The Mistake-Prone Entrepreneur

I have a philosophy that mistakes are simply unfinished experiments in the laboratory of life. That does not mean we want to leave unfinished the same experiment over and over. But being too tentative and too cautious to avoid making a mistake may itself be a mistake! The obvious conclusion is that we want to learn from our mistakes and turn them into productive experiences.

To turn our mistakes into productive experiences we need to analyze them in a process-oriented manner. Being a go-go entrepreneur, it is not easy for me to slow down long enough to reflect on what went wrong. Generally, I just want to get back in the game and do it right the next time. This worked somewhat well in the past, but as I have gotten older, I’ve learned that being more intentional about analyzing mistakes increases the odds of not making the same mistake again. It also has caused me to look for the “silver lining” – that nugget of information that might enable me to turn the mistake into something unintentionally positive.

Step One in my mistake analysis process involves the simple act of identifying what went wrong and writing it down. Yes, I know this takes time, but it forces us to take a hard look at what happened. Did I follow an established process, or did I deviate from it – maybe even wing it? Did I fail to build-in a sufficient margin of safety at the front end? Did I somehow ignore warning signals that were flashing at me? Was I driven by emotion or was my initiative grounded in facts? I have found that most of my mistakes came from deviating from an established process. Because of my go-go nature I want results to happen very quickly. By analyzing my mistakes, I have recognized a tendency pattern to cut corners.

Step Two requires that we consciously determine what we need to do differently and commit to do it. Knowing that I have the propensity to cut corners, I have become committed to following established processes. Before I move forward with anything I am doing, I stop myself and ask the simple question, “What is the process that needs to be followed?” I make certain that I know exactly what the process should be and then I affirm, “I know the process and I will follow it.” Sometimes I may even make this pledge to a close colleague for accountability sake.

The final step in mistake analysis is that of looking for the “silver lining.” History is littered with mistakes that resulted in brilliance. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin due to a mistake he made in his lab. Another famous mistake at the 3M laboratories turned into Post-it Notes. Plastic was invented as the result of a mistake – some say that Charles Goodyear left a mixture of rubber and sulfur on the stove too long and found that he had created a new material. Wilson Greatbatch was building a heart rhythm recording device in 1956; used a wrong part and realized that the device would maintain a heart rhythm – thus the pacemaker was born. If we do not look for the silver linings in our mistakes, we may never find that little (or big) something that manifests into a positive development. Finding the silver lining requires a creative mindset – perhaps this is an exercise that can be done with others. Take the mistake and purposefully look through the “rubble” to see if there is anything of value that might be useful.

Mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world for us if we take the time to find out what happened; how we’re going to act differently in the future and committing to such different action, and finding the silver linings that may be hiding in plain sight.

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.

A Tip From Warren Buffet

We all know that life is full of risks. Some are more serious than others. I hold the view that I’d rather “manage” risk than “take” risk. I’ve said before that taking a risk seems a bit arbitrary. “Gee, I think I’ll try to run across this eight lane expressway right now!” Sounds silly, right? But in a way, that’s what taking a risk seems like to me. While it may not be as spontaneous as this overdramatized example, taking a risk feels like gambling. Meanwhile, managing a risk is calculated. It is studied and planned. Risk mitigation strategies are developed. If I’m to run across the eight lane expressway, I’m going to figure out every possible way to do so as safely as possible. That’s risk management.

One very important element of risk management is a concept that was espoused by one of the most revered investors of all time, Benjamin Graham (1894 – 1976). And this concept is practiced today by his acolyte, Warren Buffet. The concept is that of margin of safety. Entrepreneurs absolutely must understand margin of safety – but every member of society would benefit from practicing it as well. Graham and Buffet narrowly defined margin of safety as the difference between the intrinsic value of a stock and its market price. I look at margin of safety on a broader basis and define it as the difference between success and failure. In some cases this difference can be razor thin, and in others, it can be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. The key is to take the steps necessary to push the margin as wide as possible.

In our businesses, organizations and lives in general, we have an opportunity to become expert at creating margins of safety. One of our companies purchases apartment properties. Because we tend to hold these assets for five to seven years or longer, there can be a great deal of uncertainty about the future. What can we do to stack the deck in our favor and create a healthy margin of safety when we’re looking so far down the road? Obviously we make year-by-year financial projections that are based upon a set of assumptions. Those assumptions include rent levels, rent increases, operating expense levels, expense increases, occupancy percentages, rates of return on which a sale price can be calculated and various aspects surrounding debt financing. The Excel spreadsheet is quite comprehensive with all of these assumptions and projections – but how do we overlay a margin of safety on the process?

With one of our properties, we obtained a certified appraisal as a part of the due diligence process that indicated a value $3 million higher than we paid for the property. That’s a margin of safety right there. Perhaps we budgeted an initial increase in rents of $110 after making a number of physical improvements, but were actually able to achieve $200. Our assumptions might have anticipated a stabilized economic occupancy of 91%; but in actuality we were able to operate at 93%. Operating expenses may have been right on the money, but rent increases averaged 3.25% each year rather than the 3% that we had forecasted. And remember our baseline started $90 higher than the $110 initial increase that was projected. In summary, we pushed a number of levers to create several different margins of safety that when combined, produced a much better bottom line throughout the holding period than expected. In so doing, we are better protected from market factors that could degrade the future value of our asset.

The principal takeaway here is to find as many margins of safety as possible. If we make decisions based upon 100% optimal results, there’s no room for error. Then a blip in the market or a miss with operations could mean failure. I have learned the hard way that if there’s no way to create sufficient margins of safety, the risk I am contemplating may be too difficult to manage. So I move on to something else.

Developing the concept of margin of safety is an exercise in positive thinking. We are looking for ways to increase the probability for success – and that’s always a good thing.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 56 – The Mystery of the Undercooked Steak.

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.