When I was a kid, I read stories about Japanese soldiers that had been discovered hiding out in the early 70's in some remote pacific island. These few soldiers still believed that the World War II was still going and continued to prepare themselves for battle and conduct themselves as if they were fighting a war. They had lost all track of time and perspective, having spent 30 odd years in complete isolation. I had read that when they were told about the end of the war 30 years earlier, and the state of modern Japanese society, they simply could not accept this reality as they were too heavily invested in the idea that they had to keep fighting.
This describes the same phenomenon I believe that happens to most entrepreneurs who are founding businesses from scratch. We start with an idea and a vision of what it will take to achieve success with our businesses. We know that the odds are heavily not in our favour statistically, so we over-compensate by working harder than ever - working as if we were still being evaluated by someone else, only our boss is the worst one we've ever had: ourselves. This boss doesn't allow us to take vacations, doesn't tolerate any distractions during the workday and never, ever celebrates our successes. Instead this boss constantly reminds us that as well as we are performing, there is still so much left to be done.
When I started this business two years ago, my circumstances were different from what they are now: I was living in Toronto, with my partner and considering settling there and buying a house. The expenses associated with living there were much greater than they are here in Saint John, and I formulated a business plan to establish an operation that would be large enough in scale to support the cash flow needs that living in Toronto would require. It took me months and months to complete that plan to the point that I was intimately familiar with every step and every milestone that needed to be achieved. I had a timeline burned into my psyche and I set about ruthlessly and single-mindedly executing that plan.
Only, it didn't go the way I had envisioned. Almost immediately, I experienced setbacks: one of my investors said he couldn't go through with the investment after all, so I had less money than I needed to execute the plan. I suddenly had to incur debt, rather than sell equity in the business. This added to my stress because debt has actual repayment requirements, whereas equity does not. I found that I couldn't list my inventory nearly as quickly as I thought. I found that working with E-bay is fraught with problems that require my time and attention on a monthly or quarterly basis - time that I didn't factor into my plan. Finally, I really didn't think about what all this singular focus would do to my relationships - with my friends, my son and Steph.
Every time I faced a setback, I either redoubled my efforts, or I tried to come up with a different solution. Ultimately, one of these solutions was to leave Toronto and move to Saint John. It was a great move and ultimately, I believe that it saved the business from certain ruin. However, one thing I didn't do when I arrived here was to alter my original plan to reflect the change in our circumstances. Very recently I did recognize that it wasn't necessary for the business to be as large as I had originally planned and I did start taking steps to divest ourselves of some of the inventory so that we could pay off our debts. That was a good first step, and I felt very good for all of about a week, and then I went back to being stressed again.
Why? Well I had spent a lot of time envisioning how success would look in this business. I imagined a scenario where I have all my inventory listed and all my time gets spent listing material as it comes in, having no backlog and filling orders as they come in, while making enough to live on. I still think that is an attainable goal, but I have been getting very frustrated because I feel like I will never get to the point that all my inventory is listed. To me, that feels like failure. But what if it just isn't possible to attain that equilibrium? What happens then? I had to really start thinking about that.
When I really took stock of how the business is doing objectively, I realized that:
1. Our sales are growing by leaps and bounds and are currently enough to support our lifestyle, some reinvestment in the business, and to pay the investors. Once the investors are paid and the mortgage is paid we'll be laughing.
2. I get at least two or three e-mails from different customers every day now, engaging me and building relationships, whereas this time last year I was getting none.
3. I am getting want lists now from customers who trust me.
4. We were just featured in the Canadian Stamp News.
5. Customers have begun sending consignments.
6. One customer has actually asked me to handle his estate when the time comes.
Although this does not fit my original vision of how I thought the business would unfold, is this not success? If all the above things keep happening every month, then does it really matter if all the inventory is listed? Maybe it doesn't.
I know that one of the reasons I am having such a hard time accepting that the sales will continue to be good unless I get everything listed is that it took me so long to start seeing good sales levels. My brain wants to believe that the only reason sales are good now is because of how much inventory I have listed. Yet the experience tells me that it is not a function of how much is listed necessarily: Some of my largest sales this month were stamps that I listed 2 years ago, which suggests that maybe it just takes that long to begin winning people's trust and all indications are that this is finally beginning to happen on a large scale. So while it may still be important to get the material listed, it may not be as critical, in the final analysis as I had originally thought.
What is important though is that I take the time to begin living and savouring the successes that Steph and I are experiencing. I am taking baby steps by having coffee out in the garden every morning before I start work. I hope to eventually go back to eating better, exercising and ultimately ending my work day at 6pm instead of working until 2 am. Being able to do that involves breaking the chains that I placed around myself and doing that, in turn requires me to be open to recognizing that success may not take the form that I thought it would. I have to recognize when I am successful. This I believe is the most important milestone that we can reach as entrepreneurs.
I am sure we probably won't have another month like this for a while, because most of the sales were to two customers who had very extensive needs. However, I have to recognize that this is just fine: we don't have to have another month like this again. As long as we can keep our average sales level at a point where it can cover our expenses, we will be fine. My best insurance policy against failure is to keep meeting new customers and building new relationships. The B&B has done phenomenally well, being almost solidly booked this month, and I always have the accounting to fall back on come wintertime.
So I, and other entrepreneurs like me need to learn to chill. Chill and enjoy the life we have worked so hard for. Chill and enjoy our spouses instead of taking them for granted. Chill and enjoy our relationships with our children and our friends.