Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Sense of Purpose

Ask not what you can do, but what you cannot. Almost ten years ago, I had my first dreams of entrepreneurship. I carefully documented my ideas with furious passion. I crafted detailed product requirements, sketches, roles, personas, milestones, features and revenue goals for dozens of products. I documented every small detail and this activity brought my 'ideas' to life.

I was motivated. I dreamed. I read books. Each volume of business ideas still occupies my office bookshelves today. I also followed examples of other entrepreneurs. I applied their models to my ideas. What could go wrong?

Everything. None of my endeavors generated positive cash flow. No one idea had significant momentum. I kept trying other ideas. I burned capital, fast. I gave up. Completely. I stopped believing in my ideas and myself.

But not in the way you might think.

The Principles of Lust. Early on, I looked at a business as a means to an end. This perspective resulted in envy for products, people and business models. Coupled with the lustful desire for a huge business and unlimited cash flow, a person can quickly become so idealistic that you forget what matters. The ego-driven pursuit of success can cloud a once clear vision of your business.

For me, having a partner was the missing ingredient in the business formula. I gave up on relying on my own initiative and put my faith into a partner. No man is an island but the successful ones are peninsulas - attached to someone who complements and recognizes both the strengths and weaknesses you possess. Find a person who can be honest with you, critique you and with whom you can disagree.

When we started our business, we did not have a formal business plan but agreed on the following statements as the foundation of the company: Enjoy what we do. Work with people that we like and who are loyal to us.

A good partner is your counter balance. They complement you and give you a sounding board for thoughts, strategies and potential. Seek out a partner that holds you accountable. They should empower you but at the same time, ground you to the goals, processes and measurement of the business.

Paint by Numbers. To me, ideas have no value. There are thousands of great ideas but the viability of those in the context of a business is limited. Focus is what matters; the balance sheet and what feeds it. Remove yourself from anything external that doesn't support the business and humble yourself. No matter how many partners you have, you all must respect one thing equally - the financial viability of the business.

Our business is a big art project and we use the following canvases: 1: Balance Sheet, 2: Profit and Loss, 3: Accounts Receivable, 4: Accounts Payable. A simple set of brushes and a small palet of colors. We paint the same picture every day. We take calculated risks but measure each effort within the same set of reporting metrics.

As you are bootstrapping a business, you must ask yourself many questions. What does your 3 month, 1 year and 3 year plan look like? Can you communicate your business plan to anyone beyond yourself? What are the critical dashboard metrics that define the health of your business? How do I know each month if we are making forward progress? What does a train wreck look like to the business?

Say Goodbye to Hollywood. The early stages of a business are critical to all bootstrappers. We gamble on potential meetings and dial up strangers. Double down. Bet again. We build our egos. We attempt to weave a strategy together through our interactions with other like minded individuals. What defines the turning point from an idea-focused business to an opportunity focused one?

Focus is such a simple word but it is what I believe moves a business through Ideation, Valley of Death, Growth and so on. Gaining focus for my partner and I came from seeking out a set of mentors. People that weren't like us, who had done it before and who had the wisdom to speak from experience. What we learned from interacting with our mentors changed our business plan, our focus and our future.

All you need is love. What we do doesn't matter; it's how we do it. If you love what you do, everything seems to click. I personally get out of bed each day yearning to get to the office. I love what I do. I love helping people. This generates unparalleled focus and enthusiasm. This energy is channeled in to the people I work with and the ideas we develop.

Bootstrapping a business is the most challenging thing you will ever do. Full of ups and downs, potentials and pitfalls, you will experience more emotions, faster than you ever have before. Don't give up but constantly ask yourself, "are you doing what you love?"

Be humble. Don't seek credit, anywhere. Keep moving. Focus on the business of finance. Take calculated risks. Ideas are the fuel, revenue is the fire. If you see only smoke, stop immediately and reset.

Most importantly, love, really love what you do. It never gets easier, but it gets more fun.

Chris Justice is the founder of Sparksight.

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