What To Do When You're Losing Hope

Being a small-business owner has its ups and downs. When times get tough, try these 6 tactics to pick yourself back up.
Author, Reinventing You, Harvard Business School Publishing
October 31, 2013

Sometimes we lose hope. It's how we bounce back that helps define us and our businesses.

We’ve all been there: a client doesn’t renew your contract, a proposal you were counting on gets rejected, or a key employee quits at just the wrong time. There are plenty of victories to celebrate when you run a small business, but it’s also easy to get discouraged when faced with a string of defeats. Need a pick me up? Try some (or all) of these strategies small-business owners have used to get through the tough times. 

Get Enough Sleep

When Mike Maddock’s innovation consultancy Maddock Douglas lost 48 percent of its revenue in only three months during the economic crunch of 2001, he went into overdrive, working overtime trying to “sell [his] way out of the plunge.” It didn’t work very well.

“My wife recognized this downward spiral of sleepless nights and higher and higher stress," Maddock says. "I was just too tired to see how I was showing up. She literally begged me to go see a doctor.” He took time off to rest up. When he returned to work, he says he was back to his "resilient self,” and quickly able to get his company back on track.

Help Others

When he launched his own practice, Bay Area attorney John Corcoran would often find himself on the “marketing hamster wheel." He explains, "I would get busy with clients and not have enough time for marketing or attracting new clients.”

Tired of the boom-and-bust cycle, he had a revelation: “I realized the key was really to focus my energies on being as helpful to others as I could possibly be. That means helping anyone—clients or non-clients, friends, friends of friends. It may sound counterintuitive, but the more you can concentrate on helping others, without focusing too much on what you will get out of it, the better you will do financially.”

Focus On The Big Picture

Most people would panic if they lost two anchor clients at the same time. But not Alia McKee of Sea Change Strategies, a communications and fundraising consultancy.

“Instead of taking on work we didn’t want, we devoted two months to creating and promoting a major thought leadership paper that was aligned with the types of clients and projects we wanted,” McKee recalls. “Through that effort, we landed two new retainer clients.”

Remember Your Mission

In the Internet era, it’s not easy to run a brick-and-mortar bookstore—even one that’s beloved in its community, like The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, North Carolina. That’s why when owner Kimberly Daniels gets discouraged, she gets out from behind her desk.  “I get up and interact with customers," she says. "If I just engage with customers, I am able to see where we fit in people’s lives and remember the good we do.”

That’s also the strategy used by Joel Gagne. As the owner of Allerton Hill Consulting, which specializes in helping school districts communicate with their stakeholders, he focuses on his company's mission whenever he faces a setback. “We are here to help public schools,” he says. “They so desperately need the type of work we do. It helps to focus on the positive impact we create for public schools, year in and year out.”

Get Perspective

It can be hard to think clearly when you’re in the midst of a stressful situation. That’s why Elizabeth Amini, co-founder and CEO of Anti-AgingGames, an online startup, turns to her "CEO group" for advice. “As soon as our first batch of programmers received a deposit and the detailed specifications of our site, they tripled their price and demanded 25 percent equity in our company,” she recalls. “It was like receiving a marriage proposal at gunpoint.” With guidance from her fellow CEOs, she was able to get her money back—and hired new programmers who are even better.

Clear Your Head

You can also get a fresh perspective through lifestyle changes, as Kevin Ghiozzi, owner of Big Blue Plumbing and Heating in Somerville, Massachusetts, has found. “I’m learning to meditate and reduce my stress through diet and exercise,” he says. “I’m also learning that there are certain things I cannot control, and asking for help is a good thing.”

John Corcoran, the attorney, agrees: “I started experimenting with going on short walks around lunchtime just to get out of the office and get a little exercise … I found I became a lot more productive when I did.” 

Every entrepreneur faces stress and tough times. As Amini says, “In a way, the hard times and obstacles are what weed out your competitors. If you can last through them, the hard times actually work in your favor.”

What are your strategies for bouncing back when times are tough?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.

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