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Surviving Tough Times: 100 Entrepreneurs Share Their Tips

I floated a message in a bottle out to the small business community, asking how owners and entrepreneurs keep their heads on straight, staying positive and focused, during the inevitable trials, tribulations, and stresses of business life. Little did I know how many bottles full of interesting experiences and wisdom would come back.

I don't know about you, but my DNA and psychological makeup are always conspiring against me, narrowing my vision to the latest fire I need to put out, or making me worry about too many things I probably shouldn't worry about. I know better, but I am a (recovering) obsessive and pessimist, so every day is a battle to avoid distraction and overreaction to the ups and downs of my business. So, I thought I'd cast a net out into the entrepreneurial community to see how my peers deal with their "downs."

Within forty-eight hours I had received well over 100 responses. I'd love to reprint many of them in their entirety, but I can't, so I'll share some representative highlights. (Note: I edited some comments for brevity).

When asked how they dealt with difficult times or business struggles, the respondents generally fell into one of two categories, which I think can be described most succinctly as "Outward-looking" and "Inward-looking:"

Outward-looking people tend to focus on the business itself and the big picture, in a fairly unemotional and matter-of-fact manner, and may also take advantage of outside resources and support:

  • "Compartmentalize... when budgets got real lean I compartmentalized the immediate pain of a tight budget and kept the long term goal in mind." -Jeff Brodsly, Co-Owner, Elite Merchant Solutions
  • "Think around the problem... there is always another way to look at something, a way to tackle it that has not yet been tried." -- Pamela Barefoot, President, Blue Crab Bay
  • "My philosophy on managing my attitude when things are stressful focuses around four things: Mission, Vision, Values and a Realistic view of the financial situation." -- Doug Burgoyne, President, Frogbox
  • "I make 100 decisions a day, 99 of which I don't want to think about. The little things cannot be ignored and take up a big portion of your time as a business owner, but keeping the big picture in focus is vital to survival" -- Retha Sandler, President, Blamtastic
  • "Perspective allows me to know that just about any successful business does not follow the plan it starts out with... Groupon [for example] was originally a cause-based message board. Call it adjusting or pivoting, whatever. I call it 'zagging.'" -- Dave DuPont, CEO, Teamsnap
  • "Once a week, I review my business plan, review our top projects list, look through the marketing calendar and the financials. I believe you plan or get planned for" -- Ellen Rohr, President, Bare Bones Biz
  • "I subscribe to the Vince Lombardi philosophy of winning in the workplace: when things are tough you must get better at what you do." -- Venanzio Ciampa, President, The Promotion Factory
  • "I stay in action. Action alleviates anxiety. I feel better when I am actively doing things to promote my business." -- BJ Gallagher, sociologist/author, Peacock Productions
Inward-looking people use different tools to keep themselves where they want and need to be. They may be philosophical, spiritual, physical, or psychological, but they tend to revolve around introspection, perspective, and mindfulness:
  • "You HAVE to know your purpose for running your company in the first place! Why does your business exist? Who do you serve? What do they need most from you, right now? 99% of business owners do not take the time for this introspection." -- Christian T Russell, Dangerous TACTICS
  • "I remind myself that nobody is making me do this. I chose to build a company... I can stop if I want. This always reminds me that I'd be miserable doing anything else." -- J.T. O'Donnell, President, Careerealism
  • "We mindfully approach unlikable or frustrating things with an attitude of kindness... most important, be kind to ourselves and our staff by remembering that the reason we are in business is to serve others." -- Mitch and Jen, The Paw House Inn
  • "To maintain a healthy perspective we take inventory of the great attributes of our company... Instead of cringing at challenges, we try to savor them... and reflect upon past triumphs." -- Adam Anthony, CEO, Creo Care
  • "Focus on what you have to work with, not what you don't have. Positivity is everything. Meditating is also key. Anything you can do to keep your head in the game and keep your cool." -- David Collier, President, Ink Floyd Screen Printing
  • "Repeat to yourself that 'worry' is a waste of mental resources. I concentrate on what I can control." -- Kenneth Lebersfeld, CEO, Capitol Lighting
  • "I have a "mantra" of sorts, summed up in three words: "Okay; now what?" using [the challenging moment] as the starting point for planning what to do and how to forge ahead." -- Alan Simon, President, Thinking Helmet
Of course there were some who didn't fit into either group and there is plenty of crossover, as you'd expect. But the vast majority fell decidedly in one camp or the other, and within the two camps there was an extraordinary level of common -- in fact nearly identical -- thinking.

Thanks to this unscientific survey, I'm reminded that most of us who start and run businesses deal with these things, and reassured by the fact that none of my headaches are unique (or even all that bad compared to some, knock on wood). And I was bolstered by the wisdom, experience, perseverance, positive approaches, and generally sound thinking reflected in the responses.

If you were one of the many whose comments I couldn't fit, or you have your own perspective on staying positive, please post your thoughts below.

(Flickr image by laughlin)

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