The Overnight Accident
Someone reminded me how long I had been in my current role a few weeks ago. I said to them ‘I’m just getting started’ and the person said ‘that’s what you always say.’ Reflecting on the conversation later, I realised they had been saying to me I had been here too long. Perhaps not achieving enough.
There’s a different way to look at it. I don’t buy the overnight success, the quick win. We all hear about those. We also hear about the big winners. We don’t hear about the failures. The hard slog business and career progressions don’t get talked about as much. We hear about the aberrations nearly all of the time. As humans we are aspirational, so we want to hear about success. Don’t bother us with stories of the average, that might just dampen our dreams. Tell me about the ‘hack‘ and don’t tell me about the five, ten or fifteen years of uncertain slog.
My favourite business book is Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog“, the story of the building of the Nike business. Why? Because it took them a long time to do it. Cash flow was a problem for many, many years. There was very little in the way of glamour. It was grounded in the everyday reality of business. Even though Nike has gone onto be a global success, the backstory isn’t one of overnight success.
There Was A Plan
Flicking through photographs on my iPhone a month ago, I found a photograph of a flipchart from June 2015. The chart was in my writing. It was titled “Objective £50m by 2020”. We were halfway through a year where we totalled £9.5m revenue, so £50 million revenue was a long way off. Below the title was listed 15 different objectives, most of them with financial targets written next to them. Smaller objectives, together with bold ones including an acquisition.
The business reached £50 million in revenue a year early. Of the fifteen objectives, thirteen were achieved. The revenue target for the fourteenth was missed by one year. We didn’t hit the fifteenth target, and still haven’t today. But overall we achieved most of the targets. It didn’t feel like we were winning at several stages on the road. Looking back at the list surprised me. Sometimes the intensity of the journey results in one missing the milestones along the way.
The growth is strong but not stellar, many other businesses post much more steamy numbers. But neither is it pedestrian. You can see it’s a relatively small business, this is no Nike. You can see it has not been an overnight success. It’s still early in the proceedings in real terms, let’s see what it looks like five years from now.
No Plan, No Direction
It has been hard work the whole way. Enjoyable, challenging, rewarding hard work. Sure, people can look at it and say it’s an average business. People can tell you how we could have done this better, or done that better. In the same way, I’m always a better football manager than the one England employs. There are very few overnight successes. This isn’t an overnight success.
“An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan”
What have I learned from the journey to date? Buy a flipchart. Or just use any piece of paper. And write a plan down. Warren Buffett said, “an idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan.” I’m not sure if he actually did, it’s hard to verify. But have a plan. We had a plan. A plan aligns, it allows for the allocation of capital and resource. It keeps you sane when things aren’t going well.
A plan can be adapted in turbulent circumstances, or when opportunity presents itself. Don’t be afraid to tweak as you go. But don’t be one of those people who plans and then ignores it. Or scraps the plan the minute the going gets tough. Or even worse, scraps the plan when things go well because you think you’re a genius and the plan has nothing to do with it.
Whatever you do, have a plan. Doesn’t everyone have a plan? Sadly no, I’ve met more than enough people who think fizzing with enthusiasm is enough. Or ‘knowing someone’. Or having a gut feeling.
We humans have this odd trait where we retrospectively engineer our success or failure. When we arrive at whatever success looks like, there’s always a different story. At the moment Stoicism apparently got a lot of people there. Or getting up before dawn to meditate for an hour. Or dunking yourself in an ice bath or a cold shower. Billionaires and other successful people apparently do some or all of these. There’s been a cascade effect, and now it’s clear a lot of other successful people believe Marcus Aurelius was a major influence. I don’t know why this is. When they were doing the hard early slog were they really saying to themselves “when you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love” at 5 a.m.?
Why the need to re-engineer the key elements? Why not just tell the truth and say I had a decent idea, but really hard work and some good luck got me there? Some bad luck, but more good luck than bad luck. And I got out of bed every day and went and did what needed to be done. I had an idea, a plan to get it done and got there. Why not say that?
Keep it simple. Have plan. Work hard. Be lucky.
Also published on Medium.