Chapter 2 of 22: Insight

Running a business gives you an insight that you can’t get from reading books or watching documentaries or going to business school – sometimes you have to get your hands dirty if you want to truly understand something. The question I always get asked is why I didn’t pivot or otherwise change my business model to make the business work. It wasn’t simply because I was lazy. Don’t get me wrong, I am lazy; but, my laziness has never been about inaction – it has always been about finding alternate or more efficient ways of doing things. What attracted me to ecommerce was the idea that I might be able to execute something unconventional. I had no interest in selling tea to supermarkets and fighting for shelf-space and brand recognition, only to make a few cents a box. Conventional business success never appealed to me. I always wanted to forge my own path. I would rather own an online store than sell my products through traditional retail channels. I would rather have my own news channel on YouTube than be a news presenter on television. I would rather self-publish and distribute my own book than spend years going back and forth with a publisher. 

In many ways, I am allergic to the democratic ideals that colour the decision-making process in conventional business environments. I don’t need an external consulting report, or a customer survey, or a focus group to tell me that Ford Motors should get rid of the ugly blue oval behind its script logo. It cheapens the brand and detracts from the actual logo, which is one of the most iconic brand marks in the world. Of course, in reality, it would take dozens of studies, years of time, and tens of millions of dollars for someone at Ford to come to the same conclusion. Sometimes all you need in order to make a sound decision is logic, good taste, and common sense. We hide behind studies so we can justify our decisions and shift the blame when things go wrong. I would rather have some accountability. If people weren’t chastised for making mistakes, there would be a lot more autonomous decision-making and a lot more innovation in this world. You shouldn’t need to produce a peer reviewed study every time you want to make a decision. You should be able to think and act for yourself. If a decision isn’t objectively stupid (using a standard of common sense as our benchmark for stupidity) it may not be right, but it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.

Unconventionality in business comes at a cost. My business’ longevity and flexibility was hampered by many of the decisions I made. The business had been set up to excel on social media – it wasn’t designed to function outside of that environment. The name, the packaging, the products were all designed with one function in mind. Taking the products and the brand outside of its natural habitat was never going to work. The business model only worked online and no amount of thinking or strategizing would have changed that. Trying to operate an unconventional business unconventionally gave me an education far more valuable than my business ever was or could have been.

It would be easy to assume that the higher up you are in the business world, or the more money you have made, the more you know about business, but that isn’t necessarily true. If you are dealing with a company with a strong business model and solid cash flow, decision-making is easy. If you make a mistake, there’s always more money on the way to bail you out. More than anything, money gives you the freedom to fail. It gives you the ability to try new things without having to worry about whether the business will collapse as a result of one poor decision. In most instances, it is nothing more than luck that determines whether a business is on the right path.

When you have to fight for money and constantly pivot to keep a roof over your head, you tend to agonise over every decision. It is a different level of accountability. When something works, you never have to think about why that thing is working. When something fails or isn’t working as well as it should be, you constantly ask yourself why. You then spend every waking hour trying to figure out how to make improvements. As a general rule, once you start earning, you stop learning. Comfort brings out the worst in people.

Someone who owns a business with strong sales doesn’t need to think about why sales are strong. Why would they? Sales are strong, so the everything is working as it should. What happens when fortunes wane and sales start to decline? It is at this point that questions will be asked and it is at this point that the real learning in business takes place. You start thinking about why things are no longer working and what needs to happen for sales to improve. It’s often a process of trial and error as you try everything under the sun to return the business to an even keel.

If you only ever work in an environment where nothing ever goes wrong, you will learn very little about how businesses function. Someone like Merissa Meyer was destined to fail at Yahoo. She went from Google, a company that prints cash, to one that was struggling for relevancy and couldn’t come up with a coherent business model. Almost nothing she learnt at Google would have been applicable at Yahoo, but everything she learnt at Yahoo would have been applicable at Google. The irony is that while Google attracts some of the brightest minds on earth, their staff are the last people you would want to hire if your business wasn’t doing well. Google’s employees crave comfort. They tend to float from company to company doing the same type of work at the same type of place with the same type of people. They couldn’t function in a company that wasn’t drowning in cash.

As it turns out, neither could I.