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Can You Start a Business and be Successful?

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This is a long post and that is intentional.  The decision to start a business is a big one, not something to rush through. If you’re considering whether or not to start a business, please get comfortable and read through this post carefully, weighing the questions I ask carefully in your own situation.  I believe you’ll get clarity, like Eli did.

5,235 words; 27 minutes approximate read time

 

If you’ve been wanting to start a business, and wonder if it’s the right decision for you, you’ll want to take special notice of this article.

If you already have a business going, but it’s not going well, maybe you still feel like you’re in a similar place as when you started, this article may be insightful to help you face that persistent question, “Should I continue trying to run my business?”

To begin, let’s go back a few years…

Remember back in 1993 when the film Jurassic Park came out?  Oh man, I sure do. I don’t even know how many times I went to the theatre to see it.

One of the classic lines from that film that I love is from the character known as Dr. Ian Malcolm who is played by Jeff Goldblum.

Before all the action starts, everyone is sitting around the table getting the lowdown on the Park from Mr. Hammond and the Attorney, and hearing the arrogance coming from them, Dr. Malcolm is moved to interject and lay down some truth.

Here’s the clip… (less than 2 min):

Oh man, that line is a keeper:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

And we know how that turned out.

So, let’s change up this quote to fit our needs here related to business:

Don’t be so preoccupied with whether or not you could start a business, that you fail to stop and think if you should.

Thank you, Dr. Malcolm. We’re about to do just that.

 

The Inquiry Begins

A few months ago I received an email from someone I’d worked with before in another role, but it had been years since we had connected.  We got along really well back in the day, and I always held him in high regard. To me, he seemed to be one of those sincere people that is easy to trust, and who lives his life with passion and integrity.  For this article, I’m going to call him Eli.

Eli’s inquiry sounded something like this: [I’ve edited slightly to support anonymity.]

Hi Steve! Based on your [website] services page, you are booked up and that’s awesome! You are an excellent facilitator/coach. And I always appreciated your business and coaching perspective. In fact – that is why I am reaching out today. I am considering getting back into [running my own] business [doing coaching], but I am a bit nervous and scared. I feel drawn to this work, but can I actually produce results for people? What’s required of me as a coach? Should I look into a coaching process? Can I make a sustainable living doing this? Sorry for the question bombing, but I feel a bit stuck moving forward or if this path is right for me.

If you’ve been thinking about whether or not you should start a business, I bet you’ve noticed similar questions going through your mind and heart. They’re such natural and sincere questions. There’s a lot unknown territory when taking on such a feat, and on top of all that’s unknown, there’s a long history of documented failure when it comes to starting a business.

Eli is smart for seeking out wisdom. A little research up front can save a whole lot of years of heartache down the road!

I replied to Eli with as much clarity and directness as I knew how.

Thankfully, in the end, what I shared offered almost immediate and profound clarity for Eli, and he knew exactly what his next steps would be.

I wonder… if you’re in any kind of similar situation…  What becomes clear in your heart as you read below? Or, what additional questions arise within you?

As I begin to share the questions and my responses below, pay attention to what happens in your body as you read.

I’ve taken the questions in Eli’s inquiry, some which were only inferred, and for this article, I’ve framed them like this:

  1. How do you work with feeling nervous and scared about making the leap to start a business? What is a healthy way to begin approaching the whole thought process?
  2. Is it really likely that you’ll be able to support yourself and your family?
  3. I feel called to this work… I must do it, right? The one thing you must never forget if you feel especially drawn toward or called to do a specific type of work.
  4. Where would be a good place to start if I decide I do want to explore starting a business

The answers came quickly and powerfully.  I hope they help you discern, as they did Eli.

The responses I share below are not quite direct quotes, but similar. Since this is going out to a much broader audience, I softened the edges a bit, inserted a smidgeon of context where needed for understanding, and I’ve added just a little bit where I see that I could have brought in an additional subtle reminder or helpful idea. The point is that what I write below is not fundamentally different than what I shared with Eli – it’s just a little bit better and even more clear.

Follow along with each question, and remember to notice how your body reacts to the responses.

Nervous, Scared, and a Bit Stuck to Start a Business

Eli’s first question… “I’m feeling nervous and scared about starting a business, so I’m a bit stuck. What now?”

My response was basically this:

Good. Nervous and scared sound like appropriate emotions. Invite those feelings to come closer towards you. Don’t trample them and don’t bypass them. They’re providing good feedback.

I want to add here in this article that many well intentioned folks may try to shift the experience of the nervous and scared emotions into one of excitement, or try to overcome those feelings, as if they’re in the way. Our emotions don’t get in the way, and you interpret them as you do, because there’s something there for you to look at. It’s just feedback. I wanted to highlight to Eli that those emotions signaled that he was in healthy relationship with what he was considering.

I went on to explain that to start a business and run a business is hard work. And, for those of us, like Eli, who don’t want to use manipulative techniques to shorten our sales cycle, or aggressive funnels to pressure people to buy in short order, generating enough revenue to provide a healthy income gets even tougher.

Additionally, if you don’t have a clear deliverable or outcome you can assuredly deliver for your clients, it’s even more difficult, on top of the tough, on top of the hard. I shared that I avoid manipulation and aggressive sales techniques, and I have no promised deliverable except me showing up and offering my time, and I have no outcome that is promised, which has resulted in it taking a lot of time to build my practice to where it is today – years and years. But it’s the right way to do it. Make no mistake though, building a business on relationship takes time.

As if that wasn’t enough, I wanted to drive the point home, and so continued:

At least half your time will be running a business.…it’s a job and that job can SUCK. For this to work, you need to be at least kind of excited about running a business and all that goes with that. The business is the newborn baby that shits every hour and screams all night.… and the coaching is the fun part like when the baby discovers laughter when you play peek-a-boo. How bad do you want the new baby to care for? It’s messy, takes up way more time than you ever thought possible, will need you to care for it for years and years, and will cost you a pretty penny along the way. If you love it, it works. And when you don’t love it, it’s a source of misery.

(Totally not hatin’ on babies, just making a point using this very apt analogy.)

And so I asked Eli a reflective question:

Are you set for that journey? A long, hard, tough, and difficult road for the foreseeable next few years at least? Let’s begin there.

How do you resonate with that question? If you’re struggling to make your business profitable right now, or are in a period of business where your profit margin is razor thin, and it’s stressful, I bet you understand why I ask that question.

If you’re not yet in business but considering it, please don’t make light of this question. Self-awareness is critical on this one. Your optimism is awesome – you’re gonna need that later. The amount of resilience and emotional competence needed to start and run a business with some level of profit is shocking. Keep your eyes on the moon as you shoot for the stars, but keep those feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds. This is serious reality.

Key points here:

Don’t think you’re going to spend all your time doing what you love. You’ll get to do it… but when you start a business you don’t have any clients, and it can take years before your consistently full.  Guess what you end up doing with every remaining waking hour of your working day?  That’s right… running a business.  Have you ever sat around and dreamed of actually doing all the stuff you have to do as a new business owner?  Bookkeeping, networking, writing copy for sales pages, marketing activity, to just skim the surface. This is the diaper changing part of running a business (for most people).

Not only do you have to do the shitty diaper changing, you get little to no training, and also have a relentless boss standing over your shoulder berating you for not doing it right, and second guessing every step you take.  Yeah… there’s no success manual for business.  There’s millions of courses, classes, and communities that promise they’re the answer, but I assure you… they might have a piece of the puzzle (many do), but there are a lot of pieces, and none of them have all the answers.  Are you prepared to get another part-time job as a student of business to learn what you need?

Oh, that mean boss I referenced… that’s you!  If you’re like most, you are your own worst boss – way more critical on yourself than any real boss ever would or could be… because this boss can see right through you, read you like a book, and knows all of your secret insecurities.  Ugh!  It’s astounding how hard we can be on ourselves.  That’s why high resilience and emotional competence is critical.

Lighten up a little!

Depending on your background and the circumstances in which you started your business, you might think my response here is negative, pessimistic, or jaded. You may wonder to yourself, “Aren’t you a coach? Aren’t you supposed to encourage Eli to “go big or go home” or at least lighten up a little or something?”

Ha ha ha…. Nope! What I’m trained and committed to do as a coach is watch where clients like Eli get lit up inside, following them wherever their inner light takes them, asking good questions to elicit curiosity which not only draws them forward but also takes into consideration full awareness of their whole being.

If coaching is the right business for Eli to get into, he would never let himself be talked out of it. All my clients know that I am a great cheerleader when it’s appropriate (and on occasion, when less appropriate). There’s so much room for celebrations and cheering someone on in support – when it’s timed properly. If it’s not timed properly, it can actually be a manipulation in service to what the coach wants, not what you, the client, wants.

The way I work, speaking only for myself personally, at this stage of Eli’s inquiry – cheerleading him into coaching would actually be unethical.

If you hire a coach – hire a coach whose only agenda is helping you find the truth of your own healthy relationship with your whole self, in consideration of the whole reality of your situation or circumstances.  That’s the truth that matters.

Is a Sustainable Income Possible?

Next, Eli asked, “Can I actually help people produce enough results so that I can make a sustainable living doing this?” To which I responded:

That is a good question. Yes? Maybe? No way to be certain, of course. I’m living proof that someone can make a living doing some kind of coaching work. So it’s not impossible. What’s possible for you? Some of that depends on your effectiveness as a coach, and some rests with the clients themselves, right? And a lot of it is simply out of your direct control.  Marketing can be challenging for many reasons. You could be the best coach in the world, it doesn’t mean you’ll have clients lined up at the door.

Can you help support clients to get the results they want? I believe you’ll be able to help some people and not others. The only way you will know if you can be a good coach and make enough to sustain yourself is by getting out there and doing the work – practicing.

It’s so natural to want some assurance that you’re not stepping into the impossible dream, right? That’s one part of the question here… a very logical and rational question about if this type of business has a track record of success.

There’s another facet to the question too, which is a worthiness or self-doubt question. Will I be enough? Am I up to the task? Another sincere and common question. There’s another opportunity for me to cheerlead here. And, it would have been easy for me to feel pretty good about doing it because I’ve seen Eli work in various ways. I have some semblance of an idea of the quality of work he does. And I do tend to believe in people. Still, it wouldn’t be honest for me to prop Eli up on claims that I have no business making about him. It’s hard to not jump in and just be encouraging – especially because it comes so natural to me. It can feel challenging, even embarrassing, if you don’t know the answer to the question; especially if you’re the one being looked to for the answers.

As you read through that response, and you put yourself in Eli’s shoes… how does it feel in your heart to ask a question, and hear the honest response, “I don’t know.” How does it feel to be with the discomfort of having some external, non-related indicators that there’s a chance of success, but no greater than 50/50… and probably less.

How does your heart and body do with all that uncertainty?

Take some time to think about that uncertainty and how that feels for you. Keep in mind that deciding to start a business is a fairly high-risk testing laboratory to see if you can make a go of it; even more so if this income will be the sole way you pay rent and buy food. Totally fine to do it, just be sure you’re accurately estimating your own skills and abilities, financial situation, and relationship with the time it takes to make it all work.

I went on to add this:

I can’t say “you can do this,” because that’s not honest. It can be done. Yes. Don’t trust anyone who promises anything other than, “I bet you’ll try hard!” We can’t predict results, as you know. If you have the confidence, emotional competence, and very healthy relationship with Source so you can keep yourself nourished – that’s the right place to start. This is at least 80% emotional/spiritual, and 20% tactical nuts & bolts.

I add this here because so much of success in business has nothing to do with clients, marketing, time management, selling, websites, or to-do’s. So much of the make or break of owning a successful business has to do with your spiritual / emotional relationship with yourself and the Divine. If you have strong spiritual practices, that will help you to keep your heart nourished. But there’s more…

One of the teachers I learned some of my coaching from said, “The only difference between business owners who ultimately succeed and those who fail is: those who go on to succeed have a higher pain tolerance.” I never thought about that before.  This speaks, again, to the critical need for high emotional competence and resilience.

What’s your pain tolerance? Be sure to consider different kinds of pain such as, emotional pain, physical pain, spiritual pain, mental pain, etc. Pain tolerance can vary significantly with different kinds of pain. Starting and running a small business tends to have a special knack for pushing every single one of those pain buttons at one time or another.

All of these points will largely determine whether or not you can produce a sustainable income for you and your family.

Sometimes, though, you feel like you have to take this risk because you’ve really, truly, and sincerely felt called to it.

 

What if You Feel “Called” to Start a Business?

The third question had to do with Eli feeling drawn to, or “called” to this type of work. He essentially asked:

I feel drawn to this work, but I feel stuck in discerning if this is the path for me.”

This one can be a real challenge. Whose place is it to question or cast doubt when someone has been called or drawn to the work. (I understand that “drawn” and “called” are not always commensurate. I’m using them as synonyms in this context because it’s how we used them in our dialogue.)

Knowing Eli a bit, including his spiritual nature, I accurately understood “drawn” to mean something more than “seems like an interesting idea!” Eli’s being drawn or called was coming from a deeper place – his soul, spirit, higher self, Universe, Divine… whatever you conceive of the greater reality beyond what you can observe with your eyes.. that is what seemed to be “calling” Eli to start a business.

So, when you think about whether or not to start a business, and you feel specially called by Source to be a coach, or a massage therapist, or to get your education completed to become an acupuncturist – whatever the specialty is – you kinda have to go do that, right? Have you ever felt “the call” like that? I know I have.

I replied to Eli with a simple question, which kind of surprised me when it came through so powerfully. Here’s what I asked:

You’re called to coaching work, but are you called to start a business?

What happens inside you when you sit with that question?

For me, I seem to have a sense of cracking open. Like there was a big vacuum inside of me, and when I hear that question, everything relaxes, the outer-protective shell softens and breaks open and the tense vacuum that was inside of me is replaced with a wild rush of fresh air, filling the space in my heart. Despite me thinking about, writing about, and considering how true it is that those two things are two very separate things, even today, I feel cracked open and filled with spacious, cool oxygen.

Personally, I’ve talked with many many people who have felt called to some kind of purpose by some positive, loving force outside of themselves – yet I have never, ever, ever heard anyone say they were called to run a small business. I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who have been called to start a business… it’s just that I’ve never heard of it personally.

In my experience, and from experiences I’ve heard about, for the most part, business is simply the strategy chosen by the human, serving as the vehicle through which the calling can be fulfilled.

Pursuing a calling: hard boundary in my heart about questioning that kind of thing. Thats a relationship thing between you and the Divine. Deep respect for that being none of my business (← did you catch that?).

And, I do want to hold a big red flag, shoot a flare into the air, line this section of blog with orange traffic cones…. whatever is needed – to seriously highlight the next point. The reason why I believe it needs highlighting is because we get so easily confused. I see it happen quite frequently in various ways.

It feels really important to help us all (myself included) make a clear distinction between what’s called forth, and our strategy to meet the call:

You feel called forth, drawn to, or guided to...

COACHING

(as an example)

VS.

You feel called forth, drawn to, or guided...

~PLUS~

I'm gonna answer the call by starting a business.

We can so easily muddy the clear waters of guidance, with our own unconscious “enhancements of strategy” that quite covertly make it once again about our will, not the Divine’s.

When you do your spiritual practice, or prayer, meditation, rituals, etc. seeking guidance from the Divine, seeking to understand Gods will, or perhaps you feel called toward some type of service – begin to take notice; begin to train your awareness, and hone your skill of discernment so you can learn to make the distinction between what is coming to/through you, and what is coming from you. Adding nothing, taking nothing away from what’s given, staying curious, receptive and open to what else might be revealed in time.

These are sacred and significant spiritual waters we’re swimming in here. As you stop and float a while in what’s written above… what do you notice in your heart?

When I do Remembrance and invite this subject matter into my heart, what I’ve noticed in me is a sense of being humbled… not in a shaming, embarrassing way… just the warmth of love and acceptance, reverence for the wisdom from Source, contrasted with my own hyper-vigilant nervous system that passionately wants to jump, move, and hurry into service, with all my own ideas, visions, strategies, attachments and expectations around what it should look like, with an energy of, “OMG! This is my THING!!!”

My understanding and personal experience is that Divine guidance is usually pretty directional in nature, not specific about the “hows.”  What I understand from spiritual teachers with much more experience than I have, the Divine is more like, “Go west.” And not so much like, “Go west, and get in the left lane because at the fifth light you will have to turn left on Specific Street.  After you turn left, you go about 2 miles, and then you turn right onto Way Too Specific Road.”  Right?  It makes sense that the Divine wouldn’t be concerned about the hows. For the Divine, that’s the easiest part of all, the hows are all minutiae.

What’s sacred and precious is that we hear a calling, or guidance, and we receive it sincerely, it can be trusted to our care, and that we carry out our commission fully to completion, with love, mercy, and kindness – doing so however is fitting in our hearts.  We just need to be clear that the how part is usually our stuff.

I’ve seen many many kind-hearted business owners feel called into service, and it get’s all turned upside down, because the nugget of real guidance was blanketed and burdened by all the strategies and details of how. It’s often not till way down the road when this is realized, and then it hits them in the face. It can really be painful, expensive, and disappointing.

And so, for all our sakes, may we learn and be careful about our callings and the guidance we receive and make distinctions about what’s given to us, and what we bring from us.

Whoa!  That was a significant point.  Deep breath.  We’re almost done… just one more question.

 

First: Action.  Then: Clarity.

There is one final question I want to include here, and although each piece here has quite a kicker of a point to take away and consider, it’s hands down the most effective at providing clarity about whether you should start a business or try something else.  This final point combines a really powerful truth with taking action. That’s why it’s so powerful – because the only way to true clarity is by taking action.

The final question Eli asked me was this:

If I want to go forward down the path to start a business, where and how do I start? What’s the best way to go forward?

My response to this question makes most people nervous and all like:

There’s a common acronym for new startups called MVP. It stands for Minimum Viable Product. It’s the most simple, easiest to produce, lowest cost option of what you want to sell, that still provides a majority of the value you want. It’s a good product, it’s just the most slimmed down version of it possible… hence, “minimum viable.” That’s what startups test with.

This is really smart. And hard to do if you start a business that provides a service. So, I suggest a concept similar to MVP, I just change it to MVS – Minimum Viable Service. And my encouragement is to go sell your service. Yes, like, today.  Go do your thing.

I start with sales and marketing because it’s what you’re going to be doing with most of your time for a while. Plus, it’s usually the most difficult, and it’s where the rubber meets the road in a business.  Every moment that transpires from that moment paints a picture for me as to how their small business journey will progress.

Here’s how it sounded when I said it to Eli… remember… put yourself in his shoes… what if I was suggesting this as a homework assignment for you right now? This is what I said:

So, Eli, here’s my challenge to you… If you want to start a business… before you set up anything like a website… go get three clients. Make up whatever “package” you want. Talk to people from your heart, listen to their struggles, identify where you can help, and casually offer your support. Do this till you get three clients that are legitimately excited to work with you. (Not the, “hey Mom, will you do me a favor and hire me so I can count a client, right?) Three legit clients. This is truly the ONLY honest indicator that I know of to give you a grounded/rational forecast re: whether or not you can do this. You’ve done some similar type of work it in the past, right? What happened? Why did you stop? Why did it work, or why didn’t it work? Have things really changed? Have you changed?

I believe with all my heart that if you can go get three clients – to pay you good money for a period of three months – you’re golden. (I’d say, charge something like $150/hour for however many calls/month you feel will be good to help them.) Because you’re going to have to go do that 1,000 times in the next six months. It’ll be what you do if you need to ramp up quickly, and need to make this work. No sitting at home writing newsletters or designing your website or logo. And definitely no counting on the magic of social media. (Well, you get to do that too, but not ONLY that.)

How would it have been for you, had I written this back to you? What would have been alive in you? And what would it lead you to do next, and why? I’d love to hear what you take away from all of this.

These four questions and the honest, maybe tough to hear responses, might just help you or someone you care about face both the excitement and possibility that running a small business provides, and also being in relationship with the realities of business being like having a big, expensive, messy, loud, baby.

I hope these responses help you face what’s true in the external environment of small business:

  • It takes at least 12-18 months to start having a consistent income.
  • Much of your time is spent doing activities that aren’t your passion or your calling.
  • You have to sell stuff and talk about what you do with people you don’t know.
  • Your resilience and emotional competence are tested to their limits.

Based on what you noticed come through you today, and how you responded to these questions/responses, what choice would you make if you had to choose again?

If you have a business that is running and brining in any kind of consistent income, please pat yourself on the back today and tell yourself, “Good job!  Wow!  Look at what we’ve done!  We’re running a business!”  Pretty incredible considering all I’ve shared here, right?  It’s not easy and anyone running a business deserves a huge bow of respect.

 

What about Eli?

Oh! Do you want to know what Eli decided about whether or not to start a business? This is what he said:

Say hello to Eli! (Eli isn’t his name, and this isn’t his photo, but this fella looks happy, right?)

What you wrote really landed with me and I found a new profound clarity and relief. I realized that I don’t want to run a business – at least not right now.

Recently I’ve become an employee and I must say, it is nice not having to run a business and all the things that come with it. I know I’m giving up more pay being an employee, but I am okay with that. You know…less responsibility, not worrying about bringing in clients, etc. The work is just there and I just go complete the job… and it’s done’; and thankfully I like what I’m doing (and I’m good at it, too).

What I have discovered is that I need clarity around my lifestyle – how I want to live. I know I will find that clarity and must be patient. And when I do, I can make shifts in my work to match that lifestyle. I am a bit minimalist and hippy, so it should not cost too much.  😜

Maybe one day I will feel inspired to start and run a business. If so, you’ll be the second person to know (I’ll probably tell my wife first – lol) I appreciate all the love you put into helping me.

You’re welcome Eli.  You’re so welcome.

I would love to hear what’s alive in you after reading this (besides wanting to go watch Jurassic Park).  Do you resonate with what I’ve shared?  Do you have a wildly different experience from the picture I painted here?  Let’s hear about it in a comment below!

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  • Amybear
    Reply

    A fantastic break-down of how to determine whether you really want to start a “business-baby”, and also I think how much you want to KEEP running your “business-toddler” as it grows up. Thanks for this erudite and clear discussion, Steve. Appreciation from Amy, who apparently has a higher pain threshold than she ever knew! Ha!

    • Steve Mattus
      Reply

      You are so welcome, Amy. I appreciate the reflections!
      One of the hidden gems about being a business owner is that it gives us ample opportunity to surprise ourselves. I’m witnessing you being so resilient as you continue your walking forward in business. #respect

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