A case study by Peter Sergeant
Here is a snapshot of my entrepreneur’s drought experience, from a ‘real job’, successful business to devastation and back to reality. I now believe entrepreneurs are born, not made, even though many can have some of the characteristics. Drought certainly brings out those characteristics.
Everyone will make mistakes and have failures; the important thing is to be able to learn from them and keep moving forward beyond the devastation. Life is too short to let drought beat you, or even dampen your enthusiasm for the future.
Life’s good when you’re young
Being raised on a farm ‘never did me any harm’. It was an enjoyable, carefree part of my life. I used to love working with machinery along with the sheep and cattle, even through droughts and flooding rains.
I went to Hawkesbury Agricultural College for three years to study agriculture, and what a significant part of my life it was. Learning about agriculture means learning about life. It was now more than 50 years ago, and I still use information I learned all those years ago, and we still enjoy our reunions every two years.
My first big blow from
When I left college, I joined an agricultural water supply company and enjoyed four years travelling in NSW, Queensland and Victoria designing and selling irrigation systems to farmers. I retained the interest in agriculture.
Within four years of working for someone else, my entrepreneurial spirit started to kick in. In those early days, I had no idea what an entrepreneur was; I had never even heard of the word. On reflection, I was an entrepreneur. I was 23 and wanted to start my own business and about to be married, I wanted to take act and get on with life.
My wife used to say I was different from most other people, but neither of us understood why. Many people yearn for the freedom and fun associated with owning their own business. Few decide to do so, and even fewer make their business live up to their dreams and expectations.
The crash to reality
Your current situation doesn’t determine where you can go, it merely determines where you start your journey. Yes, it can genuinely be an enriching experience, but make sure you do it for the right reasons and go about it in the right way.
It wasn’t until after my first business crashed in the early 1980s drought when I met a professor who studied entrepreneurship. He labelled me as ‘the classic entrepreneur’. I was 38 at the time, and can’t help thinking back about what else I would have done to survive the drought had I known I was a true entrepreneur.
Often, not even your family and close friends will appreciate your courageousness to start a business, particularly something as capital intensive as a farm machinery business. Many people, will think you’re an idiot for not having a ‘real job’.
For the first ten years in my business, people used to say I would fail, then fifteen years on no one would believe it.
I always believed most advances in business and individual achievements, were made by people who would not accept you couldn’t do anything if they put your mind to it. Yes, I was about to be sorely tested as I had to put my life on a new path to the future.
I was always prepared to act if a slowdown was on the horizon. We knew how to cut and trim the business when we had to, through economic downturns, droughts and intensely competitive activity.
While I have always been a positive, optimistic person, I have never been afraid to make the tough decisions when I had to. While patience is sometimes necessary, wishing and hoping is never an option.
In 1977, the worst drought in over 100 years started in central and western NSW, which was the epicentre, and so was our business.
You must learn to manage stressful situations
The stress and pressure grew, and by 1980 being in business was no longer fun; farmers had begun to curtail their activities and had stopped spending. The machinery and farm supply businesses are the first affected during any drought, and the farmers were not even buying spare parts or services. They just sat to wait it out.
I felt I was ‘owned’ by the business and was working for everyone else. My vision had turned into my worst nightmare. I missed my family, I lost my freedom, I became exhausted, and I longed for a holiday. It was beyond my control, far worse than anything I had experienced previously.
After all those years in the machinery business and growing up on the farm, I was never prepared for the severity of this drought. As I have come to learn there will be many bridges to cross which you have never experienced before. The issue becomes how well will you deal with it.
No amount of reading or advice can adequately prepare you for the devastating impact of a significant drought. You will be hit countless times, from every direction imaginable. Keep at it, prepare as best you can and learn from your own, and other people’s mistakes.
Shifting gears to get to the future
One of the hardest things is to define your meaning of success in life and business and not to be distracted by other people’s definitions. You need to overcome any social conditioning which has influenced or inhibited your thinking about starting your business.
Every successful business, no matter how big they are today, started small and local. It’s up to you, the founder, to keep shifting gears to carry your business through the ups and downs. You have to keep believing in yourself, even when no one else does.
When you shift gears know the reasons
If the reason you are starting a new business is to make a lot of money? Or could it be to spend more time with your family, or not to have anyone else to answer to, then think again? These might be great aspirations, but they will not necessarily make for success.
You never do anything worthwhile by accident or luck, including starting and building a new and perhaps different business. There will always be problems to overcome, requiring commitment, passion, planning and hard work. You eventually reach a point when you need to start your business becomes more significant than the fear of failure, and you take action.
Most people don’t have the discipline, and resilience, to make the breakthroughs to new and better opportunities. It is especially true in this day and age when people believe all they need to have is a website, do some social media and the world will open up to them.
The new global environment
Business in the global economy is a ‘civilised’ version of war. Companies, not countries, are battlefield rivals as they have entered the era of global competition.
No matter what your industry, company, or nationality, there is a battle-ready competitor out there thinking about how to beat you and has likely begun to gather information about your best customers. There are no safe havens in an entrepreneur’s drought.
Unfortunately, despite the talk about new paradigms, re-engineering, technology advances and new learning, most business owners and managers are still only equipped to fight the last war.
Strategies, business structures, management systems and training programs are usually geared up for the competitive battlefield of yesterday.
The rules of engagement have changed with the cloud, social media, the internet of things, mobility and the avalanche of big data available today.
Keep in mind; it is always preferable to be shifting gears before a drought or another disaster, rather than trying to do it after it is impacting you.
Creating new opportunities after a drought
I have seen it and often read about how successful people and businesses have suddenly failed. When conditions change, it is often the most successful people and organisations which are the slowest to adapt to the changes and challenges around them. Even though I had been through drought before, I was still ill-equipped to handle the ‘big one’.
The fresh thinking, creativity and leadership which led people to their initial success, are often replaced by a rigid devotion to the status quo; they refuse to change things which have worked well for them in the past. You can become ill-equipped to handle situations beyond your current knowledge and control.
Be careful what you fall in love with
Never fall in love with your product or service, no matter how good they are today. Instead, fall in love with your customers. Your first business is likely not to be the only, or the last, one. Keep serving your customers, and you’ll be fine, no matter what you finish up doing.
In my case, farm machinery was in my blood. However, as I learned the hard way during a drought, farm machinery is the last thing farmers want and need.
Farmers and others want service and support in so many other areas, and if you support them, when they start buying again when the drought is over, they will remember you. It is even harder to get noticed as people are getting busier. As a result, they tend to turn off all interruptions from marketers, to protect their sanity.
My advice to you would be to understand whether you are an entrepreneur, and if you are, what it means. Just because you start a business doesn’t mean you are an entrepreneur. If you aren’t, then find an entrepreneurial advisor or mentor to help you make whatever adjustments you need to make.
The one thing to keep in mind is you can’t do much without ‘running money’. You must pay yourself first.
Life’s also good when you get old.
Yes, you have ‘been there and done that.’ You are at peace with yourself and what you are doing with your life in your later years. The main thing is to keep your mind working and remain active. As an entrepreneur, you have learned to ‘join the dots’ and solve problems, so keep it up.
Do you ever wonder what you could have done differently, had you known and understood what an entrepreneur is and does? Hopefully, you want to do work which is meaningful, profitable and makes a difference in other people’s lives.
Never expect things to stay the same.
Your competitors will be watching you, and the more static you are, the more opportunities you will open up for them to steal business from you. So as you become older be careful to change the pace, there is no room for complacency.
You will find, as I did, there will be times when things become stale. You may even be bored with the business as you wait for your new strategies to work.
Instead of hanging around annoying everyone, get involved with one of your industry bodies or a local charity which need some help. Yes, you will find it rewarding, and it will give you a new outlook on your business and your life. You can only play golf so many days a week.
You can’t change your genetics. But you can change your attitude, your environment, the people you listen to and the things you do. J
What will your disaster look like, and when will it arrive? Take time today to start preparing your business risk management plan. Follow the old Boy Scout motto, “be prepared” and avoid relying entirely on your own understanding.
“Communities and their businesses thrive when people think entrepreneurially”. Peter Sergeant
“Entrepreneurship is not about just finding solutions to problems; it’s more about making things happen”. Peter Sergeant