Falling down and getting up – again and again

Most of the time we have to take what life throws at us and find a way to make it work, because a lot of things are hard to control. Ideally, we will believe in ourselves and discover that we’ve been successful.

Falling down and getting up – again and again by Nancy Knowlton

When Dave and I started SMART Technologies, one of the first things that we did was start a search for money. We spent time creating a business plan that covered the usual points and carefully tweaked our messages with input from friends and advisors. Then we began the process of engaging with a variety of potential funders. With some, the process was mercifully brief – one meeting with a pronouncement that we didn’t fit within their sweet spot or our plan was not compelling. Those were the kindest rejections.

Taking no for an answer

In other cases we met multiple times and prepared many responses and had our hopes and expectations raised and lowered. With some, the possibility of a funding round was tantalizingly close if we wanted to move lock, stock and barrel to Silicon Valley or give up total control of the company. Each of the 43 rejections served a purpose and allowed time to pass while we built the core elements of the company and we allowed the market to catch up to our concept.

Attitude of resilience

With each rejection we had to make a conscious decision to carry on, to keep trying. It was during this time that we developed an attitude of resilience. Or maybe it was during the time that we became aware that we were resilient. (An older article in Psychology Today entitled “The Art of Resilience” is a good baseline read on this subject.) Whichever it was, we focused on the small victories – the sales to new customers, the positive comments from customers, the indications from prospects that they would buy if they could find the money. We learned from the negatives – you don’t have this feature, your product costs too much – and put them in proper perspective. We saw that the glass was half-full even as people tried to get us to see that it was half empty.

Business woes

Starting a business is not easy, and that certainly was true for us. We were ahead of the market need. There was little nascent desire for our product that we could rush to fill. It felt like we had to develop a need and tell the early customers, one at a time, what it was that we had available. Bit by bit the product took hold. Then after 13 years our revenue curve started on a steep upward trajectory.

Success at last

People called us an overnight success because we seemed to come out of nowhere. Like the child who thinks that the parents have had no life, no history, prior to his awareness of them, many thought that they could get in on the ground floor at SMART. Little did they appreciate that our rocket ship had been on a slow lift off for many years.

Finding a way to get through early setbacks in business is trivial compared to what many must get through in life, but get through it they must. We can be annoyed and cynical with advice along the lines of “when life serves you lemons, make lemonade,” but honestly, dealing with your situation is all that you can do.

Eye of the beholder

Building your own resilience and that of family and friends is one of the keys to life. If I am truthful and really take a tally, more things haven’t worked out for me than have worked out. I have lost many basketball games. I haven’t gotten jobs and roles that I wanted. I have been rejected in financing efforts. In the early days, I was rejected by prospect after prospect. But I think of myself as a winner, someone working toward success.

We are all on a journey of unknown triumphs, tribulations and duration. All we can do is make our best effort every day, adjusting and pivoting to improve our chances for success in whatever endeavor we tackle. We aren’t often in control of our circumstances, but what we can control is our reaction to them.

Rose-colored glasses? Maybe, but all I know is I have to accept the hand that I am dealt, hard as it may be, then creatively work through the challenges and find meaning and enjoyment along the way. It’s a strategy that works for me.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.