​Do what you're going to do; and with humor be aware that you might as well be doing the opposite. - R.K. Welsh

I don’t think that many of us who run our own businesses started with a solid plan. Sure, there was probably a plan, at least vaguely, but it was often more on the Underpants Gnomes end of the spectrum than we’d like to admit.

And yet, and yet. Here so many of us are – years and decades later – still running those businesses, and able to pay our bills and employees and health insurance premiums. Whatever we did, it worked out.

Finding your lucky shirt

The uniform for my high school track team didn’t change often, so everyone noticed when my friend Adam showed up for practice wearing one of the 1970’s-era shirts he’d found in a back storeroom. He ran a personal best that day, and it became his lucky shirt. He wore it to every meet for 2 years, and gave credit for his speed and skill to to this garish yellow poly-blend shirt.

You know this story, of course – Adam was a good athlete because he practiced, worked hard, and had a body that really loved running. Wearing the shirt gave him confidence, like Dumbo’s magic feather, but it wasn’t ever the lynchpin for his success.

Stumbling into success

In the first few years of running our business, every opportunity and success felt like the proverbial butterfly-created hurricane. If I hadn’t asked that one question during a sales call, or happened to read this relevant article just before writing a bit of code, or chatted with that person on Twitter who referred us a client, we’d be sleeping destitute in a barn somewhere, milking goats for a living. Everything only just barely worked out, and every piece of the puzzle was a crucial one.

The consequence of starting without a plan – but having things work out anyway – is that we deify many of our decisions as being critical to good outcomes:

  • “It’s so important to have in-person kickoff meetings.”
  • “Support contracts are the key to steady income.”
  • “You have to speak at conferences.”
  • “Daily stand-ups are mandatory.”
  • “Real designers write code.”

None of these things are true. They are not absolute, or universal. They are also not wrong; they are true, and truly important, for the person who believes them.

They are lucky shirts. Garish yellow, poly-blend, sacred.

Business algebra

We act as if there’s a formula to success, and our own rules and edicts are the secret ingredients. We want there to be a formula, because it’s terrifying to admit that we have no idea if we could pull it off again.

The problem with our edicts is not that they exist, but that we present them to others as The One True Path, even though the most important part of my business development may be irrelevant to your work, and your never-fail approach to client management may be a disaster for my team.

Our experiences and lessons still have great value and are worth sharing, but we have to stop presenting them as law. Instead, we need to practice saying these words:

Here’s what worked for me.

If you are just starting, know that you will be confronted with plenty of business rules and pseudo-formulas. It’s easy to stall out before you even begin, anxious about your inability (or lack of desire) to measure up to them.

Practice saying these words:

That’s an interesting option.

That’s all they are. Every lesson presents a choice, not a mandate, and if the rules don’t match your needs – you want to live on a ranch and never have an in-person meeting, or you’re a graphic designer who finds no joy in learning CSS, or you hate public speaking, or you love public speaking – you can make it work.

Surprise ending: be nice to each other

We have a tendency to view disagreement as judgment: if she doesn’t follow my lead in switching to value-based pricing, or building a Yeoman-dependent development process, she’s saying that my choice to do so was foolish and dumb and I should go live in a cave. Well, no. She’s not saying that. It’s not a zero-sum game.

In this, as in so many other things, we would do well to be gentler with ourselves and others. Her choices are not an inherent judgment of mine, and my choices are not always, or ever, a good match for her needs. Our journeys are our own, and the key to each person’s success does not – cannot – lie on someone else’s path.