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If you wave it, they will come, right? For startup entrepreneurs, there exists an overwhelming temptation especially in times of stress, to believe a new development, deal or key hire will transform your business as if by magic. In the real world it seldom works. I explore ways to avoid the magic wand complex and succeed despite the temptation to resort to quick fixes.
When you are cornered, life can be really tough indeed. Perhaps your fabulous new startup has hit a development brick wall, or your growth curve of registered customers has suddenly stalled for no apparent reason. Panic doesn’t set in immediately, but with an uncanny frequency the ability to think objectively and calmly deteriorates and decision making becomes less and less effective. The magic wand complex is a tell-tale sign that things are not looking too rosy. Everyone experiences challenges in business, and often they might seem like insurmountable obstacles especially if you are tackling them on your own. The lure of a quick fix is seductive and all but impossible to ignore especially when your back is against the wall. One absolute key to success, therefore, is recognising the magic wand complex, and taking action before disaster strikes.
New startups and well-established businesses alike look to the magic wand and its powers of transformation. At best it is distracting, at worst disastrous. It’s human instinct to think that the grass is always greener, and we all think this way. In technology, I have heard it all. “If only we integrate this new payment platform, sales will rocket”. “When we integrate this zippy new user experience design into our web offering, we’ll see exponential growth”. “Once we get version 3.0 live, things will change for the good”. “We’ve done this successfully for commercial transport but sales are flat, what we need to do is build for domestic consumers”. “I spoke to this guy who promised an introduction to Richard Branson’s ex CFO’s assistant’s brother, and I’m certain once we meet him we’ll get all the leads we can handle”.
In reality of course, the magic wand complex is more often than not hiding an inconvenient truth. Setting up and running a successful business is actually really hard work, and try as you will to find alternatives, there is no substitute for good honest graft. Be warned – the magic wand complex is setting in when you espouse: “if only I had an extra this or that, things would be completely different and sales would transform”. As the complex embeds itself, you will convince yourself that somehow magically the whole world would be converted to you and success will follow quickly, just as if you waved a magic wand and everything becomes dreamlike. Unfortunately the oldest sayings are enduring for reason. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”.
Once the magic wand complex is embedded, it will be endorsed by friends and colleagues, who listen to you and reinforce your argument. What do they know? They are only exposed to information you release to them, and you will manage the information subconsciously to meet your own requirements. Fundamentally, friends and colleagues don’t want this as badly as you, and they generally won’t question what you sell to them in terms of truth. Because you hear the strategy echoed back to you, you believe it even more, and it seems there really is only one way to go. Wave that wand. Take up the offer, wait for the person to introduce you to investors, get another big build done, or partner with a beautiful new piece of software that perfectly compliments your own. While you consider which wand to wave and start the process of convincing everyone it will work, productivity slows. In the worst of all circumstances you stall. Just as it is if you stop swimming in rough sea because of apparently making no progress, you lose momentum and direction, you become confused and then panic steps in. The phone doesn’t ring, introductions dont happen, the software doesn’t do what you wanted it to, and you are suddenly in a tailspin. You’ll be a skilled pilot indeed to get out of it.
Worry not, there is a solution, but we must venture further into black magic in order to discover it! Time for an illustrative example, and apologies in advance for those of a nervous disposition. In the world of technology which touches all of us of course, the lure of the magic wand is omnipresent. In the worse cases developers, especially to the code illiterate like me, are practitioners of the dark arts, and compound the magic wand complex. They don’t help managing their own reputations either. How is it, in startup world especially, “the previous developers” always screwed up? They may have built something to budget, sometimes in their own time, they might have been paid or sometimes not, so they did their work late at night sometimes well, sometimes not so well. When a new developer shows up, the original code is almost always derided as amateurish, shoddy and sometimes even downright dangerous. It might even leave you open to liability or hacking threat.
Its the oldest trick in the book – a shiny new solution shows up, and you quickly receive an assurance that even though you are in hot water, there’s is the new path and with their help, you will turn that water into wine. All you need to do is find some money, do some focus group sessions, raise some more money and build it all again from scratch. Those of you in well established businesses who work creating and selling products or services will have faced the ‘system overhaul’ in anything from CRM to stock control or procurement. Sure it can work. But a lot of the time its a colossal waste of time and money. A lot of the time it hides a straightforward truth: Things are not going so well.
OK lets get out of this place. First find yourself a quiet place to reflect without any distractions and take a cold hard look at where you are. A quick cold shower can be dividing the number of units you will have to sell into what this magic wand will cost. Sobering? Discover who will be the chief beneficiary of the change you are looking to make. Surround yourself next with people who are not afraid of saying no, and who will challenge everything. Get in a closed door session one evening or weekend. Ask favours of a handful you really trust to lend you a half-day. Use a session to compare alternatives of hard work and progress in sales, sales and more sales against your magic wand. Insist on evaluating opportunity cost not just potential benefit. What sales, attention, lack of focus will be involved if I do this? How will customers feel? How will my reputation be affected? Balance the magic wand by evaluating what less costly but still decisive steps you can take to streamline your current service. On no account stop and “take stock” for more than a half-day. You know what happens if you stall. If you really must make a change, consider not only what it will cost, but where the funds come from. The worst possible time to take money is when you want to build something to fix a problem or shortcoming, and you dress it up to be a major step forward. If you get it wrong, your Fairy Godmother might very well turn out to be the Wicked Witch!
Yes your platform needs to improve, it always does, but I don’t ever believe you need to start from scratch. You need to offer exemplary services to paying customers, but that doesn’t always mean you need to go out and raise cash or wave that wand. You must really please and excite your customers in ways which do not cost the earth, and progressively work out methods of automating and scaling those services. If you are puzzled why you can’t grow, examine your performance against the market and don’t beat yourself up or worse still get seduced by taking overhead that would mean armageddon if it doesn’t work as it should. You’re business is working! Customers are paying! People love what you do! So keep doing it! Sometimes boredom might be the problem, even though the business is sound. Offer the services you are great at modestly at first if you are starting up, refine your offer as you go, and make sure they love you for it every time. Only listen to customers who pay you, and definitely never pay people to listen to you.
As you improve steadily and incrementally, sure, make a changes in how you work and deliver but do it on your terms, not someone else’s and keep a close eye on costs without deluding yourself with ‘necessary’ developments. I know its seemingly the hardest route, building iteratively, taking small but purposeful steps, but it is also the most noble route, genuine and at least in the early days it means you stay in control of your creation. There is so much you can offer in the future the opportunities will seem almost endless and tremendously exciting. Much to look forward to, sodon;t screw up!
Winston Churchill said “When your going through hell, keep going”. Building businesses is tough, but its honest and when you start to see glimpses of success it is incredibly fulfilling to see staff and customers smiling and satisfied at your vision realised. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, and you chose this path to manage your own destiny. Do not be misguided by others who seek to benefit. Don’t be distracted by the magic wand complex. Wake up, take a cold shower, and see it for the mirage it really is. Get your head down. Keep going and you will soon see a glimpse of your bright new future.
All power to you.
Robert Clarke is Entrepreneur in Residence at SBE School of Business & Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University, Bath, England. http://sbe.bathspa.ac.uk. SBE aspires to lead the next generation of entrepreneurship education and experience.