October 25, 2014

How to Survive Near-Death Business Experiences

near death business

Ever wonder what it’s like to jump off the world’s fourth-tallest skyscraper? If you’re starting your own business – you already know.

Making the decision to turn your back on the corporate grind forever and start your own company is almost as (if not more) daunting than deciding to leap off One World Trade Center with only a parachute standing between you and certain death.

There are plenty of things that can go wrong for a small business, but knowing how to keep going in the face of adversity can mean the difference between success and failure. Whether you’re launching a new app or opening a local store, having the courage to not only embrace catastrophe but power through it can be an invaluable learning experience.

Here are five (hard) lessons I learned from bootstrapping my own company.

Survive Near-Death Business Experiences

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway

near death business

When something threatens your business, it’s natural for you to feel fear. After all, the “fight-or-flight” instinct is an evolutionary response to danger that helps us survive potentially life-threatening encounters. Although situations that could tank your business, such as losing key clients, probably aren’t actual life-or-death scenarios, that doesn’t mean that your survival instincts won’t kick in. They certainly did for me when my company, WordStream, lost one of its biggest clients during the first year we were in business.

When you’re presented with a major obstacle that could leave your business in ruin, resist the temptation to flee. This will probably go against everything your instincts are telling you, but you should power through it. Why? Because these situations can be crucial for the growth of your business.

When I was growing my company, I was faced with not one but two situations early on in which I could have thrown in the towel and given up – but I didn’t. The prospect of my business failing forced me to get creative and come up with new solutions to my business problems. The result? We forged ahead, identified new sources of revenue, and ultimately continued to grow.

Fear can be a powerful motivator – make it work for you.

Ignore the Voices in Your Head

near death business

Remember when you first started telling people about your business idea? The chances are pretty good that at least a few people scoffed at your idea, or dismissed you as crazy for wanting to go it alone and start your own company. Even if everyone around you was 100% behind you (lucky you!), I’ll bet you still struggled with internal doubts from time to time – I know I did.

Listening to these voices is toxic for a growing business. As soon as you give doubt room to grow, you’re essentially giving yourself permission to quit. After all, the longer you dwell on what might go wrong, the more likely your survival instincts are to persuade you to get the hell away from whatever’s keeping you up at night.

If you’ve got a solid idea, tell the voices to shut up and get on with growing your business. You have to have confidence in your idea, and your ability to execute it. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

Everybody feels doubt at one point or another, but the most successful entrepreneurs learn to ignore the voices and keep looking forward.

Be Brutally Honest with Yourself

near death business

It’s one thing to ignore the insidious whispers of doubt we all hear in the darkest hours of the night, but it’s another thing entirely to pour everything into a venture that isn’t going to take off. Knowing the difference between the two is essential for any would-be business owner.

Pursuing an ill-conceived business idea can cost you – literally. Yes, it’s vital that you have passion, conviction and the resolve to bring your idea to life, but you must be brutally, uncompromisingly honest with yourself about whether a business idea is genuinely workable. If it isn’t, it could cost you everything.

Not every idea is going to pan out – or even be any good. Recognizing this fact is crucial to building a successful business. It can be hard to admit that an idea needs work, but it takes true courage to turn your back on an idea altogether. However, taking a long, hard look at your business, and why it might not be growing as you’d hoped, could save your venture in the long run.

Be brave, be honest, and be willing to say “no” to ideas that just aren’t working out.

Learn From Your Mistakes

near death business

What happens if you ignore the voice in your head that was screaming at you that your original idea sucked? Time to give up and crawl back to the Dilbert lifestyle in a soul-crushing cubicle farm, right?

Wrong.

Many people are terrified of making mistakes – but mistakes are awesome. Everybody (especially the most successful entrepreneurs) makes mistakes. But knowing how to learn from them is a rare quality that separates the runaway success stories from the flaming wreckage at the side of the highway.

Not every venture is going to work out. However, even the most spectacular failure can be an invaluable learning experience. Rather than crying yourself to sleep, ask yourself some hard questions. Why did your business fail? Was it due to poor product/market fit? Lazy or ineffective marketing? An overly crowded market? Once you’ve identified where you went wrong, you can use these experiences as a roadmap for how to succeed next time.

Never Give Up

near death business

Some entrepreneurs think that once they hit a certain financing milestone, or acquire a certain number of clients, or [insert your lofty business goal here], life as a business owner magically becomes easier. Guess what? It doesn’t. You have to keep going – all day, every day, whether you feel like it or not.

Some days will be easier than others, and some mistakes will cost you more dearly. However, no matter what happens to your business, never give up. Keep going, learn from your mistakes, and forge ahead. Remember, by actually launching your own business, you’re already doing way better than most other people. Especially the naysayers who told you it’d never work or laughed in your face.

Forget about them. Be your own boss and make it work – because you’re awesome!

Tunnel Photo via Shutterstock, Superman Photo via Shutterstock, Voices Photo via Shutterstock, Honesty Photo via Shutterstock, Determination Photo via Shutterstock, Road Sign Photo via Shutterstock

9 Comments ▼

Larry Kim


Larry Kim Larry Kim founded WordStream in 2007. He serves as company CTO and is the author of 4 Award-Winning Books on Software Development. Larry also blogs at the WordStream Blog and practices photography in his spare time.

9 Reactions

  1. This is an epic piece of advice. My business just underwent such a near death experience and after reading this the recovery shall be faster.

  2. Great article with good artwork too. There’s that fine line between not giving up and knowing when to quit. Knowing when to quit probably results from being brutally honest with yourself, which is tough! Great article :-)

  3. The last part is the hardest to do. Most people who encounter setbacks always end up quitting.They usually see this as a sign that they are not for the job and so end up looking elsewhere. But then, that’s the last thing they need to do.

  4. Great advice for entrepreneurs, Larry. Glad you added the part about learning from mistakes. Most of the successful business people I know, particularly the serial entrepreneurs, made lots of mistakes, and learned to become a better business leader by learning from (and not repeating) these mistakes. Entrepreneurs need to also know that they don’t have to figure it out on their own. A business mentor, advisory board, or a SCORE business mentor can help you navigate next steps, provided they give you frank advice, and you listen and consider what they say. These folks can help you see or prevent a mistake, and take corrective action, before it becomes a “near death” situation.

  5. I wouldn’t call it for a near “death” business experience, but it is very rough to go through bad times, ending up with a bankruptcy. I worked around the clock to try to save the business and at the end I had a hard time to get up from my bed early in the morning due to the long hours. And then taking care of all the creditors and vendors that wanted to get paid. We came to fair arrangements with almost all our suppliers, but some didn’t understand our situation. As an advice to them: you never know when you are at the other side of the negotiating table… ;)

    I have written a piece on my experience on the OpenForum, if you want to know what I have learned from this experience.

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