Mistakes and the Entrepreneur

I’ve said many times that mistakes are simply unfinished experiments in the laboratory of life. Too often we beat ourselves up over the mistakes that we make. Innovative forward-thinking entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. This is normal and necessary to some extent. It’s when the same mistake is made repeatedly that there’s real cause for concern.

Understanding how mistakes are made can be helpful in eliminating their repetition. Simply shrugging off a mistake as “an unfinished experiment” is a missed opportunity to gain deeper insight into why it happened and what can be learned. This also must be tempered in the other direction. We’ve all seen sports teams that play not to lose. Often this ends badly. We can become tentative and overly focused on avoiding mistakes. And what happens then? We end up making even more mistakes.

I’ve learned quite a bit about mistake-making over the course of my life and career. Many were silly. Some were more significant. Fortunately, none were ever life or death. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Several of my mistakes occurred because I failed to Plan. I shot from the hip or simply jumped into the water without any forethought. Plotting a course doesn’t mean having a 40-page business plan. But it’s important to think through the different steps that will be taken to reach the ultimate objective. In the process we also look for possible hiccups that might be encountered and determine what can be done to avoid or mitigate them.

With a plan in hand, we make sure we have sufficient resources to effectively implement it. Further, we also determine if we (and/or our team) are adequately Educated on what we will need to do to succeed. A large percentage of mistakes are made because those implementing the plan aren’t fully up-to-speed on how to do so. Failure to be sufficiently educated on the “how” and to understand the context of a particular situation can have deadly consequences. Think about an auto mechanic who isn’t properly trained on how to re-connect a brake line on a particular model of car. Uh oh.

Following a plan and being educated on the “how” doesn’t guarantee a mistake-free execution if Process is ignored. On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard. The report by the French Aviation agency, BEA, stated, “Temporary inconsistency between the measured airspeeds likely following the obstruction of the pitot probes by ice crystals that led in particular to autopilot disconnection and a reconfiguration to alternate law,” and “inappropriate control inputs that destabilized the flight path.” In other words, the pilots failed to follow the prescribed process for such conditions.

Here’s a cause for mistakes that happens more often to me than I care to admit. It’s called Distraction. I’ll be cranking away on a project and the phone will ring; someone stops by my office, or I need to dash off to an appointment. Unfortunately, my project was interrupted and so was my train of thought. When I pick up where I left off, I’m in the danger zone. Invariably there’s a gap that I can pinpoint as the root cause of whatever mistake ensues. More recently I’ve been trying to make some notes to myself before tending to the distraction.

Information Failure is usually referenced in the field of economics. But I think it can be broadened in more general terms to include mistakes that are made from bad information, bad facts and/or bad conclusions. There have been times that the data was old, and I hadn’t bothered to make sure that it was current. And there’s no doubt that I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion as a result of incomplete information.

We all want to minimize our mistakes. Understanding what causes them is the first step in this process. For me a failure to plan, be educated, follow process, becoming distracted and using bad or incomplete information are usually the reasons for my mistakes.

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.

Connecting the Dots

Why should I care about politics? It’s just a bunch of doublespeak from a collection of greedy, grimy people with big egos. Why should I care about the Consumer Sentiment Index? Isn’t it just some arcane statistic that gets published every so often? Why should I care about the financial crisis in Greece? Why should I care about the number of Baby Boomers who will reach 65 each year for the next ten years?

Entrepreneurs are a busy lot. We’re always on the run and totally consumed by what goes on in our world. So it’s tough to stay abreast of what is happening “on the outside.” And besides, there’s so much information out there that it’s simply overwhelming. Right? All of this is pretty much true . . . and more. But here’s the big “however.” Everything that is happening around us – 24/7 – is a treasure trove of opportunity. If we invest some time and effort, the information we uncover may help us connect the dots. These are the dots that could lead us to discover a new and innovative product; or identify a trend that could help or hurt our business.

Connecting the dots will require an open mind, a healthy dose of curiosity and the ability to think critically. I’ve always wanted to be the one to connect the dots as opposed to having someone else do so because that “someone else” could very well be a competitor. Some things we learn may have no direct connection to anything to do with our business or personal lives. And yet, we never know exactly when a supposedly random tidbit might be that final puzzle piece we’ve been desperately seeking and didn’t even know what it looked like. I’m constantly advocating that we entrepreneurs should be voracious readers of everything we can get our hands on. And what we read should be broad and diverse.

Allow me to try and tie all of this together with a hypothetical example. Let’s assume that you and I own a company that manufactures fine oak barrels for premium wines. Why do we care about politics? A stiff tariff was being proposed on the special metal bands that we import from Japan to secure our barrels. Our relationship with several elected officials enabled us to educate them on the unintended consequences of this action and the tariff idea was scrapped. Dot A was connected to Dot B. As students of the Consumer Sentiment Index (compiled and published monthly by the University of Michigan) we learned that Americans are becoming increasingly more optimistic about the future of the country. Based upon history, we know that Americans drink more expensive wines when the future outlook is bright. With this knowledge, we make the decision to expand production of our wine barrels to meet increased demand. Dot C was connected to Dot D and then Dot E.

The ongoing financial crisis in Greece proved to be a tipping point for us with respect to a significant customer there who bought large lots of our wine barrels periodically. Because the Greek government restricted the amount of cash that could be withdrawn from the banks on a daily basis, we became concerned that this customer might have difficulty selling his product. We suggested that he scale back his order until more normal conditions existed in his country which saved us from carrying a large account receivable with him. Dot F was connected to Dot G.

Finally, by studying the demographic trends involving the number of retiring Baby Boomers and matching that with their buying habits, we projected that there could be a large increase in their purchase of premium California wines. We deployed one of our top salespeople, armed her with this data and sent her to call on the wineries in the Napa Valley. She came back with a terrific picture of how these wineries intend to introduce several new brands that match with the emerging tastes of the Baby Boomers. Dot H was connected with Dot I.

Paying attention to the world around us can yield valuable information. We can then connect the dots using this data in ways that contribute to the success of our enterprise.

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.

connecting the dots