A while back I read a blog post by a soon-to-be-entrepreneur who sounded so excited about his new adventure that I didn’t have the heart to write this post in response until after he’d launched. Who was I to burst his bubble?
And the last thing I wanted to do was burst his bubble. After a decade on my own, I’ve learned that this optimism is a critical personal power and key to entrepreneurial business success, but it’s much more than that. It’s the secret to any leader’s mastery of innovation.
It’s true that as an entrepreneur (and leader of anything meaningful) you’re going to have dark days when your biggest client says “we really love you and would like to keep you on, but ___ (fill-in-the-blank).” Even if you don’t have a mortgage and kids, your heart will clutch a little because you have things you do need to spend money on – to grow your business, hire people to do things you don’t want to do anymore so you can grow the business, treat someone nice so you can move closer to that mortgage and kids, have fun etc.
Having a positive attitude when this happens helps on many levels, including keeping you from wanting to impulsively jump off a bridge sometimes, but I’ve come to learn that it works on deep and subtle levels that you can literally build into your business plan. See, back in the day no one taught me that we create our reality, and because of this our attitude is power and power can make real things happen in the world – including business. We hear it as “success breeds success” and “fake it till you make it” but that sounds so inauthentic. Many entrepreneurs go into business for themselves because they don’t want to fake it anymore. So here’s an authenticity-reinforcing way to think about optimism.
A positive attitude isn’t faking it if you truly believe that the Universe won’t let you down in the long run, for example when a new, better client walks in the door the day (or month) after the old one dropped you. Positivity will keep you from unconsciously (or consciously) signaling to the new prospect that business isn’t doing so well. And most importantly, positivity will ensure that you are looking for that next opportunity. We don’t find what we’re not looking for, and more importantly we do find what we’re looking for, so look for the bright side and learn to see it.
I recently found this awesome video on the power of positive psychology that talks about its business benefits better than I can. Watch Shawn and be prepared to laugh, he’s funny! (click to play)
My business pedigree includes Fortune 10 behemoths and VC-hungry internet startups, so I know a thing or two about writing a business plan. The way positivity normally shows up in a business plan is in wildly overblown projections. Here’s the dirty little secret that many funders have probably figured out by now and that entrepreneurs experience all the time: you start out making the numbers big to make the spreadsheet work. On paper, suddenly, you have a business! But when you start inching down the numbers towards “reality” you get into the “why would anyone ever fund this?” zone and have to stop at the point that things are still pretty rosy and overblown. From the past-to-be looking into the future-to-be you have no choice but to do this because you don’t know where to schedule into the pro forma the “luck event”. You don’t know where to put in the “big innovation” that will come to you in the shower after you lose the big customer and finally figure out why so you can fix it. It’s impossible to know the happy results of innovation in your crystal ball.
But what you can do, is build in that attitude and practice of optimistic innovation, learning, luck-leveraging leadership style into your business from day one. And the cool thing is that you don’t need to be an entrepreneur to do this. You do it as a leader. The way to build it into the business plan, however, is to practice it, document the results and when you present your business plan, put your style and historical success at leading innovatively into your pitch. Go ahead and admit that the plan is optimistic. Run a worst-and-best case scenario and present the range so your funders understand their risk and opportunity. But pitch yourself, your success and the results of your optimism.
This is how the big guys do it. Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field is an adaptation of this principle. This is also the business philosophy and practice that successful serial entrepreneur and big thinker Eric Ries talks about in The Lean Startup. My point is that “thinking positive” more than a entrepreneurial survival tactic, it’s a leadership innovation strategy. And best of all it’s how we change the world.