, most of us are unabashed capitalists. But just focusing on the money can lead to a fairly hollow existence. Money is a commodity and eventually we find ourselves feeling like the proverbial trained monkey. That’s when the trouble can begin. Being restless and bored can lead to many issues the least of which might be extramarital affairs, drug or alcohol abuse or even daredevil types of hobbies. I’m not casting aspersion on thrill-seeking activities, but we must examine the real reason that we pursue them. Is it because we are feeling unfulfilled in our business and/or personal lives?

All this pondering leads us to conclude that we need to be doing something of substance in order to feel fulfilled. I’ve written before about value propositions where customers are concerned. But we also need a personal value proposition that winds us up and keeps us excited, happy and content. My value proposition is the same as my personal WHY (thank you Simon Sinek) which is to make sense of complexity. This manifests in many ways including consistently developing creative ideas and solutions. If a day goes by where I wasn’t challenged creatively or didn’t become immersed in something complicated, I don’t feel fulfilled. Thus, I try and always put myself in situations where this never happens.

Each of us needs to find our own personal value proposition. Perhaps it’s doing things the right way every single time. Maybe it’s about innovation and doing things a better way. Some of us want to make a contribution or a difference in the lives of others. There are those of us who want to create trust and build relationships, while others just want to simplify things. A few entrepreneurs live for mastering what they do, and others want to create clarity. Of course, there are always a few Steve Jobs types who want to challenge the status quo and think differently.

Discovering our own personal value proposition energizes us and keeps us coming back for more. Being a great entrepreneur hinges on our ability to continually maintain a sense of fulfillment.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Unafraid Entrepreneur

I’ve heard it said that fear is a major motivation for entrepreneurs. This may be true but it’s not a healthy or effective motivator in my book. Think about what happens when we are afraid. Do we think with a high degree of clarity or are we focused on some form of self-preservation? Is our creativity in full bloom or do we just want to escape that which is making us fearful? Do we really want to be motivated by something so negative as is fear?

There’s no question that we entrepreneurs have moments when we are afraid. Perhaps we just learned that a major customer is going to stop giving us his business. What’s our immediate reaction? “Oh no! That customer represents 20% of our revenues and we’re going to have to lay people off!” We conjure up all sorts of horrible outcomes when we hear this news. And then it gets worse. Our negative thoughts multiply. “If that customer is unhappy enough to leave, I wonder how many other customers feel the same way. This could be a disaster! Our company could enter a death spiral and we’ll have to close the doors. What will I do next? Would someone even hire me after this debacle?”

It’s been my experience that rarely are things ever as bad as they might seem in the heat of the moment. What’s needed is an automatic diversion of some sort when thoughts of fear start to creep into our minds. And I have the perfect alternative for the ravages of dread and despair. Here’s the antidote . . . What could go right?

Here’s how it works. When something occurs that could have negative connotations – perhaps an event that stirs up severe anxiety – we stop and say, “what could go right?”  It’s like a train that is barreling down the tracks and it comes to a switch. If the switch is turned one way, the train goes to the left. If the switch is turned the other way, the train goes to the right. The mantra, “what could go right?” acts as that switch. If we go to the left, we are on the path to being afraid with a cascade of undesirable results. If we go to the right, we are on the path to calm and a highly desirable conclusion.

The notion of “what could go right?” is not just a blind state of Pollyanna. Instead, it’s a powerful frame of mind. In the example previously cited, let’s see how it might work. When the customer declares his intention to stop doing business with us, we immediately ask the question, “what could go right?” Rather than dwell on the loss of business, we drill down further and explore the cause for the customer’s departure. Let’s say that this individual was simply retiring and shutting down his operations – his decision had nothing to do with the product we’ve been providing. That doesn’t necessarily make the loss of revenues any easier, but at least we didn’t drive him away. We now have more capacity in our organization. In our newly found state of tranquility we remember hearing about a prospective customer that we have not pursued because we did not have the production capacity to meet her needs. But now . . . ! Without missing a beat, we set up a meeting with the prospective customer and guess what? She wants our product and her order will push our revenues beyond where they were with the departing customer.

Had we wallowed in fear, there is no way we would have looked for this new opportunity. We would have been “licking our wounds,” “regrouping,” and “hanging on for dear life.” Instead, we conquered fear before it ever took hold by asking ourselves the simple question, “What could go right?” We took the positive energy from that question and used it to kick our creativity into overdrive. And rather than seeing the situation as a problem to be solved, we viewed it as a steppingstone to even great good.

As entrepreneurs we’re in a much better position to enjoy positive outcomes when we look at everything with the question, “What could go right?”

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.