Take a Deep Breath

It’s no secret that the US economy has seen better days. While experts say the Great Recession is over, most people just don’t feel very optimistic. The stock market is volatile, California is experiencing one of the worst droughts in hundreds of years, Congress is still bogged down, and millions of families struggle to pay their bills. As a small business owner, you want to do something, but what? Should you just hold your breath, wait this out, and then come up for air when things improve? Or should you take a deep breath, rethink your business, and take a calculated risk?

While things can seem pretty grim at times, the earth is still spinning. The sun still rises in the east, and sets in the west, each and every day. New technologies, inventions, processes, products, and services appear every day. You may not hear about them, because doom and gloom dominate the media. But don’t fool yourself: if you don’t adapt and innovate, your business will slowly fall behind. And even if your current competition is asleep, new competitors will soon appear.

Pick an industry, any industry — how about news media? A few years ago many experts predicted investigative journalism would become extinct. But while mainstream newspapers lost circulation, lost advertising power, and lost money, others rushed in to fill the vacuum. Huffington Post, Politico, Talking Points Memo, and dozens of others have grown from almost nothing into real players. Not only have they gained market share, they have gained respectability by uncovering stories that more established firms ignored.

There is a cost to not moving forward, not trying new things. Seven years after the Great Recession most businesses still seem intent on “avoiding risk.” But by avoiding apparent risks, they are nevertheless assuming real risks, particularly the risk of being left behind.

I recently spoke to owners of three small construction firms. All of them have grown substantially over the past few years. Each took a different approach, but none of them sat on their hands hoping for better days. One embraced the world of LEED construction and sustainability. They partnered with like-minded architects and other professionals. Their clear value proposition and laser focus helped them grow while the overall construction market shrank. Another firm embraced small projects just to get their foot in the door. Their use of social media combined with truly superior customer service led to much larger projects.

The third firm’s “secret” was to strip away unprofitable and distracting services and strengthen their core offering — remodeling. They focused on the neighborhoods they knew best, and avoided capitulating on price.

There is an old American Indian saying — “Observe the turtle. He progresses only with his neck out.” That doesn’t mean you need to change everything, and you certainly should not change everything all at once. But it does mean you should re-examine things that used to work but aren’t working so well anymore. It means you need to take some risk; you have to step out of line from everybody else at least once in a while. But you have to apply some discipline: take measured risks, not wild ones.