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Know when to give up if your business isn't working

Feb 01 2017 16:15
Anton Ressel

Cape Town - It is well documented that famous entrepreneur Richard Branson had a string of unsuccessful ventures and outright failures on his journey to building the empire that is Virgin today.

What makes his story so compelling is that he was able to recognise when to push on with a business concept or idea, and when to put it aside and start something else.

This ability to see the wood for the trees seems to be an important trait among successful entrepreneurs, and yet we are often taught differently. We are told to persevere, to hang in there, to vasbyt. But what if soldiering on is the wrong approach? At what point do we accept that our business in its current form is just not working and that we have two choices - either make wholesale changes, or close up shop and start again? The latter option is one of the most difficult, and bravest, moves an entrepreneur can ever make.

Before I continue, let me just clarify what I mean by the business ‘not working’. I am not referring to a few bad months, or a slight dip in sales year on year. These cycles are natural in any business, and just as you will have boom times, so too will you face lean and difficult ones.

Similarly, I am also not talking about a venture still in a start-up phase – almost all business ideas and concepts take a while to get off the ground, several years in some cases, and you do need to be prepared to give the business a proper chance at success before moving on.

What I am talking about is a scenario in which you have poured time, money and energy into the business, tried different strategies, products and approaches, done the shows and expos, developed the website, ticked all the boxes and yet have not seen any return on your investment, despite your best efforts. I am talking about a business that is three or four years old, or even older, that makes no money, or worse, costs money to keep afloat.  

Would you work for free?

So how do you recognise when it is time for a change? Well, there are a number of alarm bells and red flags that usually indicate that things are not kosher. Firstly, ask yourself why you started your own business in the first place – chances are it was a combination of the freedom to be creative and be your own boss, and also the prospect of financial freedom and success.

I doubt very much it was so that you could work yourself to the bone to pay salaries to everyone – staff, suppliers, subcontractors - but not to yourself. I also doubt it was so that you could pour your life savings into the business, borrow more money and end up stressed out and deeply in debt several years down the line, with no end in sight.

If this sounds familiar, you need to ask yourself "Would I work for free for somebody else?" Of course you would not, so why are you doing it for yourself? Again, let me not create the impression that you should throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity.

Like anything of value, creating a successful business takes time and effort, and it will often be necessary to borrow money, draw very little out for yourself and make real sacrifices when getting things off the ground.

However, if you are still in that same position years down the line, something is not working and you need to be brave enough to accept this and start something fresh and new, taking the lessons learned from your existing venture and making changes and improvements where necessary.

If you find yourself in this position, it may be time for some tough questions and honest introspection. Should you soldier on, or should you close up shop and start again? Only you can answer that question, but the simple fact is that your business should be working for you, and not the other way around.

*Anton Ressel is a business strategist, social commentator and writer. He is a director of the Fetola Foundation and founder and director of ARC Consulting, a small business specialist agency that offers mentorship, support and other services to entrepreneurs and emerging businesses nationally.

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entrepreneurs  |  resources  |  small business
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