I was devastated.
I had just spent six weeks working on one of The Weekend University’s first ever events; a one day course, and I needed to sell at least 12 tickets to break even.
I called everyone I could think of, sent hundreds of emails and used social media to promote it. Despite pouring my heart, soul and every spare minute I had into marketing the event, with a week to go, I had only sold six tickets.
I was having major doubts whether TWU was going to be a viable business going forward.
Then, with about 2 days to go, the ticket sales started to roll in. 7, 8, 9, 12, and on the day before, I reached 17. I was profitable!
Things were looking up.
I could hardly contain my smile as I signed people in to the venue that morning. After registering, attendees grabbed a cup of coffee and took their seats in the classroom. We were due to start at 10am.
As 10am drew nearer, I became increasingly concerned that there was no sign of the course leader. I tried calling a few times - no answer. Sent a text - no reply. The clock hit 10. Then 10.05. Then 10.15. Some attendees came out to ask what was going on. In truth, I knew as much as they did.
He never showed.
I walked into the room at about 10.20, explained what had happened, and then proceeded to refund every single penny in ticket sales that I had spent the previous six weeks working to generate.
Later, the course leader called me and told me he’d made a ‘scheduling error’.
To date, this was the biggest setback I had faced as a business owner, and in this post, I’m going to share three ideas that helped me to get through the situation.
#1 - Experience is Raw Material
Years before, I had read Victor Frankl’s: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was imprisoned in Nazi Concentration Camps during World War Two.
One of Frankl’s key insights is that what makes us uniquely human, is our ability to choose what any situation means to us. In other words, there is no such thing as an objective human experience. It depends on the person who is perceiving it and what meaning they give to it.
Said differently; it is our responsibility to determine what events and experiences mean to us.
In my case, having read Frankl’s work, I realised it was now my choice to decide what the setback meant to me.
On one hand, I could take it as a sign that the business just wasn’t meant to work; that maybe I’m not cut out for entrepreneurship and I should just give up the dream, be realistic and get a ‘real job’.
On the other, I could use it as fuel.
I could see it as an opportunity to develop resilience in overcoming adversity and setbacks. If I could come back from this, then I’d become the kind of person that is able to land on his feet; no matter what life throws at him.
This could be a challenge to grow, both as a person and as a business owner.
Both interpretations were potentially true.
But I realised that the actions I took from then on in, would determine which future would materialise.
The Circle of Influence
Steven Covey was an American educator and author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.
Covey’s book has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide and advocates a principle-centred approach to work and life.
One of Covey’s core ideas is that there are two areas where you can spend your time and energy:
1.) The circle of influence
2.) The circle of concern
Everything in life falls into one of these two categories.
The circle of influence contains all the things you can do something about and make a positive difference with your actions. Examples might include; your health, your relationships, the effort you put in, and the quality of work you do.
The circle of concern contains all the things you have no direct control over, e.g. the weather, other people’s opinions and actions, nuclear war, etc.
Proactive people spend most of their time in the circle of influence.
Reactive people spend their time in the circle of concern.
When the setback happened, I realised I had a choice about where to spend my time and energy.
On the one hand, I could spend it in the circle of concern; thinking and complaining about how I’d been screwed over, blaming the course leader, and worrying that my business was going to fail.
On the other, I could spend it in the circle of influence. I could focus on all the things that I now could control; refunding attendees, booking a new date with the course leader, getting a new venue, marketing the next event and arranging more courses.
I opted for the latter.
We re-ran the course two weeks later and made a small profit on the event.
Extreme Ownership is an idea from Navy Seal Commander Jocko Willink.
The idea is simple; take as much responsibility as you can for the negative things that happen in your life.
If something goes wrong, you ask the question: ‘What part did I play in this? In what way did I contribute to the negative outcome that occurred?’
You then take ownership of it, identify where you screwed up, and do your best to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
As human beings, we have a natural tendency to only want to see the good in ourselves.
We really want to see ourselves in a positive light.
When something or someone challenges this view, we feel threatened, insecure about who we are, and usually look to put the blame elsewhere.
In this case, my brain went into blame-overdrive.
But I knew if I was going to make sure it didn’t happen again, I needed to figure out what part I had played in the outcome, and work out if there was anything I could do to prevent it happening again in the future.
When I reflected, I realised that I had played a significant role in what had happened. In particular, my communication had let me down. If I had effectively communicated with the course leader in the week leading up to the event, the situation would never have played out as it did.
Since, I’ve now got a system in place where I email clear information about the date, timing and location to speakers 6 days before my events. If I get no response, I send a follow up email two days later, and if I get no response to that, I make a phone call the following day.
Extreme ownership allowed me to learn from my mistake and put systems in place to ensure it didn’t happen again. As a result, I have a better, and less risky business.
Had I simply blamed the course leader, as I strongly felt like doing, then I’d vulnerable to the same mistake again in the future.
Worse still, all the hassle I went through would have gone to waste.
No matter what you do, life is going to throw problems at you.
It’s an inevitable part of the human experience.
The goal then, shouldn’t be a life free of problems and adversity. But rather, it should be to become the kind of person who can overcome them.
As John Kabat-Zinn said:
'You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.'
Realising that it’s your choice what meaning you give to any situation, spending your time in the circle of influence, and taking extreme ownership, are three powerful ways to do this.