Burnouts, Crashes and Endless Business Plateaus
The unexpected benefits available on the not-so glamorous side of entrepreneurship.
Many people dream of landing a publishing deal, releasing a book, and touring around the country promoting said book. I was one of those people. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, my dream became a reality.
Then it -- and I -- crashed.
And not just any crash. The type of ugly-as-sin crash where some days you stare aimlessly into the distance, some days you sleep and sleep until your back hurts from laying down too much, some days you neglect your health completely because exercise and eating well seems like way too much effort, and some days where, quite frankly, you question your own worthiness and validity in being an entrepreneur (or solopreneur in my case).
And then a type of rebellion set in. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with this book baby that I had worked so hard to birth months ago. My business was doing fine. I was managing my client load, serving my customers, but I couldn’t see past the straight line on the horizon. There was nowhere to go up, nowhere to go down. I was stuck on a business plateau.
A couple of months into what I now call “the vanishing quarter of 2017” I finally pulled myself away from what was my endless supply of chips, salsa and craft beer, and started talking about my feelings, and asking other entrepreneurs if they’ve experienced something similar.
I felt like I was on an island. Turns out my island was completely self-imposed. Every single person I talked to -- people who run companies I admire, leaders who have teams who depend on them, entrepreneurs who have decided to call it quits -- had endured some type of burnout, crash or plateau.
They all just managed it better than I did. Much better. And with these four tips below, you can, too.
Be transparent with your stakeholders.
You don’t have to have investors to have stakeholders. Your stakeholders in this case are any people who you have a business relationship with, and who support your business. It could be investors, stockholders, employees. It could also be friends, family, colleagues. And it most definitely is your customers and clients.
With this transparency, new opportunities can present themselves, and you give your stakeholders a chance to rise to a new challenge. Just like the team at Dots did when their CCO decided to share openly when they encountered a plateau.
"A while back, one of our games, Two Dots, was very difficult to maintain because of the amount of time it took to create the art, music, and gameplay of a certain quality," said Patrick Moberg, co-founder and chief creative officer. "Rather than reducing our standards to just crank out more, we chose to be entirely transparent with the company about our situation. We laid out the numbers and the repercussions we'd all face if we weren't able to improve the business side of things. By embracing transparency, the team collectively designed a better solution that not only allowed us to maintain a high-quality player experience, but also created a secondary type of gameplay that both fulfilled players' requests for more levels and created a financial upside so that we could continue to grow the business."
You never know what stakeholders in your business are poised to step up and present new ideas, solutions, and assistance. Be transparent and give others the chance to rise.
Discover your blind spots.
“Plateaus are particularly valuable in terms of discovering your blind spots and identifying where you still have room to grow. If handled correctly, you’ll see a world of opportunity open up as you and your team gain clarity on what you do best and your motivation will skyrocket with the renewed focus," said Vinyl Me, Please co-founder Tyler Barstow.
Take this opportunity to make your pro/con lists. But more, take this chance to look at what in your business makes you happy, and what makes you cringe. What is profitable, and what is more trouble than it’s worth. Decide where your priorities need to be to shape the business in a way that serves you, your team, and your clients best. And, Barstow suggests, approach this analysis with ‘ambitious humility.’
"Ambitious humility is the necessary replacement for ego if you’re going to make it through the many seasons like this that will inevitably come your way. So much of business is learning who you are as a company and becoming a better version of that, and your success or failure in that process relies on your ability to identify your strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly."
Keep moving, even if it’s slow movement.
"There are species of sharks that require forward movement to breathe; they suffocate and die without it. Business is no different. Seek movement in unassuming forms," said Adam Gorode, AGW Group co-founder and chief executive officer. “When things get stagnant, pull a Freaky Friday: Do something -- anything -- different, and always include your employees; chances are they sense something’s in the water."
This advice is spot-on. Movement, even if it’s simple incremental baby steps, is crucial. I recently heard someone say (and I forget who, or I’d gladly provide credit) that we overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. To continue Gorode’s very appropriate shark analogy, I floated in the water waiting to be eaten or getting scared enough to swim my way to shore. I served my clients, and then zoned out. Once I started focusing on doing one small thing more than the bare minimum each day, things started to change.
Some days it was challenging myself to learn a new function of a software, some days it was challenging my favorite vendors and contractors to come up with a completely off-brand design for a new video bumper, some days it was reading a book that I bought months previously but had never cracked, and some days it was experimenting with new crochet techniques to challenge the neuro-pathways in my brain (if the zombie apocalypse ever strikes, I have some serious supply-making skills).
None of these led immediately to profit, but they were movement, and as an unintended consequence they opened up a creative side that has propelled stagnant projects forward with new life.
Know when to fold.
“Being an entrepreneur is hardly taking the easy route in life. Continuing past the expiration date is no good for anyone,” said Todd Krizelman, CEO of MediaRadar.
During my “vanishing quarter” I thought frequently whether this was the life I was suited for. I thought about what type of traditional job I would want. Or whether I was even employable any more. As I revealed earlier, this was an ugly, ugly crash.
“You know you’re ready to get out if you’re unhappy, on a very regular basis," Krizelman said. “Self-diagnosis is rarely so simple however. In my case family and especially my wife are good advocates. It’s also easier to diagnose if you’re out of the office on vacation. You know you have a problem if you don’t look forward to returning.”
Related: Vacation Tips From a Workaholic
I took this advice. About a month ago I took myself out of the equation for a couple of weeks and took a vacation. During this time, exploring Tokyo and neighboring areas of Japan, I learned a lot about myself and how I can better serve with my expertise.
But more importantly, I realized that I couldn’t wait to get back to New York City and take what I had learned by studying tourism, consumer engagement, and marketing displays in Japan and translate those things into lessons that could help my clients.
This time away was exactly what I needed. Clearly, it’s not my time to fold.
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