Last week, I was at lunch with a colleague who had recently started a consulting company. She was telling me about her new venture and asked me what advice I had for her, as she was starting out, to help her through the difficult first year or so. (The first thing I told her was that it’s not just the first year that’s hard. ALL the years are hard, in their own way. More on that in a bit.)
I always feel uniquely unqualified to give this kind of advice because I’m not really sure how to package up nine years of business experience with Legion, and all the failed stuff that came before Legion, into a few aphorisms that will carry someone through a rough patch, or inspire them to greatness, or push them to the next level. I can give all sorts of specific advice about HR issues or marketing ideas, or strategic planning, but general “how did you get where you are” advice often escapes me. I babbled something about having good advisors (which is good advice) and to give herself at least 18 months to be profitable, or even break even, but I left feeling like I’d failed to give her anything of substance to hold onto.
As I was driving home from that lunch, I thought more and more about it. I thought long and hard about what made me – and Legion – successful, when so many businesses fail. We didn’t have any special offerings, we didn’t do anything particularly different from our competition, we didn’t have a ton of funding (in fact, we nearly ran out of money more than once), we didn’t have any magical formulas or high-powered advisors or investors or even a ton of experience. We were, as I’ve often said, too dumb to think we’d fail, but blind faith isn’t exactly a strong suit, nor is having blind faith advice I’d give anyone.
What we had, in spades, was a high pain tolerance. Tony and I were willing to grind through just about anything in order to be successful. In the beginning, it was not having any customers, or capital, or a ton of experience. Then, it was a lawsuit that nearly bankrupted us before we’d even had a chance to be profitable. Oh, and then a baby, which while more pleasant than the lawsuit, was also more expensive and time-consuming. (She was worth it.) And that was just in the first 18 months we were in business.
Through all of that, we worked. We struggled and fought and persisted and flat-out refused to give up. We were 100% committed. We knew what we had to do to be successful, and that was to work harder than we had the day before, and the day before that. No matter what, we had to show up every day and work. Hard. And after about two and a half years, we had some degree of success. We were making money, we were able to hire people we weren’t related to, and we were able to move Legion out of our house and into an office.
That lasted for about a year. And then it got hard again, but in a different way. Tony and I got divorced, which was a whole new kind of pain. And then the government shutdown of 2013 turned off the faucet on 75% of our revenue. We had to do layoffs and furloughs and cut our personal pay in half and struggle and fight to get diversification in our customer base. But we did it. A year and a half later, we were back in calm waters, and things felt pretty good.
Can you guess what happened next? If you guessed thought it got hard again, you’d be right. We made huge capital investments in 2015 with the full support of our bank, and a plan with them for how we were going to finance it. And then our bank got bought by another bank and all those plans went up in vapor. The new bank pulled our credit line and we found ourselves battling for our very survival, trying to find a new lender with a balance sheet no one wanted to touch. Sales fell off, we had morale issues on the floor, Tony and I were barely speaking, and we certainly weren’t talking about the fact that we were on the verge of losing everything. But we fought, and we struggled, and we got through it. Legion was leaner, and meaner, and Tony and I were finally working side-by-side, instead of fighting each other every step of the way. This third cycle of struggle had finally bonded us together into a leadership team. It also taught us how to be good business owners, not just business starters.
Now, in 2018, we’ve just come off our best year, and we are setting new sales records every week. Tony and I are cautiously optimistic, but we are holding to our policy of absolute fiscal responsibility and we’re making sure to pay the savings account first and everyone else later, and to be a united front on all our decisions. We’ve build something great from the ashes of the ashes of the ashes and Legion is not going to burn again if we can help it. Legion is finally the company we’ve always wanted it to be, and we are executing a killer growth plan. Things are good. Real good. Amazing, even.
But to circle back to the reason I was thinking about this – what does all of this painful experience boil down to, in the form of a takeaway for someone starting out?
If I had to summarize it into something that fits on a mug, I guess it would be this:
“It’s really hard and awful for a long time. And then it’s amazing.”
The trick is persevering through the hard and awful long enough to get to the amazing. Do that, and you have a shot at success.