My wife and I like to joke about last year being our “year of trials.”
We had downsized the prior year as we were becoming empty-nesters, and went through months of stressful renovations on our new place as a result. By January, our newly updated home had been broken into, suffered a ruptured sewer pipe and revealed a leaky basement. Add to this the fun of having our rental car broken into twice while on a trip to San Francisco that summer and my wife being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer right before the end of the year.
All we could do was try to keep everything in perspective.
My kids are healthy, all starting great careers, and my wife’s breast cancer was easily treatable and her prognosis right now is excellent. Success in everything depends on your perspective: Are you going to power through and overcome your challenges, or let them snow you under?
There’s an adage in rock climbing called the “three-foot world,” in which climbers focus not on the massive rock wall they’re attempting to climb, but the problems that are immediately in front of them. Once those are completed, they can move their attention on to the next three-foot section of the wall. This mindset has helped climbers reach the top of sheer cliffs. And it’s helped me both in business and in life.
Here’s how I’ve translated the three-foot world into three rules for startup survival.
Rule No. 1: Don’t panic.
Sometimes, just when everything seems to be going well for your startup, you get some unexpected news. Maybe one of your key reports, someone who has been in the trenches since the beginning, tells you that he has to leave the company for family reasons. Or the market takes a sudden twist, and there’s disappointment and ambiguity.
When I was at ShareThis, a major competitor with a lot more resources tried to shut us down, and I got the news in an email late at night. First I freaked out, but then I realized that it was a good thing: We got their attention; we were in the game. I didn’t act on the news right away but instead slept on it and took the time to pull myself together, sat down with the team the next day to decide on a plan of action. It turned out we had a very strong argument to what they were threatening and we were able to get everything resolved after a few phone calls.
Entrepreneurs need to stay calm in the face of uncertainty. Don’t get rattled. You will figure it out. Rather than make the situation worse, sit down with your team and look at the factors you can control in the moment. There are always things that are in reach, and you can count on the fact that more will be revealed. Narrow your focus to what’s in view.
Rule No. 2: If you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Don’t be surprised when things get tough at work or at home, but don’t dig any deeper when it happens. The original root of the word passion is “to suffer.” It’s not uncommon for a passionate entrepreneur to suffer some sort of crisis every couple of months — whether it’s an executive leaving the company, or a big hike in your rent hitting just as you are investing in your company, or a key customer ending its contract. Sometimes you need a reset. You need to step back and identify your priorities and focus on what you’re doing. Don’t make the situation worse.
This goes for the work-home tension as well, where things often get worse before they get better. If I was working too many hours, my wife would feel the strain. That could lead to arguments at home, just as I was pushing my hardest at work. As my kids get older, it’s gratifying to hear from them that they remember me being really busy as they were growing up, but they also remember that when I was home, I was usually very present with them.
Rule No. 3: Don’t confuse motion for progress.
Just because you’re busy and your day’s full doesn’t mean you’re making progress or advancing the long-term plan. Don’t be busy just for busy’s sake. Make sure your next step is the right one and that you’re working on things that are part of the strategy and are advancing your goals.
When things in my life got tough, I could allow myself to spend time to fix what was in front of me because I knew the longer path was already laid out. Just as a rock climber would pick a path to the top while standing on the ground, most good entrepreneurs have a plan for where they want to go. When under duress, you can trust that the longer plan is in place, and just get through the next couple of handholds. And it doesn’t hurt to have a coach or buddy at the top or at the bottom who can flag you if you have in fact strayed way off track, and help direct you back again.
None of these things are necessarily easy, but they will help you progress. The three-foot world, put simply, can keep you from giving up.