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How a little negative thinking can help your startup succeed

May 9, 2016

You’ve got to be a bit of an optimist to start a new business. This positive outlook undoubtedly helps you to get through the ups and downs of starting your own business, but it’s worth investing in a bit of negative thinking too.

When astronaut Chris Hadfield described his preparation to go into space, his focus was not on how fantastic it was going to be when he got there but on being ready to deal with the things that could kill him, so he could get to come back again.

This approach has parallels for how we start up too – we can dream of the big fabulous destination, but we have to expect that we will need to overcome challenges to be a success.

Running a startup is about stepping up to run a messy marathon, not hunkering down to run a perfect sprint. We have to make sure we can go the distance and this means we need to talk about embracing failure, affordable risk and filling the weak spots.

Fantastic failure

Back in the early days of my career I used to design and deliver software. One time I was part of a team that worked really hard to create warehousing automation software that we were confident was beautiful, elegant and clever. So confident were we that we focused all our energy on making it even more fabulous, and not enough of our energy in seeing if it worked.

The consequence was that when we put the software live, we found that it wouldn’t print. That meant that the people working in the warehouse couldn’t pick products off the shelves because they didn’t have instructions on what to pick.

I can still remember the feeling of walking through that enormous warehouse, surrounded by angry burly warehousemen wanting to know why I was preventing them from doing their jobs. A long walk of scary shame that I could have prevented if I had worked with those guys in advance and adapted the software until it met their needs.

Nowadays, my view is that every product and service is there to be tested. It’s there to be broken and made better through trial and error, feedback and adaptation.

Nicholas Taleb writes about people and businesses that not only bounce back from failure and challenge, but become stronger as a result. He said they were “antifragile”, and that is what our startups need to be.

Let’s get products and services that are good enough (but not yet perfect) out there so we can listen to the feedback on them. Accept the possibility that not all offers will work – many perhaps will fail – but in the process we will be getting closer and closer to the things that will work beautifully.

Affordable risk

How much can you really afford to risk to make your vision happen? How much do you and your family really want to risk?

I have met visionaries who feel that the key to being an entrepreneur is to believe so much in the vision that they will be super-heroic when it comes to what they will risk. That it would be disloyal to the vision to allow mere cash flow to get in the way.

My question is, do you really want to put your home on the line? Do you want to suspend having any cash now in the pursuit of the perfect dream?

When planning our personal commitment to the business, let’s work out how much we can really afford to invest. Let’s work out how we can increase what we can afford so we can play the long game.

Rather than mortgaging the whole house, what about building up some savings? Rather than giving up the whole job, what about going part time? Rather than getting a massive loan, what about going into partnership with someone who can share the investment?

I was once asked to step in and run a troubled charity that had hardly any reserves – it was really vulnerable to peaks and troughs of income, constantly on the edge of disaster and it taught me a serious lesson.

Now, I keep a financial reserve level in my business that I do not allow myself to touch. That’s my level of affordable risk. Whenever I have had lean times or I’ve been focusing on product development rather than generating cash, I make sure that reserve level is never touched.

If it means me taking on work that I’m not so keen on or slowing down on delivering my vision, then that’s what I do. I’m playing the long game and plan to never allow short term cash flow kill my business.

Fix the weak spots

Part of the joy of being a startup is that you get to roll your sleeves up and get involved in everything. No massive silos and bureaucracy, just get on with it. Fleet of foot, that’s us in startup mode. For those of us who have worked in big corporates, it’s utterly liberating.

Unless you are a far better person than me, you have weak spots. My question to you is, do you want to go at the pace that your strengths allow or will you allow yourself to be held back while the weakest parts of you catch up?

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, talked about facing the brutal facts. Accepting that we might need to do something about our weaknesses can be a brutal process.

I have a friend who is a visionary. He has the most extra-ordinary ambition not just for his business, but for the world too. Fortunately, my friend is learning that he is lousy at dealing with the practicalities. He could give up, distraught that he isn’t 100% of the solution, but he won’t.

Instead, he is surrounding himself with people who are doers. That way, he can keep his head in the future, while other people create the present that will allow that future to happen.

The necessity of negative thinking

What about your business? What’s the best way you could introduce failure loops to improve your offer? What is your level of affordable risk and how can you increase what you can afford? What weak spots are you going to face up to so your business can achieve its potential? A bit of negative thinking will help you achieve positive results.

About the author

This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Jean Gamester. Jean is founder and director of consulting business, Semaphora, where she delivers change programmes and helps organisations to make change happen. She is also a volunteer leader with Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.

Jean is a regular contributor to ByteStart, and her other articles include;

More help on successfully starting up

When you’re launching your own business, there’s one thing that’s crucial to its success; you! With so much at stake, it’s vital you do everything you can to get the most out of yourself. These guides will help your quest;

Starting Up

Leading a business

Funding your business

Money & Tax matters

Promoting your business

Legal issues