There's just one framed quote posted on my office wall: "Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us the chance to show how badly we really want something."
The quote comes from a book, The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University when he was asked to give a "last lecture" in 2007. It was an honour bestowed annually on a professor to talk about the things that mattered most to them. A month before delivering that lecture, Pausch learned that his previously diagnosed pancreatic cancer had become terminal. He had 10 months to live.
Randy's last lecture that day was entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." It was not about death, but overcoming obstacles – something that we as entrepreneurs face daily in our own businesses.
To be clear, I am not comparing the gravity of terminal illness to the comparatively trivial challenges of business. I am drawing on the insights, strength and courage of a wise, gentle man who urged us to face all our challenges head-on.
In the past month, I've been reminded several times of that lecture, that book, and that quote. It came from seeing so many business people who've had the wind knocked out of them at the same time. For many, the "great financial crisis" of 2008 never ended, and the hard knocks are still coming today.
No doubt, tough economic times test all our skills and perseverance, as well as our credit lines. But in my 20-plus years as an entrepreneur, I have also found that tough times contain their own opportunities for new success and growth. At least for those who remember three simple rules:
Keep the lights on
If you truly believe that there is a future for your business and industry, find a way to keep the business going. Over the years, my business has been constantly challenged by recessions, losses of confidence, disappearing customers and accompanying write-downs – but the "Open for Business" sign still shines. I can't say that it's always been easy, or that I didn't limp home on occasion. But in time, those little stickers you can buy to mark your 10th, 25th, 30th or 50th years in business really signal the market that you and your company are trusted partners for the long haul. Shed a bit of your all-Canadian humility and let the world know you've earned your scars and your stripes.
Just show up
It's amazing how attendance at industry events, dinners and trade shows always seems to be the first thing that gets cut, for budgetary reasons or perceived lack of time. But tell me: How can you not have the time or money to go out and meet new leads and prospect new opportunities, especially when times are tough and you need them the most? Get out of the office and bring back new ideas and fresh prospects. I have set a personal goal of attending 50 per cent more "events" this year. Hope to see you at one of them.
Diamonds are created under pressure
Recessions bring clarity and focus to your business. During the launch phase of a business, every day is like a recession: not enough time, too little money, and too few customers. We need to rediscover the focus that we had when we first "broke through" with our business. Now is the time to key in on the top opportunities – customers, products and services – that are the most profitable for your business and hold the greatest potential going forward. This is not a time to spread yourself too thin.
It takes more than three simple rules to succeed in business. But embracing the qualities of perseverance, clarity and focus that underlie these tips is certainly the best place to start.
There is a follow-on to Pausch's quote. "Brick walls are there to stop people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop other people." As successful business leaders, it's essential to remember that we didn't get here by being like "other people."
If you want to watch the entirety of Randy Pausch's lecture, go to The Last Lecture. You won't regret it. And it won't hurt if I give away Randy's last line: "If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself."
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of branding and innovation company Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90PercentRule.