A few weeks ago, Northwind Pharmaceuticals turned 15 years old. There were no ticker tape parades, no tv interviews, no speeches, and no magazine covers. The sun rose in the morning and set in the evening. Our team showed up, did their work, and went home, leaving the world better than they found it. Just as they did the day before and the day after. All exactly as it should be.
Though there is more than a book’s worth of words that could be shared on the Northwind adventure over the last 15 years, this post will mark the milestone with a few concise observations on the journey to this point. The story is still unfolding and may yet be worthy of deeper exploration.
May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor
Forgive the use of statistics, but they serve as a good reference point as we map this journey. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years. Only 25% of new businesses make it to 15 years or more. Another interesting statistic is that fewer than 5% of all businesses in the U.S. grow to $1 million in revenue and fewer than 1% make it to the $10 million revenue mark.
Apparently, the odds are not in our favor. The U.S. Census Bureau says that over 5 million businesses were started last year. By 2037, 3.7 million of them will no longer exist. And yet, the dream of owning a business continues to draw millions despite the statistics. Building a business remains a cornerstone of the American Dream and our ethos as builders and visionaries. I dreamed that dream for many years and it still captures my imagination.
Dancing, Art, and the Universe
“Wow, fifteen years is a lifetime,” I mused out loud. “How would you summarize your experience of our journey as business builders?” Sally paused and considered the out-of-the-blue, wildly open-ended question. “I’ve been surprised by how non-linear it’s been,” she replied after some time. “In the beginning, I expected it to be more planned and structured, while it has actually been more like a dance – fluid, evolving, reacting, surprising.” What a great metaphor: a dance. My suspicion is that one watching from the outside would likely see more break-dance than waltz in the herky jerky movements of our business evolution.
A few minutes later, she added, “I like the art of it. There is certainly some science, but it has been a lot like creating a painting. We started with an outline, a sketch, and over time, we’ve added layers of color, shape, and structure. There was a bit of structure created by outside forces – regulatory etc, but also a lot of white space. As the picture came together, things changed and it had to be reworked. There is no taking layers off, the rework had to happen in the next layer. Never going back, only forward. Never perfect, but always an emerging vision.”
Art and dancing. Moves and counter-moves. Collections of points that often looked more like constellations than destinations on a map. We’ve been living in an evolving galaxy of stars shifting in a broader universe acting around and upon our little solar system. Of course, such descriptions of art, dancing, and constellations are far easier to muster when the stars seem steady in the night sky than when they are experiencing the explosive uncertainty. We can see it all much more easily in the rear view mirror.
Business, Stones, and Rivers
We may be tempted to see the entrepreneurial journey in terms of the “business” of it. The decisions, hires, financial moves, products, sales, competition, pricing, compliance, and myriad other things that comprise the world of business. We could break it all down in results and what-ifs, analyzing each particular component to trace the path to this point. There might even be an interesting case study which we could compare to other businesses that survived or didn’t survive. Perhaps we might find some “why’s” in our analysis.
Those are the stones across the river. The points along the journey where the moves and counter moves took us past the raging rivers threatening to sweep it all away. Each successful jump onto the next stone affirming a “right” decision or lucky break. Sometimes, the next leap needing to be to a stone that we weren’t quite sure was there in the midst of the rushing waters – a leap of faith. With perspective, some themes emerge:
- Humility – it is not about you. It is not due to you. It is not yours.
- Faith – believing it is going to be ok, no matter what. There is purpose to the suffering, and to the success.
- Endurance – ability to take the hits, to live with the seasons of dryness and remain faithful.
- Persistence – the will to keep going. to keep showing up in the joyless moments.
- Hope – there are always options. There is still great possibility.
- Courage – to persist in it all even when it all looks incredibly frightening or hopeless.
Curiously, intelligence, cleverness, boldness, financial acumen, or even experience didn’t make this list. When it comes to crossing the river, those are just the ante to the game. Strength and skill will ultimately fail us without the deeper gifts above necessary to carry us across.
A Love Story
For me, the essence of the Northwind story over the last 15 years is actually a love story. More specifically, three love stories. My best business decisions have been choices of love and commitments to love. My greatest discovery has been learning to love…and realizing how far I am from mastering it.
The greatest single business decision I have ever made was to marry Sally Michele Watson. Sure, I can claim her as my “muse,” inspiring me to leaps of creativity and insights which would normally elude me. Yes, she has been faithful, supportive, caring, loving, devoted, and ever-present. Certainly, her successful career as a nurse made the early days of building our business possible as she worked nights and week-ends to support all of us as mom, wife, and provider. Of course she has provided input on major decisions, anticipated high risk situations, and been present in the good times and the bad. Sure, she has believed, cheered, commiserated, co-conspired, co-piloted, and co-parented throughout this crazy journey.
These have all been absolutely critical to our Northwind journey but it has been her guidance and accompaniment on my journey of Faith that has been the biggest game changer. This brings me to the second love story. Sally has helped me fall in love with Jesus Christ. I’ve always believed in God and followed his son, Jesus. But learning to love Him and opening myself to His Holy Spirit, and His Mercy for my failings, has changed everything. What does this have to do with building a business? For me, everything. With the right center, everything else falls into place, even when it falls apart. With rightly ordered desires, ambitions, hopes, and dreams, the pitfalls of their disordered versions become more visible and avoidable. By seeing the hand of God in the purpose and people of Northwind, everything begins to make sense – even the struggles.
This brings me to the third love story and the only practical advice I will share in this post. The Northwind journey has been a marathon built on sprints. It has been an endless collection of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, war and peace, struggle and steadiness, steps forward and steps backward. Along the way, I have encountered betrayal, lies, anger, frustration, disappointment as well as tremendous joy, satisfaction, and gratitude. Throughout it all, I have had to fall in love with Northwind again and again and again.
I have learned to see it all again for the first time and find the awe and wonder within its mission, its products, its people, its possibilities, and in all of those who count on it. Seeing the new in the old and the beauty in the familiar has brought me to love it all again and again and again. Seeing this, I realize that Northwind is only a vessel, a container; however, its contents are precious and it brings that preciousness to the world in its own small way. Falling in love with this mission field over and over again has been a 15 year journey of discovery and gratification.
The Story Goes On
Today, the story goes on. New opportunities. New struggles. New announcements. New people. And the familiar remains. The many friends, clients, partners, team members, and communities that have accompanied us remain part of our story as we are part of theirs. The mission to make a difference also remains as our passion to be good stewards, show up, and leave it all better than we found it drives daily choices. We’ll keep following the signs and looking to be the best version we can be. Northwind remains a mission born of love. We do not know what the next 15 years will bring but we do know there will be lots of love, discovery, and goodness. And that’s enough.