Charting a Course and Sticking to it

One of the most difficult aspects of launching and growing a business is sticking to a plan that takes a long time to materialize.  In business, the results of today's initiatives do not pan out for quite some time.  It can be difficult to remain confident when things come into play that appear to threaten the original vision.  When projections turn out to be overzealous, a project takes longer than expected, or investors become impatient, it can be tempting to abandon one's vision.  Having faced this myself I have several thoughts that are hopefully helpful for business owners and entrepreneurs.

First of all, get comfortable with this feeling; it is part of a business in which risk and reward are involved.  This is an issue that impacts businesses of all types and sizes.  While it is most present for new businesses or entrepreneurs that are trying to carve out a new niche, it impacts all businesses.  JC Penney is a 110 year old retailer, but it is currently attempting to revamp its image.  In the process, its same store sales have tanked and investors are hammering the stock.  This is not to suggest that you should get used to being stressed out, but you should instead anticipate uncertainty and prepare for it.

The best way to prepare for uncertainty is to speak with customers.  While this should be an ongoing part of doing business, it is essential to make a push around this activity before making the decision to move forward with a new initiative.  Speak with lots of customers: small, large, existing, and new ones, and get into as much detail as you possibly can.  In these conversations paint your vision as vividly as possible.  If you have a prototype, pictures, or screenshots, use them so that your customers can fully grasp your goal.  Continue to speak with customers and individuals who are knowledgeable in your industry until you feel you've exhausted every avenue of feedback.

In these conversations, things will arise that conflict with your original vision; this is a good thing that you should expect and embrace.  It is much better to find out that your idea needs to be tweaked before you start to pour resources into executing.  It is also important to stay in touch with customers after you begin to execute, because as your vision evolves, the feedback that you receive will evolve as well.      

Finally as you lay out your plan, be realistic about your capabilities and do your best to make reasonable projections.  It is always difficult to temper expectations for oneself, but the results of your work are framed by the expectations that you set.  There is no reason to set the bar too high, so just set it at a reasonable level.  It might be worthwhile to have two sets of projections: one for internal purposes that is relatively demanding, and one that you communicate with outsiders (investors, customers, etc.).  Up until last year Apple was famous for providing extremely conservative earnings guidance, thereby tempering investor expectations.  The result was that Apple consistently beat Wall Street estimates.  In mid-2011 Apple had exceeded its previous ten quarterly earnings guidance figures by an average of 27%!  

Doing this work will give you the confidence to see your vision through to the end.  This does not necessarily mean that you will be successful, but it will ensure that you have the opportunity to succeed.

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