The Fourth Stage Dilemna: Dancing Away from the Cliff by Art Radtke and Lorette Pruden

Take a moment.  Can you remember what it felt like when your business was still just a wisp of a thought…a dream that was getting ready to come true? Do you recall the energy,the inspiration, and the excitement as you began to imagine the possibilities?  All of these feelings are characteristic of the first of The Nine Stages of Small Business™.

It makes sense that the often-mystifying lifecycle of a small business can be measured in nine stages. There is something almost magical about the number nine.  Cats have nine lives.  Babies are born in nine months.  Golfers lament over the front versus the back nine. You can be “dressed to the nines.”  There is even mathematical magic to “Casting out Nines” as a shortcut method for checking multiplication and division.

Defining the stages of the business lifecycle is not new.  However, many descriptions have traditionally been presented from the large corporate point of view.  As any small businessperson will tell you, that view does not reflect their reality. It was in this void that Mort Murphy and John Heenan developed The Nine Stages of Small Business.™ Building on the foundation of traditional business models, we identified additional stages that directly “reflect the impact that the life of the business has on the life of the owners.”

In the first two stages, “concept” and “start-up,” the enthusiasm of creating vision lives.  First the very idea is energizing to you, the creator.  While supporting yourself in other ways, you pore over ideas and nurture thoughts of what the business could be in your free time.

When the  “idea” starts to become reality, you’re in start-up stage.  Here there may be a need for outside funds. A fear begins to whisper:  “We need to make an income.”  That fear will either energize or cripple the budding entrepreneur.

As you push through the 3rd or “survival” stage, quiet desperation begins to set in. Outside funds have dried up and the business needs to generate cash.  The euphoria of the earlier stages has all but evaporated.  You are faced with trying to pay next month’s bills while you hope your friends and family remember who you are.

It is at the next stage – the 4th or “stability” stage– where fear settles in and makes itself at home. As Heenan and friends put it, “It’s like sitting on a comfortable cliff edge – lucky to be there, hoping it won’t crumble, but afraid to get back up and start climbing again.”

Life is okay– not great, but okay enough to stifle further risk-taking.  “Let’s not rock the boat” competes with “Let’s get a move on.”  You’ve been doing too much yourself, and you don’t want to stagnate, or worse yet, lose what you’ve gained.  The business needs a burst of energy to keep pushing forward, yet it is just at this stage that you, the business owner are running out of energy.

The stability stage is extremely treacherous for a business owner who does not recognize the danger. You can be literally trapped in a chaotic fluctuation between survival and stability.  You are not sitting safely on your cliff–you are dancing on the edge.

So how do you resolve your dilemna and move on to stage five?  Get help.   Then work with that help, don’t just work them!

Though important throughout all stages, having the ability to encourage, inspire and incorporate other people into your vision is crucial to getting off the edge of that cliff. The problem is too many of us think we can do it on our own.

We box ourselves in and stifle the vitality of our business by believing the following set of rules, which keeps us perilously close to the edge:

Meathead Rule #1“No one can do the job as well as I can.” Which really means nobody will do it the same way.  We do not just want the work done–we want it done identically to the way we do it.  Guess what.  Not happening.  You just set up everyone to lose.

Meathead Rule #2“Employees are just more of a headache.” See rule #1.  Whether they are employees, independent contractors, strategic partners, or referral sources, you cannot do a business without other people.  Why do you think it is called a “company?”  People have the audacity to want to do things their own way.  Standards are necessary, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or stack a dishwasher!

Learning to work with other people will set you free. If you can get people working in your business, you have just bought yourself the freedom to work on it.  Imagine yourself letting go.  Engage other people (employees, vendors, strategic relationships) in the vision and operation of your company.

Your independence, your time freedom, and your financial freedom-your ability to move beyond stage four-depend absolutely on your ability to surround yourself with people willing to help, and then to let them. Invite them to the dance!

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