This article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for the South African edition of Entrepreneur magazine, as the My Mentor column published in May 2013 and is posted here by their kind permission.
That terrible time when it looks like the business cannot continue
There comes a time in almost every business’ life when failure seems inevitable, and the entrepreneur fears that they are unable to continue. His or her self confidence nose dives. Prospects for success or even survival appear to be extremely limited and a sense of hopelessness sets in. It is a terrible time, and often happens within the first year of operations, sometimes near the launch.
There is a real basis to this fear. Businesses frequently fail and start-up businesses are especially vulnerable, with many never getting beyond the first year of operations. Entrepreneurs may not have the skills, knowledge, risk taking ability or drive to manage their businesses profitably.
The key to managing through this stage is to decide rationally whether the business is really doomed or whether the entrepreneur has just hit that painful wall that left so many others bruised and shaken but stronger and thriving. Many business owners quit in despair at this stage when with the right tactics they could have succeeded. Decisions have to be made only on facts and stripped of emotions, pessimism, and blame. This is extremely difficult for an entrepreneur to do alone at a time when they are swamped by doubt about the whole business concept, their own abilities and their fears of the consequences of failure including catastrophic financial loss and shame. This is a great time to have a mentor to turn to.
An old business saying suggests that the best loss is the one taken early. If a rational analysis of the state of the business shows that there really is no likelihood of the business succeeding then plans must immediately be made to close the business with as little damage as possible. It is not smart to continue to ride a failure into yet more debt and broken promises.
Finding out why
An assessment of the current situation is vital, write down cash resources, sales prospects, market reaction, product and service quality and fitness for purpose and all the things a buyer would look at it he were thinking of buying the business.. These must be compared to the business plan to see what has changed. Why were the expected returns not made? Are the causes fundamental or can they be reversed? Be certain that the real causes have been identified; this is not a place for rose tinted spectacles. Once the causes of the distress are identified it is a whole lot easier to make a close or survive decision. Often the crisis is brought about by something as simple and reversible as the failure of marketing promotions to attract potential customers, deviating from plans to satisfy unreasonable demands by early customers, trying to attack too many markets or spending too much time on product development and not enough on selling. This is where a mentor can bring an impersonal outsiders view, especially if the mentor has experience in managing similar situations.
Key questions to be answered are whether the identified problems can be fixed and whether the company has, or can get the resources needed to do these fixes. It is not sensible to borrow more money unless this is necessary to fix the problem, not merely to prop up a failing venture a few months longer. If the root cause of the distress situation cannot be identified, or if there is uncertainty about which of multiple possible causes are to blame there will be a temptation to guess the ‘right’ one and fix that. There is nothing wrong with trusting instinct but this does introduce extra risk.
In looking at these rational decisions and fixes it helps to remember that many thousands of successful businesses have gone through exactly this stage, so things may not be as dark as they first appeared. Always try to bounce back, but only with good strategies.
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