Navigating The Seven-Year Chokepoint

In running a creative firm, everything appears to change around the seven-year mark. There’s a chokepoint at about that time that requires a change in strategy to get through. Some make it and some don’t.

The seven-year chokepoint was perhaps the first pattern I spotted soon after launching Win Without Pitching in 2002 (as a consulting practice, initially). So many of my new clients had been in business for seven years that at some point in my initial conversations I would venture, “Let me guess, you started the firm seven years ago?” I was correct far greater than chance would have predicted, and that pattern has held for 15 years. Even today, my guess is that more than 25% of the firms in our training program came to us somewhere around their seventh birthday. There seems to be something about being in business for seven years that precipitates the need for help in the new business department. But let’s back up.

In The Beginning

It’s likely that you started your career as an employee, working for someone else and thinking, “If it were my firm, I would do things differently.” Then in a moment that The E-Myth author Michael Gerber refers to as an entrepreneurial spasm, you went out on your own. There’s a good chance your first client was one you took with you from your employer, or perhaps it was your old employer, who used you as an overflow valve or chose to purchase your more specialized offering instead of staffing it in-house.

Level 1: Validation

Things went well and time flew by. One client led to another and another. You added people and capabilities, making it all look easy if a little harried. New clients kept coming in. And then they didn’t. Somewhere around the seven-year mark, your network just seemed to tap out, and everything slowed right down. This spawns an introspective moment for many firm principals. Where am I? How did I get here?

If you were to look back on your seven-year journey, you would see your path leading from your starting point to where you stand now. Along the way, you would see binary switches, like railroad switches, each representing an opportunity that came your way. They’re all switched to “On,” or “Yes,” leading to where you are now.

Those opportunities were random, arising from your reach or network. Some came to you easily and some you had to hustle for, but by saying yes to all of them, you ended up in a random place dictated by those random opportunities. That’s okay because along the way you learned a lot, including the confidence that you can be successful in business. Validation. But right here, usually at about the seven-year mark, the wild randomness that was the hallmark of the first level of your business needs to be replaced. That first type of success is not coming back, nor would you want it to come back. It’s time now for level 2.

Level 2: Life-Changing Success

Beyond the chokepoint at which your business quits growing organically, the journey, if it is to continue, must be more deliberate. From here on out you must set your course to a specific destination. That requires a visioning exercise of not only where you want the business to be at a set point in the future—perhaps another seven years out—but what you want the business to be.

Positioning the firm for this journey is vital. Positioning is the word we in the creative professions use for strategy, and strategy, according to Michael Porter, the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School, is the answer to the question, “How are we going to become, and remain, unique?”

Think of the primary components of your positioning as the answers to the questions, “What will we do?” and “For whom will we do it?” While keeping Porter’s definition in mind, the answers to those questions posed today should paint a picture of a global leadership position in seven years. My personal belief is that if you’re not aiming for global leadership then what’s the point? You and your firm can be anything in seven years, so why would you aim for anything other than the very best of something? If you cannot imagine being a global leader in this new area, then you must narrow either the discipline (what you will do) or the market (for whom you will do it) until you can imagine it.

Once you have your vision of global leadership, it’s time to pursue it steadfastly. The traits or tools of the first level of success are hard work and saying yes to everything. But these admirable traits are not the tools that enable the second level of success. Worse, once hardened into habits these traits work against you, because the tools required to get to the next level are saying no, and innovation, which I define as a combination of creativity and risk.

From Yes to No

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” -Warren Buffett

Saying yes to everything ensured your survival at level 1. It put money in the bank at a time when any dollar was a good one. But now you must view every new engagement as a strategic decision that will take you one step closer to your strategic vision.

Think back to your journey. Standing in the present, turn your attention away from the starting point 180 degrees to your new destination seven years ahead of you. You will get from here to there one step at a time, with each new client representing one of those steps. So how many steps do you think it takes to get from here to that future version of your specialized global leader firm? The answer is no more than 28.

For reasons I have covered elsewhere, your new business goals should be framed around managing a healthy churn of clients at a rate of about one new one per quarter. Every three months, on average, an old client fades away and, if your new business machine is working, a new, better one comes on board. Whether you like it or not, each client will take you one step closer to, or further from, that strategic vision of a global leader. So you must choose your new clients wisely. Seven years equals 28 quarters, 28 new clients, 28 steps away from where you are now. If you were to say yes to the next 28 clients that came along, where would that get you? The answer is somewhere that looks a lot like here. But few get to stay here, at the seven-year chokepoint, for long. They either figure out the next level, or they go out of business. There are exceptions—lots of them—that stay in this purgatory for years, decades even, but nobody wants to be stuck here, past the point of validation but well short of life-changing success. The first key is discernment: saying no to engagements that do not further your vision.

You must also bring the same level of discernment to your role. What functions does it make sense for you to hold onto, and which ones should you shed? And it doesn’t stop there. This ruthlessness of delegating, cutting loose, or otherwise saying no to things and people that do not advance the firm to its strategic target of global leadership needs to become the new habit, replacing the one where you would say, with a smile on your face, “Yes, we can!” Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And increasingly, in level 2, you shouldn’t.

From Hard Work to Innovation

My wife will occasionally observe that someone “is very successful. She must work very hard.” Recalling Peter Drucker’s observation on the source of all profit, I respond like a robot, “No, she must take a lot of risks.”

That is the second shift required for level-2 success—to no longer equate success with your own hard work, but with innovation, which I define as a combination of creativity (the ability to see an opportunity) and risk (the willingness to make large bets). Don’t misread that to think you should never work hard or that working hard is not a desirable attribute. As the principal, working harder may have been the answer to the question in the first seven years of your business, but it rarely is afterward.

The hard work habit becomes ingrained, though. Boxer was the noble ploughhorse in Orwell’s Animal Farm whose solution to every problem was “I will work harder,” even when the escalating crisis increasingly called for creative problem-solving or risk. The problem with hard work is it is consuming, and creativity—the ability to see new opportunities for your firm and clients—requires waste in the form of time to think. That’s why every firm that pursues efficiencies must trade some level of innovation to do so.

Entrepreneurship Is Risk

The propensity for risk is a highly personal thing, varying from person to person, but it is the one characteristic that defines entrepreneurs. They are always making bets. The size or frequency of those bets can puzzle or even terrify non-entrepreneurs. I need a certain amount of risk to make my life on earth meaningful to me, but I notice that the entrepreneurs I admire most tend to take more risk more easily than I do. I wish I could match them, but alas, if I want to sleep at night, I cannot.

We all find the risk-reward tradeoff that’s right for us, but some of us tend to settle into too comfortable a zone, and as a result, quit growing. Your firm needs to grow its way through this chokepoint. It’s delusional to think you will do so without taking more risk.

When creative firm principals at that seven-year chokepoint consider a new positioning to take them to the next level, some of them want guarantees. “How can I be certain this (the new positioning they are considering) is the right one,” they ask? “You can’t,” is the answer. There has to be some risk in the decision. Those seeking certainty before making the shift will likely find that game-changing success will always elude them. Their challenge is to push their own capacity for risk, which brings them closer to failure as well as success.

One Level at a Time

Business is a game with hidden levels. By succeeding at one level, you get invited to play the next. The common mistake is to bring those first-level tools to the next level. Not only do they not work here, but they also work against you. Many of the habits you learned you will now have to unlearn. Accepting this inevitable obsolescence of tools is the key to obtaining all the advanced levels of success.

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