The Entrepreneur’s Journey – Let your WHY be your Guiding Light

by | May 1, 2019 | Essentials of Entrepreneurship-Led Economic Development, Our Stories

“Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” – Tyrion Lannister, Game Of Thrones

Written by David Ponraj, Founder & CEO, Economic Impact Catalyst

My startup journey came full circle today. I was back at the same building where 7 years ago. I walked out thinking that I had made it, only for it to come crashing down as a big failure a couple years later.

As an entrepreneur, keeping your why in the center of your journey and repeating it often can serve as a guiding light through the dark days of the valley of death that every entrepreneur has to go through to get to the promised land.

In fact, I use it in two specific areas of my business. The first, to remind me of why I am in the game in spite of the pain. And second, to tell my customers why they should care about my business.

I will start with the second. We are social creatures, we get excited when we hear of successes, we root for the underdog, we want to help, and we just love a good story. One that has a villain, a hero, one where an everyday Joe does the impossible, and even more; we want in on the story, we want to be part of legacy.

Yet when entrepreneurs tell their story, which has every ingredient mentioned above, they leave out the good stuff. They talk about the product, and its features, and why its unique, and blah blah blah… We dehumanize the human. We take the fun, the sorrow, the shame and the victory out of our businesses, we make it about dollars, cents and clever ideas.

Here is something that I do in all my initial sales calls and company presentations. I take 80% of my presentation and talk about my journey. I talk about the realities that I have faced in my entrepreneurial journey. I talk about my failed company, I talk about wanting to change the world; only to go broke trying to do it, and I talk about my dreams. In short, I make myself vulnerable to the audience’s judgement. I leave myself exposed and open to criticism of not being good enough.

And this is what happens next every time. Instead of basking in my failure with a holier than thou attitude, the exact opposite happens. My audience rallies together and sees their own stories in mine. It takes them back to their own journeys and the challenges they had when they started out as entrepreneurs. They start rooting for me. They slide up to the edge of their chairs and hang onto my every word for that redemption, our collective redemption.

So when I then talk about my new venture in that last couple of minutes, they have connected with my narrative; they are now part of my company and they want us to collectively succeed. I might still fail someday down the road, but not today; for today, we stand together in that room as brothers in the same battle. Here is the most important part…what the battle is, and how the battle will be fought does not matter, because we now have a collective WHY that we stand together on.

Going back to point one, today, I was at Chicago’s famous Merchandise Mart, one of the biggest expo centers in the world. Seven years ago, I had walked out of this same building having booked $40K worth of orders in a single show, 10X the investment and on top of the world. The company folded two years later and we were never profitable in the 5 years we were open. The stigma from the failure was unbearable, I had let everyone down. There were so many people rooting for my success and I had failed all of them.

Today, those experiences are my WHY, I use them to motivate me everyday. They taught me so many lessons, they showed me my weaknesses and they left me with several battle scars. Today, in my new venture, I wear them with pride. I talk about them endlessly, lest I forget, lest I slip into a moment of carelessness and make those same mistakes again. And I tell everyone about it, so people can learn from my mistakes and avoid them if possible. You can find out more about our work here.

In closing, I leave you with a few lines from my favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling, to help smooth out the highs and lows, and leave you with enough of a straight line to keep up the good fight.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;  

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,  

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! – Rudyard Kipling, IF