Walking in Their Footsteps: When Launching a Business, Learn from Experience

Walking in Their Footsteps: When Launching a Business, Learn from Experience

A lady friend once described me as gothic – it was the ‘80s, after all – but from my side of the skull, it’s all early modern, with a black powder aroma.

Maybe that’s why, when discussing business, I so often bring up von Clausewitz.

Everything in war – or in finance, or, to bring us to today’s topic, in launching a company – is easy, but the simplest tasks are incredibly hard. The paraphrase is Clausewitzian, and though his gentlemanly station made finance contemptible (alas, switching sides in war was not), he knew how it goes. I’ve never seen a thunderous cannonade disrupt the best-laid plans, but in the early 2000s, our office had four methods for making a .pdf – we never knew which would run true. It was infernal.

The blunder-headed general is an anodyne motif, but Clausewitz eyeballs the real culprit: with so much to go wrong, it most surely will. In war, it’s fatal; if you’re launching a business, it shouldn’t lead to the window ledge, but it can wreak bloody havoc on your hard-won capital, and that is a world of pain.

The professionals who start fresh businesses are generally pretty sharp. They have lofty vision and a penchant for the tough stuff: strategy, marketing, innovation and the rest. Why do they fail? Often, they’ve ignored the hard-won wisdom of entrepreneurs spanning the centuries. It’s like they’ve joined an ancient guild, donned the fine robes, but neglected to read the sacred texts.

It’s all there to learn – in books and courses, or better yet, from the mouths of those who’ve succeeded. Common wisdom is a curiosity: the primordial braininess that spawns eternal aphorisms, the everywhere wisdom that enlightens our lives – one wonders how people so readily forget it. This, my friends, is how we fail.

I was watching a fellow on YouTube, a ‘picker’ who snatches antiques from the garbage and philosophizes along the way. Once, he was tripping over himself trying to recall, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush; he had it all wrong. This saying dates to ancient Rome at least, though it sounds to me like something a Corinthian would say, an Athenian would steal, and a Byzantine would nod at sagely, while munching said birds in glazed honey. As I’ve said before, my family’s memory is long and vivid.

Another time, he found a Victrola – mint condition, sitting by the curb! This guy can identify the make-and-model of a collectible Tupperware tub at 50 paces, but this cultural icon stumped him. The breadth and depth of his mispronunciations… “Just read it!” I shouted, fighting society’s propensity to dunciness by yelling at an iPad. Identity is impossible without cultural grounding, I argued, but only with myself. What can you do?

If you’re ready to launch a business, I can share some experience. I’ve helped to create two small companies, nothing earthshaking, but up-and-running, good providers of services that earn their partners a living. The basics are simple, but we’ve heard from our German on how that goes. Let’s review a few things, so when life springs an ambush and the cannons roar, you won’t lose heart and run.

Recently, I launched a small company with two partners. One of them, particularly keen, insisted we complete a dreary, industry-standard questionnaire to help us with branding. I lined up initially with the other partner, wondering why we should start with a grubby, biz-speakish, 20-pager – we’re dynamic capitalistas, we said, this can come later. Customers and fees first, logo colors later, we argued.

No, said the calmer voice, this is first. There were questions to answer. What sets us apart from competitors, proud behind their own banners, happy to see us marching blindly into oblivion. Where do we excel? Who are our customers? Do our business practices solve their problems? There were pages of this stuff, vexing, annoying and utterly clarifying. Thirty minutes of self-querying, a couple of days of analysis – we hired a specialist – and we’d figured ourselves out.

I recall a time decades ago, working for a news agency in Moscow, when my boss intercepted me and started shouting. I pleaded my case calmly, so I thought, which drove her to this: “Oh my god! You’re so stubborn!” I mock-gasped a bit – I’d heard it before – and she got it. I wasn’t thwarting her authority, I’m just a bit mulish. I do it out of loyalty, when the chief isn’t listening, for example.

Can you imagine me as a partner? You should, because I’m aware of my foibles: I can put ‘policies’ in place to avoid trouble. I can even shut myself up, demand my interlocutors’ opinions, know I’m not always, even commonly right, and impartially eye contrary opinions. It’s the old open mind trick, so add it to your act, and you’ll come away with a better product than you initially conceived. Two or more heads, they’re magic.

Ten years ago, I helped form a company that nearly ended on the rocks, due to our anemic thinking about marketing. We can do it ourselves, we thought, seduced by those apps letting their charms go for free. I can assure you: the pros will do it better. They’ll also be faster, and the time-dragging factor kills many a partnership. There are young companies out there, ready to go for a song – they’re starting up, too – and a handsome website can be had for relative peanuts. This rule extends across the board: unless you’ve done it professionally, hire an expert.

Launching a company is like anything else – just driving hard work – but the thrill of building a dream is intoxicating. Sometimes, though, you need to step back. There’s so much to do: consult a lawyer, talk business insurance, learn new apps, flash out on LinkedIn, change those passwords– the endless nibbling, what Foreign Legionnaires call the bug that eats men’s brains, can lead you down a joyless street. Recall that your partners are friends, people you admire. Take a day off; get some sleep; the project won’t go anywhere. It’ll be waiting for you in the morning, they say – ominous words, perhaps, for those who never felt the thrill.

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