Alyson Hogg MBE
It is 10th April 2020.
In a while, a year or two from now, we might have to cast our minds back to think – when was that? Was that during lockdown? And the answer is yes, this is a lock down blog. This is written from my office in the loft. It is a perfect day. Warm and fresh. Mid spring. This is Easter Friday. Everyone had plans for this weekend. And the weather would have made them even more perfect.
But for now, all must be on hold. Because we are working- all of us in this country- as one unit. To ‘flatten the curve’ and help stop the health service from collapsing. Whether from selfish motivation, or altruistic care, the same understanding is there. That we must do what it takes to survive. That although the economy will suffer, although perfect sunny weather is tease not an invite, although we must stay away from each other, and although our only contact with family and friends must be virtual, all of this is a fair price to pay compared to the alternative.
LIFE LESSONS FROM BUSINESS
From my experience in business I learned many lessons – but chief amongst them was that while the goal is to thrive, first you must survive. Entrepreneurs – those that have survived their way through to thriving- don’t often talk about this aspect of the journey. They tend to gloss over the hard times. The easier it all appears, the more profoundly brilliant they will be seen to be. Encountering difficulty feels like bad planning. Like you have made a mistake along the way. Entrepreneurs tend to be sensitive to mistakes, and even if they rarely admit them out loud, deep down they always feel the responsibility and the niggling doubt that a different choice along the way might have led to a better outcome.
THE THINGS BEYOND THE PLAN
There are some eventualities ordinary business just cannot plan for. A Pandemic for instance.
Newly formed businesses, and indeed most individuals, do not have the cash buffer to account for a twist and turn of fate that can wreck all before it. Which is why governments have stepped in across the developed world to attempt to sustain those companies that are directly affected – which, by the way, is every business except those that support front line services. The domino effect has been awesome.
This is not the place to debate the bail out and who is falling between the cracks. And many of us are. Employer and employee both. So I thought I would take a quick look back at just a few of the twists and turns and pivots that i needed to make in order to merely survive another month/week/day in the journey towards ‘success’. And more importantly the strengths that i had to find deep within myself to keep ‘making it happen’.
Some lessons from business – the potted version
I started when I was 40. With 5 young kids, and researching for a PhD in Philosophy of Psychology, I had the brilliant idea that business might be easier and less stressful. Honestly? So naive!
BEING ‘AHEAD OF YOUR TIME’ CAN BE VERY EXPENSIVE!
My first experiment was in skin care. Great product, terrible packaging. Today it would be considered authentic and cool. Back then it was just considered cheap. It didn’t reflect the quality of what was inside to the consumer back then. we were all about heavy double walled plastic jars. Mine was simple bottles in pumps in large sizes that represented ridiculously good value. I was sure people would see that it was what was inside that mattered.
Yea – Clearly I was a millennial long before they were an economic category!
So I sold almost none of it, lost all my investment, and had to borrow more money. At this point I could have given up. I had borrowed money from my Father. And now I had lost it. I was devastated. I remember walking through Gatwick Airport as the realisation dawned. I had two phones (for some reason I cannot remember).
In one ear was my sister, telling me that enough was enough. This was all too much. Stop now, do something else. The stress is too much. and of course in so many ways she was correct.
In the other ear was my Father. I told him, “Dad I understand. I need to stop. Can’t throw good money after bad. I’m so sorry.” He would have none of it.
“Not at all.”, he said, “Not at all. Think of everything you have learnt. You will have to make that money back. You can’t just waste it like that! You will need to work out what went wrong and fix it for next time!”God bless Dad. At that point he was the only person who believed in me when I didn’t even believe in me.
LESSONS LEARNED – THE HARD WAY
I knew that I would need to repackage, but before I did I had to learn some more stuff. it was clear something fundamental was missing. I needed to get in front of my customer. So I went and stood for months in the main hallway of a shopping centre, on one of those little trestle table stands, selling my ugly beautiful product to women I could speak with directly. the experience was singular. Druggies spitting at us over the balcony. Open for business 12 hours a day – everyday. Those 5 kids needing cared for, while my husband was trying to earn a crust. It was awful, but it was also one of the most useful things I have ever done. I was able to hear, first hand, what my (potential) customer expected from a product. Turns out she loved the product inside. But the outside was a like a barrier. She simply could not see past it. Based on my learnings I made the product smaller, and in pretty packaging. I was very delighted with the progress.
And ironically – it didn’t matter. Because the next thing I learnt was that no matter how pretty I made this product I was never going to win at shelf. It wasn’t differentiated enough from all the other prettily packaged items on the shelf. And I had no money for marketing to tell the story of why she should buy. This was long before social media and instagram. Web sales were considered cutting edge! The big brands owned the market. There was no way in without a lot of cash
So, all that stock eventually went to the car boot sale. For the second time.
Third time wasn’t even lucky. I decided to diversify into colour. Eyeshadow, lipsticks and so on. Nope. Fantastic products. All made in Italy. Beautiful colours. lovely soft eyeliners. Great names. Super core range. But no money. No money. No marketing. No business.
I will be honest – I was struggling. I had borrowed as much from my Father as he had to give. I had borrowed as much from the bank as they were willing to give – more probably. And then one day my assistant, Cherith, asked me to make a tan.
Now – to understand my reaction to this request I must paint for you a picture. Cherith is super pale. Blue white. Light bulb skin. And yet every day she would come to work a strange shade of orange or with a mottled orangey snake like pattern on her skin. This was tanning more than a decade ago. I looked at her. For quite a while. A bit speechless actually. And clearing my throat I reluctantly had to say, “But Cherith.. I don’t think that I could make something like that. .. I’m sorry..”
But she interrupted me – “No no – not this. This is rubbish. But maybe you could make it better.”
This, after 3 spectacular fails and already 4 years in business, was the light bulb. This was what they call white space. To be able to find something that is in need of real improvement, and then to able to tell that story in a truly differentiated way, this is the key to success. The rest is history. Even this incredible product still went on to cost us our home, my health, and many, many missed moments with loved ones. But sure, ten years later we sold out to an American corporation for a large profit multiple. So that was easy then….. all very straightforward. Definitely worth the effort.
Well, not quite.
Try, fail, try again. Until you get it right. This does not tell the story of all the blood sweat and many, many tears across that 14 years. Nor of the core ways of being that you need to learn, if you are to get to the other side.
Willingness to learn and change.
Ability to prioritise and then re prioritise.
It is probably true that you have to fail in order to succeed even better. You might have to fail several times before you ultimately succeed. But in between you have to keep going…. you have to not give up on the business, or on yourself. You have to learn to do what it takes.
Because the most important and unrecognised key to success is survival.
This is really what I did – I survived. Long enough, to learn enough, to make enough key changes, that eventually i had a chance to succeed.
SURVIVAL LOOKS LIKE THIS
I got knocked down. I learnt, I got back up. I applied the learnings, I stuck with it, I refused to give up. I survived.
if I were to recount my years building Vita Liberata it would be that I sometimes failed and I sometimes succeeded, but mostly I relentlessly plodded on.
I pushed, I pulled.
I kept quiet, I screamed.
I compromised, I stood firm.
I dealt with good people and bad.
With real and with fake.
With super smart and stupid.
With talent and mediocrity.
With generous and greedy.
With gold and with dross.
And I learnt how to tell the difference.
How to separate the excellent and useful form the utterly useless.
Drifting is not an option when you are in business. Purposeful vision, tenacity, self reliance and learning, followed by meaningful positive action is what it is all about.
AT THE END OF EACH DAY.. ITS ON YOU
What I quickly realised was that I had better learn all the skills and techniques and smart moves for myself. And learn them pretty quick! Because.. whatever you do – you must do something. That is … YOU must do something. It is on YOU to make that thing happen. And that is terrifying
Up until very recently little girls were told fairy tales of Princes chopping down forests, slaying dragons, climbing fortresses to come get them out of trouble that others had forced upon them. We learnt from earliest childhood that we are at risk of poisoning, imprisonment, abuse or neglect from people we should be able to trust, and that only a white knight in shining armour could save us from our desperate fate. That underlying myth can continue to play out our whole lives. That someone else always knows best. That someone else makes the decision.
And just as we are used to being told what to do, others, the would-be knights, are used to doing the telling.
Learning to make those decisions for yourself, learning to use those decisions to lead your team – this is critical.
Here is the thing- if you are going to run your own business, if you are going to be successful at anything, anything at all, if you are going to survive the daily battles to ultimately win the war. If your project is going to thrive. If you are going to take control of your life. Then there is a fundamental truth that you must learn.You are, at the end of every day, on your own. This is your life, and the decisions that will take you from where you are now to where you want to be, these are yours and yours alone. To make these decisions wisely you will need to draw on the learnings, flexibility and tenacity that is growing in you every day, to be able to have the courage to change what needs to change.
JUST A HUMBLE ENTREPRENEUR.
This is the loneliness of the entrepreneur. Because unlike a King, the power to make the decisions is bought at the your own expense. You don’t get to gather taxes. You have to earn the cash that you will then spend on future projects.
Earning cash is hard.
Spending cash is relatively easy, and there will be many conflicting opportunities to do so.
Spending cash wisely is enormously difficult.
At the end of the day a business is a business because it involves spending cash and creating revenue where the goal at some far flung point in the future is to create more revenue than the cash that needs to be spent creating that revenue.
But when building a business the costs will far outweigh the returns, and this could continue for quite a long time.
THE TERRIFYING STARTUP PHASE
This imbalance is called the Start Up phase.
This is where the real genius is required. This is where you will stay up till midnight and wake up at 4 am thinking about how to make pennies work like pounds. Focused on making every waking moment count towards the goal.
If all this sounds quite intense and war like – well, it does because it can be.
I remember my husband and I used to have conversations about how we could stop. Let it go. And with it shed all the stress and trauma that was clearly having such an impact on my health.
Sure we would loose the house…..But we could rent…..
Sure we would become bankrupt, but others had before….. That wouldn’t be the end of the world.
We could get jobs…..
Work for other people…..
Let them take the stress…..
I’m not going to lie. It was tempting. Very tempting. At times it was very tempting indeed.
And then, from somewhere would always come this inner voice that would demand I not pull the shutters down on myself. Perhaps one day the bank would do it, perhaps a retailer would go bust and take us along with them. Perhaps there would come a point when the choice to go on would no longer be mine to make. ‘But not today’. I said that so many times over the years. ‘Not today. Today we keep going – until we don’t’.
This is the hardest thing I think. Because this requires belief and vision when no one else believes, and no one else can see. This is yours. This is your burden to carry and your genius to employ. This growing self reliance, this willingness to flex and the instinct as to when is the right time to pivot, this sheer bloody minded determination will become the key to your success. I promise you.
And you will grow as a person more than you could ever have imagined.
NO KNIGHTS IN SHINING ARMOUR
Because here is the thing you will come to realise.
There are no Knights in shining armour coming to save the day..
Don’t go looking for the guy on the white horse charging in at the last moment. He does not exist.
But that’s ok, because the warrior you are looking for?