Wild rides provide small business lessons

Small business lessons learned on International Tractor

The scariest ride I ever faced was on a 1954 International Tractor. As I rounded the top of 20-foot-wide pathway between pastures and started heading down the half-mile or so hill, it popped out of gear. My mechanic had advised against replacing the breaks, citing anything legal today would be shot in three months. I’m sure he was right. This ride taught me some small business lessons I won’t forget.

Talk about a white-knuckle ride.  

Small business lessons learned on International Tractor
This isn’t the tractor (I can’t believe I can’t find a picture of it), but it’s what it looked like.

The first third of the trip I tried getting it back into gear. Apparently first doesn’t come easy in those old tractors when you’re eclipsing 30 mph. By the time I stopped fighting with the clutch and a gear shift that didn’t work well at crawl speed, I realized I needed a better plan.

Bailing certainly wasn’t an option. So, I started thinking about who would be the likely one to find my corpse while wondering if they had my father’s number.

This wasn’t exactly a smooth path. This was part of 30-acres of beautiful rolling-hill horse pastures. The rolling part wasn’t looking so idyllic now. Should have done a better job leveling off those filled gopher craters (note to self as speeds are now approaching 45 mph).

Now that we (me, the tractor and brush hog in tow – it’s amazing how these objects start to take on animate qualities in such scenes) were hitting what seemed like Daytona Raceway speeds, we were airborne more time than not. Having that dang mower in tow didn’t help to balance the tractor for landing on the next mogul.

I still can’t believe the tractor didn’t tip over on this rocky ride. Fortunately, the lower part of the hill leveled out and I was even able to turn the tractor (read throw my entire body weight against two hands on the left side of the wheel – these things weren’t built for cornering) before crashing through the wood paddocks below.

That was the last time I made a decision to mow any other way than across the hill. Fortunately, I had braver neighbors willing the tackle the areas where this wasn’t possible.

Small business lessons can be good

The second scariest ride I endured was investing heavily in a project that failed. I’m generally not a big risk taker (hard to believe looking from the outside in, but I spend a lot of time considering and researching decisions). This one involved more money than I had ever invested in a business initiative.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.

I had a big unexpected pull back from a number of clients just after I had committed the funds – and the people. Reserves were getting depleted quickly. My psyche needed a big win for unrelated reasons, but all involved felt this would be all that. Market research and a complimentary strategy with a seasoned team of success stories and industry leaders bode well for viral buzz and challenges keeping up with demand. I’m still paying to warehouse the remainder first manufacturing run on the product.

While the ride during these challenges wasn’t fun, the lessons learned were extremely valuable. Plus they serve as great stories (and as such, reminders) to retell.

9 quick tips from reflection

Here are my take-aways:

  1. I’m getting too old for old, crotchety tractors (the beast has been sold).
  2. It’s always best to have a back-up plan (low gear only works when it’s in gear; I hadn’t previously failed in a business venture so didn’t consider what I’d do if sales didn’t cover costs).
  3. Frightening challenges force you to look at the big picture (does struggling to maintain a large farm make sense right now? What are proven business strategies I can model for future initiatives?).
  4. Surviving harrowing experiences makes you more careful.
  5. There will always be people to help you recover, regroup and move on. It’s rarely who you expect, but I’ve never gone through a major challenge without being amazed at the support I get from others.
  6. Usually, we survive, even when it looks like we won’t.
  7. Walk the route at slow speeds before you zoom into a faster pace (test market before you invest in a full-fledged production and manufacturing phase).
  8. Don’t always trust your gut (although I still usually do).
  9. Mistakes are what you make them. How you respond shapes your future in bigger ways than would have been possible without the experience.

Have you faced an unexpected challenge? What did you do to make it a small business lesson for you? Please use the comments below and the share buttons to the left of this page to get more involved in the conversation.

6 responses to “Wild rides provide small business lessons”

  1. Hmm. I loved your examples- but, as is true with many things in life, our outlooks affect what we see and learn…
    I am not saying your observations and conclusions are wrong- they are absolutely spot on for you…For me…
    1. Always make sure that the things upon which you rely are in top operating order. S… happens and you have to adjust. If your basic equipment is bad, you put yourself further behind the eight ball.
    2. Make sure every plan has at least two counterplans. Not that you will follow any or all- but you can operate “on the fly” and adjust when you’ve considered your (ideal, the opposite, and one that goes off to left field) various options and can pick and choose various steps.
    3. Near death experiences- or ones that feel so- mean that you failed to follow rule 1 or that you think you are in more control of your life than is possible. Let go a little and try something really new. You will find the proper equilibrium soon enough (or it won’t matter soon enough…)

  2. This summer a friend of mine had jumped off of a cliff. I thought in my head, hmmm….I have always wanted to do that. Two weeks later I was in the Wisconsin Dells and I saw people safely jumping off of a cliff. I decided to go for it. As I got to the top there was a girl talking herself out of it. After about 15 minutes she decided not to do it. I walked right up to the cliff, looked down and jumped. I knew that if I spent any amount of time staring down, that I would talk myself out of it as well. I had already made the decision, so now it was time to jump.

    For me in the business world, I have had to just jump many times. I could talk myself out of anything, but that doesn’t move my business forward. Sometimes I have to learn a new skill, sometimes I have to learn how to use social media, and at other times I have had to try to learn keyword marketing even though my primary business is tutoring kids online. If I didn’t jump in any of these occasions and take the actions that I needed to take, then there would be many students that would still be struggling with reading. (I am on online reading tutor). So jump in and don’t play the head games that can come if we think things through too long.

  3. My father lost everything–including his house and business–when I was twelve. Therefore I am always betting that things are going to go bad…which tends to make me avoid taking risks in the first place (in itself, not being willing to take risks is also bad).

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