The three year hump

November 5th, 2012

Statistics vary, year by year and around the world, when it comes to the failure rate of new businesses. Typical statistics for London give you a 1 in 3 chance of failing in your first three years.

Despite why you may have gone into business, what it was that drove you to create something and pour yourself into making it thrive, the feeling of “needing to survive” inevitably creeps into your day to day thinking. It can become pretty consuming, and is also your daily yardstick for success.

However, around three years in there is a realisation: you’ve survived!

This is not to say that you’ve created something flawless and perfect, something that could be held up as a pinnacle of business achievement. Instead you’ve maybe made a thing that is profitable, and is ultimately an established thing.

This realisation is often extremely problematic. It may be accompanied by a feeling of depression and a feeling of confusion. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is easy to underestimate how big the need to survive has become. In conquering that you find out how big a hole you leave behind in the motivation for doing what you do.

No one really talks about this publicly, though privately I’ve had the same conversation with many different people. This isn’t a universal phenomenon but it is extremely common.

Finding something to replace this need to survive can take you down a dark, introspective and philosophical hole. What is the point, the purpose of this business? Is it driving towards a fixed goal, or is it trying to find a way to maintain what it does without staling and losing direction? Is this business just a giant machine that you input effort and ingredient into and it produces profit in return? What is this business trying to achieve?

The answer to this is often a reversion to the goal of “growth”. Our culture is one where forward movement in business is almost exclusively defined as an increase in size of the business. It might be a growth of revenue, or of profit, or of reach. The feeling that you must “get bigger” is equally omnipresent to the point that it doesn’t really feel like a choice.

Working out in a gym frequented exclusively by body builders would lead to a kind of loss of perspective about one’s physique and sometimes I don’t think we really consider the businesses we choose to surround ourselves with and benchmark ourselves against when it comes to how they might impact on our perceptions of our own goals.

I’ve said before that being in business is a pretty lonely experience. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have people within a business to talk to, or to share ideas with. It means that when you look for some external validation of your fears or your struggles, it can be very hard to find. There isn’t much in the way of benchmarking available to provide you with an independent definite of success. How much profit is normal? How fast should be growing year on year? What should my staff costs be? What is a normal turnover rate for staff?

Sometimes it is healthy to share the things that scare you, if only so those of us in the same boat can feel a little less alone.

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