On My Mind / Essays On Success

Entrepreneurship in Tough Times

This is the best time to strike out with a new business vision if you've got the fortitude and resources to forge ahead. There is no better time.

First of all, when times are tough everyone else pulls back. You will move into the foreground simply by holding your ground. If you have the foresight to move forward aggressively, you can make great gains that will serve you as times even out.

When competitors batten down the hatches, cutting costs, they often pull back on marketing and outreach and cut strategic programs that result in decreased market penetration. Their moods tend to be bleak and if they are running a service business, this too results in constricting their reach. Simply by maintaining a presence, not to mention actively stepping up operations, you will find yourself face-to-face with more clients.

It's a lot like the movie joke where the drill sergeant asks for volunteers and everyone in line except the star takes a giant step backward. This leaves the impression our hero stepped forward. The only difference is that you are not naive, but a savvy mover and shaker looking to make an impression. When everyone steps back, it is as though nature shines her light upon you and all you have to do is deliver the goods to receive favor.

Second, it is well known that opportunity is most acute and visible when times are hard. There is nothing like adversity to focus the attention of your customers. If you have real value to offer, value that is honest and apropos to the times and conditions, people will seek you out and pay you well. In fact, this is when they need you the most. They are actively engaged in seeking to improve their situation, which may be worsening by the day. So their need for you is mounting and they feel it.

Fortune  magazine, for example, was founded in February 1930, just four months after the stock market crash of 1929 initiated the Great Depression. Fortune was priced a $1 per issue at a time when newspapers sold for a tiny fraction of that. The first issue of Fortune was over 180 pages in length, printed on heavy, deluxe paper. Over 30,000 people subscribed before it was released. Today Fortune reports over 850,000 subscribers and an increase in its subscription rate since 2000 while many periodicals are tanking.

Fortune was bold, providing business insight at a time when people were desperate to have it. By emanating success they quickly leaped to the foreground and built a following that served as a strong base, all the way up to their present-day achievement. It was a great gamble, and it paid off. While you may not wish to take on a similar level of risk, do not dismiss the lesson the Fortune accomplishment illustrates: People are willing to invest in the midst of challenging circumstances if they believe there is real value to be had.

Of course, you must deliver results. You have to do your homework, understand your clients' needs thoroughly and meet them with exceptional impact. With this as your foundation, you have the platform for remarkable achievement in a challenging economy.

These are the principles I relied on to turn around my business in 2009. In the early part of the year I suffered a serious setback when my primary client withdrew its resources from the project I was working on. I run a solo consulting firm dedicated to helping business leaders drive change. My largest client issued major cutbacks and my smaller clients were afraid to invest.

As I faced a very uncertain future, I empathized with many of the business owners and executives I knew in Washington, DC. As a result I decided to become an expert in helping them navigate our difficult economy.

First I did intensive research. I learned the details of the present challenges. I met with business leaders, had candid conversations, listened carefully to their needs and concerns. I found out how some were keeping their organizations afloat as consumer confidence plummeted and money grew scarce.

I became an intelligence collector, learning a little here and little there about what was working. Soon I amassed significant value that I could share broadly.

But I did not stop there. I isolated key trends and sought out innovators. I found what was working for larger companies who could shoulder more risk. I applied some of my own knowledge of various industries, ferreting out emergent solutions. In short order, I had a powerful collection of knowledge and experience. I put together a presentation and invited business leaders to attend.

Did I charge them? No. I did the opposite. I rented an upscale presentation room close to the White House and took on the costs of the event myself. I sent out invitations and when the day came, I did not hold back. Rather I forcefully shared all that I knew, encouraged questions and discussion, opened up the floor. We were all in it together. The debate was so lively that I had to push people out of the room when it was over.

Several participants came to me and asked if I would put together a more extensive program, which they would be willing to pay for. I did more market research, meeting with the interested parties, and collaborated with them on price point and content. Word began to spread and soon other executives were contacting me for related engagements.

All this in the spring of 2009, proving my point: If you provide real value your clients can take to market, they will come looking for you. As a result of my genuine interest in helping others survive the challenges, my own business turned around. This was not a scheme. It was a concerted effort to make a difference. I was rewarded with business because I delivered real solutions business leaders could take to the bank.

Here are several tips for succeeding as an entrepreneur when the market is difficult.

1. Explore the extenuating circumstances of your clients.
Take the time to contact them and listen. Look beneath the surface. Get intimate with the uncomfortable details. Become adept at putting yourself in their shoes and exposing the nuances of every challenge and obstacle. Get to know the issues like they were your own. The more you understand, the better your solutions will be.

2. Engage your clients as co-collaborators, not as customers.
Work as though you are in this together, because you are. It is a real challenge -- honest, tough work -- to find solutions that deliver high-impact results. Work shoulder-to-shoulder to identify, develop, and highlight the most valuable resolutions you can find.

3. Be particularly aggressive with authentic solutions.
Once you have identified actions that can make a difference in your clients' lives, let them know it. Do not hold back. If they are doubtful, skeptical, or too busy to notice, go and direct their attention. They will be grateful and forgiving. I am not suggesting you be obnoxious or harass them. Just be forceful in letting people know you have found something worth their time.

4. Study trends.
Once you are in a field that merits your attention, look everywhere you can to understand tendencies, inclinations, projected trajectories. Leave no stone unturned. Look at unmet customer requests, business difficulties, futurists, trend setters, successful innovators, R&D operations. Learn to watch the rise and fall of emerging patterns. Notice which blossom into full scale movements and which dissipate and disappear. See if you can discover the key indicators for success and apply them to new developments before it is clear which way they are going. Become familiar with case studies in the news.

5. Get to know your customers' customers.
The surest way to garner your clients' attention is to show them how they can do a better job of providing for their buyers. You may even be able to help them execute delivery or provide service to their patrons. Anything that puts them in an improved position in the marketplace will be of interest. Make it an active pursuit to understand the world through the eyes of your customers' customers. It will be a win-win-win and secure the admiration of everyone you serve.

6. Provide arrays of solutions.
Offer more than one way forward. Every real dilemma has details, variations, fine distinctions that you cannot anticipate. By providing several ways to solve a problem, you give your clients choices they can extrapolate from, transpose, or recombine to suit their needs.  Further, you develop your expertise by examining the issues from multiple points of view and developing applications that handle a variety of circumstances.

7. Go deep, but widen the periphery of your services.
With each issue you attack, it will be necessary to dig down and root it out like an unwanted weed in a garden. You will need to understand its root system and find the best tool to pluck it out, removing any chance it will sprout again later. Yet, you don't want to close yourself to new opportunity. Remain alert for organic growth, always watchful for a new development just on the edge of your operations. Do not make the mistake of going deep and narrow, losing potential growth from the outside. But also do not become wide and shallow. Your knowledge will not be robust enough to create strong relationships which endure the ups and downs of the marketplace. Rather go deep, yet stay alert to openings on the boundaries of your efforts.

A grueling economy can be a boon for entrepreneurs. Trouble means people need opportunity more than ever. If you can keep your ears close enough to your clients to understand what they are saying and you do the homework required to unearth real solutions, the very forces that are making the market taxing can provide the traction you need to grow your business.

Further, when you succeed, so do your clients. You are literally turning things around, one engagement at a time. And you are amassing the expertise to ensure you thrive when times become good again. Like my grandmother often said, "If it don't kill you, it'll make you strong." This is a time to work out, build your strength, and thrive as a result.

By

Seth Kahan

 |  October 21, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Seth,
You are modeling the change that you hope to see in your clients and subsequently their clients, which is leadership. The essence of leadership is seeing a better future and wanting to be at the helm to take others towards that better future. You, by example and with your words, are provoking others to see that better future AND take bold steps to walk into that vision. Thanks for such an inspiring article!

Posted by: BetsyJordyn | October 22, 2010 6:21 AM
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Seth,
Your 'investment' in marketing, bringing people together and elevating your credibility appeared to generate a much higher ROI than advertising in, say, a newspaper.

Posted by: PhilSymchych | October 21, 2010 8:50 PM
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The idea that such times as ours present opportunities for change is not a new idea but it is courageous nonetheless. Our first response to such an idea is often "Get that (blank) outta here!" As usual such a response is rooted in fear and if we want to make fear our friend we've got to go deeper with it. We've got to tie up with it. AND we've got to be tough ourselves. Seth offers some great strategies that will work if we are tough and committed. In other words, we ourselves have to ring true. We have to be personally involved. We can't simply be using someones fear against them to get business.

Times like these are character builders we like to say. They are also times for getting our spirits broken. Without deepening our own commitment and developing tools for a deeper penetration into what our times are calling for no strategy has a chance. Seth's article gives us some clear directions for stepping up to the challenge. Ready! Set! Go!

Posted by: wellspringers | October 21, 2010 1:44 PM
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The idea that such times as ours present opportunities for change is not a new idea but it is courageous nonetheless. Our first response to such an idea is often "Get that (blank) outta here!" As usual such a response is rooted in fear and if we want to make fear our friend we've got to go deeper with it. We've got to tie up with it. AND we've got to be tough ourselves. Seth offers some great strategies that will work if we are tough and committed. In other words, we ourselves have to ring true. We have to be personally involved. We can't simply be using someones fear against them to get business.

Times like these are character builders we like to say. They are also times for getting our spirits broken. Without deepening our own commitment and developing tools for a deeper penetration into what our times are calling for no strategy has a chance. Seth's article gives us some clear directions for stepping up to the challenge. Ready! Set! Go!

Posted by: wellspringers | October 21, 2010 1:43 PM
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The idea that such times as ours present opportunities for change is not a new idea but it is courageous nonetheless. Our first response to such an idea is often "Get that (blank) outta here!" As usual such a response is rooted in fear and if we want to make fear our friend we've got to go deeper with it. We've got to tie up with it. AND we've got to be tough ourselves. Seth offers some great strategies that will work if we are tough and committed. In other words, we ourselves have to ring true. We have to be personally involved. We can't simply be using someones fear against them to get business.

Times like these are character builders we like to say. They are also times for getting our spirits broken. Without deepening our own commitment and developing tools for a deeper penetration into what our times are calling for no strategy has a chance. Seth's article gives us some clear directions for stepping up to the challenge. Ready! Set! Go!

Posted by: wellspringers | October 21, 2010 1:41 PM
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How can one do this when the gov. bailed out banks aren't lending? A "vision" and $2.00 will get you a subway ride in NYC.

Posted by: sufi66 | October 21, 2010 1:40 PM
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Your article stands out in a sea of vacuous business advice for its practical and implementable guidance. I'm particularly taken with the idea of becoming an "intelligence collector" -- a very nice image. Thank you.

Posted by: 4114 | October 21, 2010 12:39 PM
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For the most part large corporations don't allow the type of interaction you are describing here. At least in my industry most don't. You chip away and sometimes after many years you get an opportunity. Then you make the most of it.

Posted by: kknutton | October 21, 2010 10:36 AM
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Your article clearly reminds us that a positive attitude brings positive results in any environment when underpinned by capability and delivery. Your seven tips provide areas to differentiate externally in a time when many are soley focused internally on self-preservation. Seth Kahan puts out a challenge for the taking.

Posted by: JonUnwin | October 21, 2010 9:29 AM
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In every economic downturn, most companies cut back on training, consulting help, R&D, and innovation. Unfortunately, as Seth points out, this seemingly prudent behavior is not. Hunkering down like your competition misses a great opportunity that only comes along every 10 years or so. The time to invest, take risks, and innovate is when there is "Blood in the streets" to quote Baron Rothschild. When times are the worst, that is when true leadership and innovation come to the fore to advance your interests. Bravo to Seth for sharing his intelligent risk-taking and innovative approach to regaining his footing by creating palpable value to former and future customers.

Posted by: tombeckman | October 21, 2010 8:59 AM
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Thanks for sharing your inspirational story. It clearly conveys that the essence of getting change right is about knowing when it's time to make a change and having the fortitude to invest in new and unfamiliar opportunities.

Posted by: rodcollins | October 21, 2010 8:41 AM
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Collectively Speaking
the notion of a phantom coalition

In a free-for-all, perhaps all we need is to better recognize our own individual authority and collective impact...

Full article: www.disasterprepared.net/collectively.html

Posted by: antonebraga | October 21, 2010 8:41 AM
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What they don't show in the movie joke about the drill sergeant asking for volunteers is that the guy who failed to step back with the others and foolishly held his ground in the very next scene has a tsunami wash over him ridding him of half his hair and half his clothes while maintaining a silly grin on his face. lol.

I would like to thank the Mr Seth Kahan for his well written article full of good insightful advice, very inspirational. But sometimes when everybody else is running it is only human to think may be it would have been better to run too and not held the line, but you are correct, you've got to start somewhere, so why not on the line itself? lol.

As they teach in the military, when cut off and in hostile territory adapt and survive, until relieved (in economic terms it means: just stick it out till times change), however relief must always come from outside (until then its more like treading water to see if you can stay afloat longer than your competitors), no? lol.

Relief is always almost at hand and nearby, but your decision makers would have to reach for it. lol.

Posted by: darkasnight1234 | October 21, 2010 7:18 AM
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As I recall, the drill sergeant's hero looked backward at the others retreating for a moment, then looked straight ahead and saluted. What we couldn't see in the movie was that in that split second, he looked inside. How comforting it is to be reminded that I can look there also, to see not just what I have today, but also the possibilities I can create.

Posted by: LARRYFORSTER | October 21, 2010 5:08 AM
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When I started reading this my initial reaction was, "yeah right."

But after reading this it's pretty convincing that high value, relevant solutions that address real pain makes people pay attention. And money.

Thanks.

Posted by: michellerandall | October 21, 2010 4:40 AM
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As the psychologist Ellen Langer recently said, long range plans are impossible, each moment leads to the next moment. The best time to start is always now. Life is short, let's get started!

Posted by: JohnSWren | October 21, 2010 1:20 AM
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