Upon the deep ocean bed of hopes and dreams lies shipwrecks of projects past. Submerged beneath expertise, experience, mistakes and dashed expectations, these shipwrecks pose a real danger to the business owner ill-equipped to navigate around them.

So how do we decide when it’s wise to quit a project, when we need to re-orientate our chart, or when it’s the project itself that needs rework?

Defining failure and success

Having spoken with hundreds of business owners about their businesses, it’s apparent that there’s scant objectivity in ‘success’ or ‘failure’. Each owner views things differently. What I see as a successful business is oftentimes seen as a great failure by its owner, who perhaps bemoans their lack of automation, their long hours at the grindstone, or their plateauing profits.

Other projects I may view as a failure, while the owner is ecstatic about having the bravery and initiative to try something new, engage more deeply with their community, or having the opportunity for creative collaboration with other owners.

When seeking to assess a project (ideally before it commences), it’s smart to specifically define what success or failure is, and turn ‘soft’ objectives (such as “collaborate with other business owners”) into specifics (“collaborate with five specific business owners”).

How many? How much? By when? Remember, specifics are crucial in goal setting, so challenge yourself to shape your expectations into numbers and timelines.

Quitting too soon

Too often, I see business owners quitting a project – perhaps a new event or package – before they’ve done even a brief examination of the causes of its perceived failure. Most of the time, with a little digging, it’s not necessarily a fault with the new project but a fault with the marketing.

I’ve seen some business owners so enamoured by their idea that they neglect marketing entirely, believing that the thing will “sell itself” by its self-evident virtues. Especially when you’re launching something new or something that challenges people’s expectations, marketing is imperative – and more of it than you may appreciate.

Before you declare something a failure, first run a survey asking your community if they’ve heard about your new project, what they know about your new project and whether or not they’d consider buying it. Chances are, they’ll tell you they haven’t heard about it, know little about it and aren’t sure if they’d buy it because they’re unclear on its benefits and how they apply to their lives.

Our ability to communicate the value of our offerings is our responsibility as business owners. We can’t assume that people will miraculously ‘get it’, especially if we’re seeking to scale our businesses and attract new clients online. Remember, selling to wants is far easier than selling to needs. You can deliver people what you believe they need, but not if you can’t sell to them in the first place.

The necessity of iteration

Every time I run a course or workshop, I want to do it again. Let me rephrase: the first time I run any course or workshop will be the worst version of it, making me immediately impatient to run it again to work out the kinks, revise the materials, practice my jokes and do a better job.

Iteration is the difference between the creative person acting whimsically, and the professional honing their craft. Iteration takes your services and transforms them into business assets that you can leverage over again, getting better and better with each go.

Give something at least three goes before you decide it’s a failure. Remember, you can always reschedule your event – time is a luxury in marketing.

Insights from feedback

Of course, not all feedback will be stellar. I never treat overwhelmingly positive feedback seriously – a little bit of criticism goes a long way in improving your offerings. And even overly critical feedback that’s 95 per cent irrelevant may still contain a clue as to how you may change things for the better.

I felt quite guttered after sitting next to one of my students at a conference several years ago. She’d attended one of my first face-to-face digital marketing courses and I asked her how she’d found it. Her lukewarm response felt like a punch in the stomach, but although I believed her criticism to be somewhat unwarranted, I took the essence of it onboard and changed up the way I offered my training courses.

The key to gaining valuable feedback is first, to ask better questions and second, to know what to pay close attention to, what to disregard entirely, and what to take the essence of, while disregarding the majority. This comes down to confidence (which relates to experience) as well as knowing who your ideal clients are – and who they’re not.

Beware of sunk costs

Finally, as navigators of wild seas in business, we sometimes need to heed the warning signs of a shipwreck ahead, and quit.

The problem with warning signs though, is they require someone to take notice. And one of the biggest threats to not recognising the signs is sunk costs. I’m not talking sailing analogies any more. Indulge me for a moment while I explain the concept of ‘sunk costs’.

A sunk cost is a business cost that’s irredeemable. It’s spent and gone forever. And – similar to the saying “throwing good money after bad” – a sunk cost can keep us in denial about calling it quits.

We’ve spent money on a project. We had high hopes that were dashed. We’re emotionally invested. So we stoically dig in our heels because we’re fixated on our sunk costs and the cost to our ego.

My most salient experience of this was when I rebranded from Yoga Reach. I’d invested significant cost and effort over seven years in my business Yoga Reach. I’d spoken at Vivid Sydney festival, twice at the Yoga Australia conference, and many other events, as Brook McCarthy from Yoga Reach. This would now be (almost) null and void.

Deciding to call it quits is never easy. It’s hurts our pride and ego. Oftentimes, it goes against our socialisation, from when we were children, to commit and finish things (particularly for us Geminis, who have a terrible reputation for this).

But deciding when it’s necessary to quit comes with the territory of being in business. It’s not easy. But sometimes it’s necessary. And it makes space for better things ahead.

In summary

  • You must define failure and success as specifically as possible
    Otherwise, how will you know what you’re looking at?
  • Don’t quit before you’ve done a thorough analysis
    It’s normally a problem with your marketing, not a problem with your project.
  • Iteration is essential
    Each iteration improves your project and heightens your visibility and marketing.
  • Feedback is crucial
    Ask better questions and learn how to discriminate your feedback.
  • Sunk costs can deceive you
    Nobody likes to waste money. But the past is behind you, as are sunk costs.