Let’s talk about the virtues of quitting. Of giving up.
I realize I’m provoking every instinct entrepreneurs have to never quit, never give up, never admit defeat. Generally I admire those instincts, and I even share them. I don’t want to turn any of you into quitters in a general sense.
But many of us have learned from experience that you have to know when it’s time to let go of certain ideas, initiatives and priorities because they’re not only going nowhere, they’re also keeping you from better opportunities that deserve your attention.
Let me set it up with a story from my own illustrious sports career. When I was a teenager, my parents moved the family to Brazil. While attending school there, I got involved with track. I was not a great runner, but trained hard and I did the best I could.
One of the things I learned about Brazilian culture – something very different from our sports culture in the United States – is that it was considered perfectly acceptable for a runner to simply stop running if it was clear he was not going to finish in the top three. It wasn’t mandatory by any means, but most runners who could see they weren’t going to finish first, second or third would simply peel off and stop running.
In Brazil’s culture, there was no point continuing to run if you had no chance of being one of the top finishers. Runner after runner would quit, and no one would think anything of it.
Now, with my American sensibilities, I had no interest in quitting. Even though I had no chance of finishing in the top three, I would just keep going. According to everything I had ever learned, it was important to finish and to do so as strongly as I could.
As a result, if you scan the Brazilian high school track results from the early 1990s, you will find lots of fourth-place finishes by a certain Wade Wyant. I really wasn’t the fourth-best runner. But I was the one also-run who refused to stop running.
Now I’m proud of my fourth-place finishes, but I didn’t get anything for them. That’s fine in high school sports, but it’s not fine if that keeps happening to you in business.
A friend of mine had an interesting idea around 2005. He wanted to start a newspaper syndicate, and signed about 20 contract writers who would send him content each week – so he could turn around and offer the content to newspapers all over the country.
The syndicate started with a handful of newspaper subscribers and seemed to have potential. But soon after that, the newspaper industry started suffering under a lot of financial pressure, and my friend was never able to grow the syndication business. For six years he tried, making just a few hundred dollars every month while his other lines of business paid the bills. Finally in 2012, he received a big piece of business from a major client, and he realized he could only handle the new business if he let go of the syndicate.
In retrospect, he says he probably should have let it go three or four years earlier, but he was proud of the lineup he’d put together and the content they put out every day. He didn’t want to give up on the idea, even though the numbers suggested he should.
When was the last time you did an honest, candid assessment of everything you’re doing, and made tough decisions about whether some of it should be put aside?
It’s hard to do it, especially when you’ve invested time and money in it, and there’s always the entrepreneur’s instinct to “run it out,” just like I ran out those races in Brazil. But you need to look for clues that might tell you a certain idea simply isn’t going anywhere. And you need to ask some really honest questions.
One is simply this: Do you still have the passion for this that you had when you started it? Because if you don’t then you’re just running it out. You’re trying to do the right thing but you might not be doing the smart thing.
And that brings us to a second point: Do you find yourself using the language of “doing the right thing” with respect to this idea? Do you find yourself saying things like, “I’m going to see this through” and “I refuse to give up”?
Because no one talks that way about something that’s working. No one needs to. So if you are, you need to look yourself in the eye and ask why it’s come to that.
Often in this situation, your subconscious already knows what the score it. And in its own way, the subconscious is screaming at you: “This isn’t gonna fly, dummy!”
But you’re proud of the idea and you’re invested in it. At some point you probably told a lot of people about it, and they saw how excited you were. It’s hard to come back later and admit you had to give up on it.
Some years ago, I was running a business I had started with some partners. It was a struggle but I was determined to see it through. Then came the day when my partners sat me down and told me they were firing me, and buying me out. I would not have the opportunity to run this out. It was over.
I remember sitting in my car after it happened, watching all the remaining board members walk into the business I had just been fired from, to take over for me.
And I felt relief. I realized I’d just been running it out. And I realized that I would almost certainly move on to something very soon that would be a better fit for me.
No one is saying you should give up on an idea after six months, or that you should quit at the first sign of trouble. Anything you try is going to involve challenges, and of course you should expect to fight through those challenges if you’re going to succeed at anything.
But there comes a time with certain things when, if you can be objective, you should see that your best move is to move on to something else. It’s hard to be objective when the idea was yours and you once had big plans for it.
But these are the kinds of decisions successful entrepreneurs must learn to make. I don’t want you to be a quitter. But I want you to understand when it’s time to quit.
Written by: Wade Wyant
Red Wagon Advisors