When I was in high school, my step-dad bought into a startup and became the CEO. The company had an amazing opportunity to bring enterprise software to a mid-market that had been eager to implement it for years. As the sole provider in the Rocky Mountain region, they had a wide open market.
For a variety of reasons, the opportunity turned out to be less lucrative than anyone had anticipated. Eventually the company’s entree into the mid-market was abandoned and the company was shut down.
The thing I remember most about this wasn’t the company itself. It was how he responded to its collapse. He didn’t get upset. He didn’t beat himself up about it. The day after he shut the doors he picked up the phone and started getting his old consulting clients back.
His response was to move forward.
The rule of economic well-being
When I asked him about it a few years later, he told me about a rule of thumb that he’s operated by for most of his professional career that helped him recognize the situation for what it was, and helped him move forward with relative ease.
He told me that no one is responsible for his economic well being except for him. And that the key to maintaining your economic well being is to constantly provide immense value.
It might sound simple, and the connection might not be obvious. But understanding this idea can have profound implications in how you view the world.
Understanding this rule is why he didn’t get upset when the company folded – there wasn’t enough value to potential customers, or the value wasn’t communicated effectively. It was a learning opportunity.
It’s why he didn’t lash out at the larger organization they were partnering with. They didn’t “owe” him anything – it wasn’t their job to take care of him.
It’s why he was able to jump right back into consulting so easily. He recognized that his value isn’t a function of a particular company or opportunity – it’s something he has available to him at all times. He can bring people immense value regardless of the situation.
Putting the lesson into practice
Three months ago, the startup I was working for took a dramatic step in a different direction. Matt, my business partner for many years, and I were both let go. It was a sudden change of events, one that coincided with my wife deciding to work part-time, us starting to put our son in daycare, and the decision to buy our condo. When it rains…
When it happened, the temptation was to throw a pity party. A part of me wanted to get the emotional high that can come from feeling you were wronged, the sick pleasure one can get from worrying about something even though there’s nothing you can do about it.
But then I remembered what my step-dad taught me.
Rather than hold a grudge or feel sorry for myself, I decided that what we had worked on, however clever or promising it might have been, simply didn’t create enough value in the minds of the people who mattered. If it had, we’d still be there and the product would be taking off.
Sure, having more time might have helped the situation, but we didn’t have more time. That’s not wrong, that was just the reality of the situation.
So Matt and I decided to put our energies into finding consulting work, while we figured out what to do next. We turned our outsourcing company into a product development shop and started doing what we did at Brill Street for others. Rather than stay indoors with the lights off staring at our computers while eating Cheetos and feeling sorry for ourselves, we hit the streets and started selling.
A couple of opportunities fell into our laps right away thanks to the help of our friends (and I’d like to think a little bit of providence.) We gathered some momentum, picked up some additional business, brought on some new guys. In the last three months, we’ve picked up more business than we were projecting for the year.
It’s been a crazy 90 days. Who knows if we’ll do the consulting thing in the long term – it certainly brings with it its fair share of stress. But for now we’re working hard, having fun, learning a ton and meeting a bunch of great people.
And none of it would have happened if I didn’t remind myself about my step-dad’s rule of economic well being.
It’s a lesson that I think we should all keep in mind.
There is a large portion of the population that operates as though they are owed something. Because they got a degree, they deserve a job. Because they logged the hours, they deserve a raise. Because they didn’t screw up, they deserve a promotion.
Your company isn’t obligated to take care of you. They have an obligation to their shareholders and to maximize value. If you provide immense value, they’ll bend over backwards to keep you.
You don’t have to sit and hold a grudge because you got passed over for a raise. You don’t have to do less than your best work because you and your boss don’t get along.
You don’t have to blame the company if they let you go. Instead, you can step back and use it as an opportunity to learn. In what ways were you not providing immense value? What could you have done differently to make yourself indispensable? What lessons can you take with you to your next opportunity?
Most importantly, you can keep moving forward. The world is so full of opportunities if you’re willing to look for them. All you have to do is remind yourself that at the end of the day, no one owes you anything. And then go create value.