We are all originals. Each of us travels with our own life story, values and dreams for the future. We start forming these from the moment we enter this world and build on them as life experiences influence our hearts and minds. We currently live in a time of constant change and ambiguity: what I term the unknown.
While the unknown can cause considerable anxiety, it also provides a tremendous opportunity to apply our hearts and minds to generating smart ideas to make a difference. Never have we needed new ideas more to improve the lives of those around us.
Yet, when it comes to our own lives, all too often we step away from our original selves, deferring to the agendas and pushback of others rather than pressing forward with our ideas. Why is that, when there is so much richness in going after new ideas? Trying out a new product that improves health, building an initiative to help people communicate more effectively, or creating a service offering that creates tools to promote better collaborative thinking are all important and worthy of your pursuit.
The problem is that with every new idea, there is the distinct possibility our ideas might fail, encounter ridicule, or even cost us our job. They also might lead to something new, exciting and useful. In short, the road to learning whether a new idea will work is paved with uncertainty and scariness.
New ideas push people outside of their comfort zone. Instead of dealing with the discomfort, many people resist it and simply stall out, slipping into habitual defensive behaviors and losing the chance the ideas might be successful. That resistance might include yourself. While wanting to avoid stress is understandable, where would that leave you and your desire to improve the lives of others?
The key to moving ahead is to learn how to take chances and thrive on the bumpy road through all the unknowns you will encounter along the way to making something better happen.
FOUR STEPS THROUGH THE SCARINESS OF THE UNKNOWN
You cannot stop the pace of change. You can create ballast in yourself by understanding who you are, what you want to do and what behaviors might get in your way. Here are four steps toward embracing instead of than avoiding the discomfort that comes with innovation in a way that will move new ideas forward.
Discover your dreams for making things better
Success in the 21st century requires an entrepreneurial mindset. That means rather than coloring between the lines of what is known and usual, you should focus on what is new and needed in a rapidly changing world.
Winners in today's environment jump in with both feet and learn what they can about their customers, co-workers and communities. The grandmother in Hawaii who first came up with the idea of a Women's March in Washington started by looking at her four granddaughters and fearing that they would not have the opportunities she had enjoyed. She was a retired attorney, not a community organizer, but that did not stop her from putting an idea out there into her social media about organizing a national protest march to protect the rights of women and girls, including her granddaughters. She had no idea of how it would go, but she nevertheless plunged into the unknown with an idea to address an emerging need.
In the business world, new opportunities present themselves in every aspect of organizational life, whether it is the company's market position, work culture, talent development or new products. By exploring what is truly new and needed among your various stakeholders you will discover the ideas to make their lives better.
Develop a healthy attitude toward the discomfort of taking risks
New ideas require taking risks. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury once said, "Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down." In other words, the entrepreneurial mindset accepts the scariness of the unknown as an asset rather than a liability.
With new ideas come risks. You won't know if they will work until you test them. Much can go wrong along the way. Your boss, colleagues, customers or even friends might think the ideas are stupid, irrelevant or too expensive. Your team could respond to working on them with loud criticism, cynicism, or passive-aggression.
The strong feeling of discomfort that new initiatives can cause may not by seen as cool, but at the same time it happens, a lot. In fact, the impulse to flee back into a less stressful place is normal. When you experience discomfort in yourself or in others, you have a choice: You can abandon the idea and go back to same old, same old, OR, you can embrace the scariness as part of the journey. Choosing the latter means you are on the way to something better.
Accept failure as your friend. When you try new things, failure is always an option. For many, it can be associated with shame, lower self-esteem and a reason to hide. These reactions come from many different places including cultural norms at your organization, negative comments from people pushing their own agendas or family of origin issues.
When failure occurs, embrace and celebrate it, especially when the idea is risky and laden with great potential. See it as a moment to pause, evaluate and recalibrate. Look at bumps along the road as learning opportunities, not reasons to slash headcount, slow down or abandon the quest.
Most of the time you misread the needs of your target audience. Use failure as an opportunity to summon up the courage to re-connect with them to learn what you missed in the first place. The conversations might be initially awkward as you learn things you did not know before about them and their needs. However, stay with it and a better idea will emerge. Then try the more informed new idea with the benefit of your new knowledge.
Overcome resistance (yours and theirs) to the discomfort of taking risks
When pursuing those new ideas, watch out for defensive behaviors. Human beings are messy. That's what makes working with them both wonderful and challenging. Unless you figure out a way to test a new idea without any humans involved, including yourself, you will have to deal with many counterproductive behaviors along the way. They will be especially evident while on the uncharted road to new things. The new causes stress, and stress raises defensive behaviors.
Defensive behaviors can give short-term comfort but will take you off the path of traveling to bigger horizons. Defenses are places to hide, and stop growing. Everyone has them. What matters is how they get in the way of your dreams, and then what you do about them.
There are many defenses that people adopt. Three very common ones are micromanagement, personalizing and conflict avoidance.
- Micromanagement gives you the illusion of having control over how something will turn out. In reality, it will only cut off the creativity of an eventual yet to be determined outcome as you obsess on details instead of the bigger vision. They also will numb the thinking of your team members.
- Personalizing will cause you to hear feedback on an idea as a judgment of your personal worth rather than a comment about the broader picture. A presentation may have failed because the audience recently heard a speech on the same topic and had had enough of it, you did not adequately understand their baseline knowledge, or there was someone in the audience who they all knew had tried the idea before at a previous company and failed. Whatever the case, none of those outcomes was a reflection on your self-worth. They are broader communication problems to be solved. Presentations can always be improved, but your value as a human being is not relevant to that improvement.
- Conflict avoidance is not knowing how the other person will react to something you say that they might not like. That uncertainty can be scary. It requires you to know your ultimate goal in the conversation. Do you need that person's friendship or just a respectful consent? Do you need him or her to buy into your whole idea or are you okay with them merely agreeing to approve your initiative and support its implementation? When you know your goal and values, you will know where to flex and where to hold firm through whatever takes place in the conversation.
Surface personal motivators for fuel
To move yourself and lead others through the discomfort of testing a new idea you need a clear sense of purpose.
The road toward better outcomes is uncomfortable. To travel its scary uncharted twists and turns to achieve something better, one needs a good reason to undertake it. This is where you can pull strength from your life story, values and dreams for the future. They define what we most care about, regardless of what others think. The stronger and more personal the reason, the better. Smart navigation of the twists and turns of change requires that you pay attention to what others need to be convinced. Even more, knowing your core beliefs will keep your feet planted solidly on the ground, allowing you to stand tall as you work your way through the testing ground of your new idea.
The Hawaiian grandmother who galvanized the Women's March cared deeply for the future of her granddaughters. That gave her the deep meaning she needed to take the gutsy and scary move of proposing to the social media universe the idea of a national march.
The purpose does not have to be deep. What it has to do is to motivate and provide emotional fuel. You might initiate a new project to provide a compelling tutoring program to young children in underfunded schools, because you remember how you benefited as a child from tutoring by your neighbor, or you simply want to show your rivalrous older sister that you too can make things happen. Either purpose will serve if it results in giving you the courage to push through the scariness of experimenting with program design, funding challenges and building engagement among the children themselves. The key is whether it will give you the courage to embrace the scariness of the uncertainty that comes with trying out new ideas.
Bringing to fruition new ideas to make things better is scary, but your willingness to embrace that discomfort means you may well be on the way to something good, and thus, is well worth the risk.
Pivot: the word every entrepreneur dreads. When a business owner thinks of the word pivot it brings immediate anxiety and stress. Even before we made the decision to pivot, whenever an entrepreneur would tell me that they had "pivoted" I would congratulate them externally but then begin to judge. I would feel, obviously, bad for them because in my mind I viewed it as a failure.
Why does one pivot? One pivots because either what they are doing is not working at all or simply not growing fast enough to reach the next stage in the life cycle of business. Many times, entrepreneurs don't pivot fast enough because they're so in love with their original idea that they can't see the forest from the trees. I get it. It's your baby, your dream, your company. The market should want it. Right? Customers should buy it. Right? You should experience explosive growth. Right? Yes and no. Yes, if your timing is right and all your stars are aligned. No, if you're fighting against the stream wanting the market to listen to you when you are not listening to the market. You know that children's song, row row row your boat gently down the stream? That's a metaphor on life. You want your business to go with what the market is telling you and not against it. Row your boat gently down the market stream and you'll get there much faster.
Before I get into our pivot, it's important to explain how we got there and how our journey began. I had a long career on Wall Street, but I always longed for my own business. I just wasn't sure what that was going to look like. One night over drinks my best friend Leslie and I were discussing the ridiculous amounts of money we were spending on our hair extensions. When I mean ridiculous, I am talking either pay your rent or get your hair did ridiculous. I always say we were so skinny back in those days because we were more likely to spend money on hair than food! But then the lightbulb went off. That's how Lux Beauty Club was born.
We thought, "We're smart, we can figure this out." We started sourcing our hair from various suppliers in China until we found a consistent one, and then we were off. We started selling it to our friends and salons around the city, which then grew to a full-blown side hustle. We had people coming at all hours of the night to our apartment for hair emergencies. I think our landlord must have thought we were selling drugs! Thankfully he was kind enough to simply leave us alone. A few months later we put up a website and we continued growing organically at a steady pace, and once we got on Amazon our sales doubled. We were rocking and rolling until two very significant things happened. Well, three really. Competition got stronger with every influencer "owning" their brand of extensions, Amazon allowing the Chinese to flood their marketplace and most importantly, our consistent quality suppliers started to cut corners and dilute the product. We had been watching a competitor raise millions from venture capitalist firms and, of course, the company was run by three dudes selling weaves to black women. But they, too, started to have major problems with their sources from China. They were getting crushed by terrible reviews, at that moment I knew we had to make a change. It took us months to find a supplier elsewhere that believed in us and would want to do business with us. And, most importantly, still allow us to be competitive. We knew it was imperative we got the source: India.
Now, as all this was happening, I was also spending the majority of my time fundraising for the company. The few investors that came on initially got it immediately, but for the rest it was like banging my head against the wall to get these mostly white VC men to understand the market opportunity. Even, most "female-focused" VCs were a challenge for us. We managed to survive with our angel investors and for them I am eternally grateful.
Once we switched our entire supply chain to India, the quality was a game changer. Although not perfect, we were lucky that we were still small and able to make that change early on. The guys that raised millions, not sure how they would manage. We did have to increase our prices a bit, but we didn't think that would matter. But in the end, it really did. We found that although the customer was getting the best quality for a little bit more, they didn't care. They still wanted the cheap stuff. Oh, and Amazon? Our sales were dropping even there since they were offering hair extensions for $14 dollars. We couldn't compete with that. The signs kept on coming and coming. Our basket at checkout were over 250 dollars, but we didn't have the heavy customer acquisition dollars to fight the fight. Our Indian supplier was incredible, but you have to remember, human hair is still a human, living thing. No matter how great your quality control, there is always going to be problems.
At this point, my business partner Leslie and I had our come-to-Jesus moment one afternoon. After listing the pros and cons of our business and the constant issues, we knew it was time to change. It was time to SWAAY the narrative.
We had both been wearing hair extensions for years, but because of thinning hair we had recently started using holistic products to help our own hair grow thicker, taking a break from the extensions. We had also both been experimenting with CBD oil for its various benefits, and we had hooked our families on it as well. That's when we had our second a-ha moment. By tackling the issue at the root (ahem) of the problem by taking a holistic approach to hair and beauty. It was a winning combination. I mean, beauty comes from within after all so why not package it that way! Fueling the inside not only benefits your inner self, but it also improves the outer byproduct (hair, skin and nails). It is life changing.
Leslie is a registered nurse so she set out formulating our blends with scientists to ensure we had the perfect elements, vitamins and levels for dosage. We were making truly organic 100% CBD infused products for women by women. It was like a light switch had turned on and we could see clearly. Since the "pivot" we have experienced explosive growth through distributors, salons and our very own customer base. We found she was as loyal as they come. Because after all, who doesn't love CBD? The benefits are tremendous, and we use our products every day. I find solace in knowing our offering is so well-rounded now; the pivot was worth it. We are now rowing gently down the stream and not against the current. It's a product that has a very low return rate since there are zero issues on color, quality, or anything of that sort. But most importantly, I can sleep now for a number of reasons. It has been much easier to fund investors that understand our space and want to invest. Wholesale orders have been growing everyday via our network and we are even in talks for licensing deals. But our Sleeping Beauty product has also helped my mood and sleep as well. Shameful plug.
My journey was a necessary one, and though it has been littered with disappointing ups and downs, we wouldn't change it for the world. Why? Because we learned so much on how to build a CPG company that now just happens to sell CBD products. Without that knowledge, we wouldn't have been able to move so quickly. It takes people years to create packaging, formulas, strategy. We did what couldn't be done in 6 months. Experts told us it would take 36 months and be very costly, we knew that was all bullshit. We had the team, the knowledge and now the perfect product. No, has always fueled us but the yesses feel pretty good now.
So, I say to all those out there, if you feel a pivot coming on embrace it; go full steam ahead, jump fully in and listen, fully pay attention. After all you are the one standing in the way of your success.