Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.  —Izaak Walton

T his month, we celebrate the 10 Year Anniversary of the founding of Northwind Pharmaceuticals. Like so many things in life, these last 10 years have gone quickly but not always smoothly. There is something magical about the 10th Anniversary so I thought I’d take a stab at identifying some relevant lessons learned and share them.

First of all, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 70% of businesses fail before reaching their 10th anniversary – I’m glad I didn’t ask in March 2008! When we started down this path, we had one employee, a few customers, and a lot of energy. The rest, we had to figure out. Here are a few of those discoveries:

  1. Cash is King. This adage has been more true than I would have every imagined. Much of my time over the years has been devoted to managing cash flow. That remains true today. I’m fairly certain that poor cash management is the single biggest reason for business failure in the first 10 years. There is always a tension between what you invoice and collect from your customers and what you owe your vendors – how you manage it will determine your ability to continue.
  2. You can’t do it all yourself. I have been very fortunate to have had some very capable and very loyal employees over the years. I learned early-on where I was effective and where I added little value. Trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout, frustration, and limited growth.
  3. No one cares. Ok, that is a little harsh. People do care but only to a point. Banks, suppliers, customers, and government agencies do not care about the difficulties. If you can’t pay your bills, meet regulatory expectations, get people to show up, make sure products are shipped, secure the right equipment, and on and on and on, they will shut you down. The expression “it’s just business” is not a friendly one and is the ultimate rationale for harsh treatment. Most people anticipate that you will probably fail (some may even hope for it) and your business partners will go to great lengths to protect themselves from your potential failure. Your ability to put the right team together and weather external ambivalence is critical for survival.
  4. Your spouse is critical. Perhaps this should be number one on the list. Whether or not your spouse works in the business, he/she is critical to its survival. First of all, one of the greatest determiners of your company’s success is you: your attitude, your energy, your creativity, etc. A healthy relationship at home is the key factor in your fitness for building a company. Without that support, you will feel isolated beyond imagination. Secondly, you will make decisions in your company that affect your spouse and your life at home. Your personal and business financial situation will be closely tied together and you will often need to leverage your personal finances to support your business. Your spouse needs to understand the risks, be involved in the decisions, and support you. Any other approach is a recipe for disaster. For me, Sally has been my business partner, sounding board, and biggest advocate from the very beginning – a true blessing.
  5. You will stumble. No matter how you prepare, how talented you are, or how perfect your product and timing are, you will fall down. You will make mistakes. Sometimes, you will make really big mistakes. Sometimes external forces will act upon you: customers, suppliers, markets, government, etc.  All you can do is your best. The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect and sometimes showing up is enough. Keep showing up. Keep working at it. Expect the bumps and expect to find your way through.
  6. It’s not all about you. When building a business, it is easy to become inwardly focused. I want. I need. When in survival mode, it is easy to forget about others and the things that sit outside of your immediate priorities. I’ve always found that the more I gave of myself and whatever was available, the more was returned to us in broad and unexpected ways. Whenever I became self-absorbed with my dreams or challenges, everything became more difficult. Find ways to help others, especially when you’re struggling. The shift in perspective can be quite profound.
  7. Celebrate often. I have always struggled with this. At every milestone, I checked the box and looked onward to the next objective. It took me years to figure out that every win needs to be celebrated. We are all human. We all want to win. We all need to acknowledgment. When you constantly look to the next milestone, you miss the moment at this one. Celebrations don’t have to be grand but you owe it to yourself and your team to pause and take a moment to smile, raise a glass, or give a cheer when good things happen.
  8. Get away, often. I was fortunate early-on to suffer from poor office stamina. My normal bio rhythm runs from about 5am to 3pm and then I start to fade. I recognized when I was most effective and when I needed to redirect myself. I don’t really know how many “hours” I work during a week because it blends pretty seamlessly with my life. I do know that I am rarely in the office for more than 40 hours in a given week. I don’t hesitate to get away. I don’t hesitate to take a vacation. I rarely unplug completely because I’m not so immersed constantly that it consumes me. My work integrates with my life and I rarely feel depleted by it. As an owner, you are doing yourself and your team a disservice if you feel that you’ve got to be in the office 50+ hours a week. It wears you down and makes you a back stop for those smart people working for you. Get away, often.
  9. Embrace discomfort when hiring. The people you hire will determine your success. I was very slow to learn that I needed to hire outside of my comfort zone. I almost always hired later than I should and frequently didn’t hire because I felt that we couldn’t afford a new employee. Of course, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in hiring and it goes without saying that hiring the right people is critical. However, I’ve found that the right people make things easier, growth happen quicker, and my life far more enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to hire that superstar before you think you can afford him or her, it could make all the difference.
  10. Success is staying in the game. In a game with plenty of opportunities for failure (7 out of 10 apparently!) simply surviving is a major accomplishment. My attitude toward success has shifted over the years and I’ve found that being able to work with a great team, pursue exciting possibilities, make a difference in my community, spend time with those I love, and enjoy the work I do  are my greatest measures of success. In this context, survival is profound because it means I get to keep doing the things I love.

There are many, many other lessons but 10 seems sufficient for a celebratory blog post. I feel very fortunate that we are celebrating this milestone and I pray for the chance to celebrate many more.  I am profoundly thankful for the entire Northwind Family and look forward to the next 10 years!