Hitting The Wall

It feels awful enough to make you fold the business and walk away, but get over that final hump and you know your business has finally arrived

hitting the wallThe Wall.

We’ve all heard of it, haven’t we? It’s what marathon runners call that point during a race at which your body decides it has had enough and can’t go any further. It – the body, that is – is convinced that it is wholly exhausted and has nothing left to give, but the runner’s mind knows that that feeling is an illusion.

If he gives in to that feeling, he’ll stop running and he will fail. Not only will he fail to win the race, he won’t even finish. And, among marathon runners, winning is nice but finishing is really what it’s all about.

There are probably a lot of parallels to the marathon runner’s experience with The Wall in other aspects of life. One of them is the context of running a small business. Because most small business owners – perhaps all small business owners – eventually face a moment, early in the life of our businesses, at which we find ourselves hitting The Wall. Our task at that point is to figure out how to deal with it.

You see, what usually happens is this. You make your decision to start your small business, after doing a certain amount of research and preparation. One of the things you have learned during the early days is that you cannot realistically expect to start making money right away. That is why most small business failures occur within the first few years.

Well, that and The Wall.

You see, even though we all know that we should not expect to be making real money and operating in the black before we’ve been in business for at least three to five years, there is a point at somewhere around the two-and-a-half year mark that feels exactly like that marathon runner’s wall.

You have spent those last two and a half years slowly building a customer base and making a few sales. You network and make contacts, just like you’re supposed to. You read everything you can get your hands on that teaches you about marketing your business, and you do your best within your available resources. You are active within your native business communities, both virtual and actual. And, of course, it seems as if you’re spending almost every waking minute of your life working.

You’re not, really, but it does seem like it.

At that two-and-a-half year point, success seems right around the corner. You’re getting close, you can feel it tantalizing you just out of reach. All you need is that one big client that you haven’t been able to land yet, or that one marketing campaign that would put you over the top if you could afford to implement it. It may not even be one thing that you need. It may be landing the one more client that will generate enough revenue to allow you to do this thing you have been wanting to do that will bring a bit more business.

You’re standing at the top of the hill, longing to roll that snowball down, knowing that it will grow and grow as it goes. But the business gods have tied your hands behind your back. The knot is loose — this is a test, not a setup — and you’re working frantically to get your hands free so that you can roll that snowball downhill before spring thaw gets here.

You’re so close you can taste it.

And then, one day, it is suddenly really difficult to make yourself do the work you’ve been loving for the last couple of years. You feel listless, languid — hopeless. You can see that your business idea is/was a good one. Maybe somebody else with more business management experience or more money or better personal credit or better contacts could make it work. But you’ve been sitting at that “almost there” place for too long, with the frustration eating away at you, and today it doesn’t feel like you’re any closer than you were last month or last year.

You think, Somebody else could make this work but I can’t do it.

Welcome to The Wall.

Speaking from a visceral point of view, it’s a fairly yucky place to be. It puts you in a no-win situation in your own head, because you feel so despairing about the chances for your success that it is hard to keep going but you have invested so much of your time and money and energy into the venture that you can’t bring yourself to just walk away.

Of course, a lot of people do just walk away at this point. They decide that, as good an idea as that was, they couldn’t make it work. Or maybe they manage to find somebody in their life that can serve as a convenient scapegoat: I could have made it work if it weren’t for them! We’ve all heard again and again that most small businesses fail. My personal hunch is that most small businesses that make it past their first year – maybe two – and still go on to fail were operated by people who didn’t know how to get themselves over The Wall.

It’s not easy to do.

For one thing, you don’t hear about it very often. A lot of people wouldn’t start businesses at all if they really knew about The Wall. So when we do start our businesses and we hit that Wall, we are completely unprepared for these terrible feelings of depression and frustration — particularly when our balance sheets are telling us we are that close.

Another problem is that hitting The Wall is not the same thing as the motivational problems that plague self-employed people off and on during the course of their careers, but that is what many will assume the problem to be. When that happens, the advice they give you may be excellent but the kind of emotional support that usually accompanies the advice is completely inadequate.

Because they don’t validate how devastated you are feeling, it may seem to you that there is something wrong with how you’re feeling. Maybe someone in your support network has even implied that you are merely feeling sorry for yourself and you should quit whining and roll up your sleeves. It can often make you feel that much worse when you believe you are the only small business owner in the history of reality to feel this way.

“[M]isery loves company, and it’s good and healthy to keep in mind that we’re not alone as entrepreneurs,” says Jeff Zbar, journalist, consultant and publisher of Goin’ SOHO!. “Others go through this as well.”

And on top of all the emotional stuff, there are practical considerations. You are really, genuinely running out of sources for capital, and you are feeling as if there’s no point to what you are doing because you no longer have the resources to bail your business out. Maybe something has happened that entails a major expenditure on your part. Little Johnny broke his arm or you had a fender bender in the supermarket parking lot or the boiler finally blew. The excess household cash that had supported your business has to be diverted for these little emergencies and your business, which is almost-but-not-quite self-supporting, is suddenly being starved for cash.

So, what do you do when you hit The Wall?

It always feels terrible to be there, but there are strategies you can develop to help you get through it, over it or around it. Here are some that have worked for me and for others:

  • Draw up an annual statement of your company’s gross revenuesYou can do this even if it isn’t the beginning or the end of the year, and even if you’re not doing your taxes. Take a look at how much money you have made in the last twelve months and compare that with the amount of your receipts for the twelve months before that. And while you’re at it, calculate the growth rate percentage for your revenues. Yes, you are still operating in the red, but if you know that your revenues for the past twelve months grew 45% over the same period the previous year, it feels a little less like you’re spinning your wheels or running in place.
  • Keep an ego file … and USE itYou might be embarrassed if anybody catches you rereading emails you got six months ago from satisfied customers who weren’t shy about telling you how wonderful you are. But sometimes, let’s face it, you do need to be reminded of how wonderful you are.Keep a paper file and/or a special folder on your hard drive on in your email client for those special notes you get from customers, suppliers and professional contacts that give you positive feedback. If you are starting to feel like it won’t matter to anybody if you close down your business, go read what your customers have been telling you. It is sure to give you a much-needed lift.Victoria Parham, of VSS CyberOffice, suggests a variation on the ego file. “Post your accomplishments on the wall in clear view so that during those times when you feel like all hope is gone, your accomplishments help you to continue on,” she says. Whether you use your hard drive, a paper file or the nearest wall, keep your accomplishments right in front of your face. Spend as much time with the ego file as you need to plug the holes in your self-esteem.
  • Don’t neglect your support networksThat really is what friends are for, and now is not the time to forget it. Connect with friends, colleagues and other network members to share your feelings where it feels like it’s safe to do it. “Unloading your concerns and hearing the feedback of others can be therapeutic professionally and physically,” Mr. Zbar reminds us.Ms. Parham agrees, saying, “Surround yourself with like minds, people who value what you bring whether to a friendship or business deal.” You really need to take care of yourself in this situation. Don’t worry about appearing to be weak and don’t worry that your friends will get tired of listening to you whine. We’ve all felt like this at one time or another. Having people around who value you is crucial, because it is too easy to fail to value yourself when you are looking at the world from The Wall.
  • Figure out where to get the money to keep the business going just a little while longerWhile you are coping with the emotional difficulties of The Wall, don’t neglect practical considerations.If the household budget seems to be inadequate right now to keep you going, figure out what you can do. Perhaps you can run a sale to quickly liquidate some of your stock. Or maybe you can locate an inexpensive source for a good, targeted list. A small email marketing campaign (no spam, please) may generate enough immediate sales to get the job done. Look inside your business to see if there is anything you can do to reduce your operating expenses in a way that will better match your cash flow situation. Do your best to answer the practical questions of how to keep your business afloat.

The best part about surviving The Wall is that, like the marathon runner, once you get past that point it seems as if you could run forever. In fact, if you can just get over that hump, you will probably discover that you were right. You really were that close. Another six months or so, and you’re really cranking. Then you can look back and be proud and thankful that you didn’t cave.

If you’re of an epic hero frame of mind, think of The Wall as your last big test before you are granted the rewards of a successful small business. And we all know that the rewards are very much worth the trials of the trail, aren’t they?

About Dawn R. Rivers

Dawn Rivers (formerly Dawn Rivers Baker) is a writer, journalist, publisher, microbusiness expert and advocate, She's written articles for many media outlets including US News & World Report.

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