The Black Belt Entrepreneur

This weekend I completed a six year journey – and started on the next leg. Actually, there were two journeys. In December 2010, I passed my 1st Dan black belt in karate; two days ago, I achieved my 2nd Dan. In November 2010, my colleagues and I moved into our first office as a brand new startup; the past few weeks have marked a new maturity and a step-change in my business life.

The parallel journeys of the black belt and the entrepreneur over the past six years bring out six great lessons.

Have a clear goal

This is the first thing we are all told, and often we fail to do it. I admit it can be harder to set clear entrepreneurial goals than in a sport where there are very clear milestones, but for success in both you need an end point to visualise, and against which to measure your progress.

If you’re used to setting financial goals in an established business, the historic certainties for the same type of goal setting in a startup are simply not there. If you have a glowing vision of what you want to achieve on the world stage, this may not be a solid enough goal to motivate you through the challenges, or stay in focus when the path shifts. A karate grading goal is not all about the certificate, although that’s a great thing to have on the wall and marks your achievement.  It’s about mastering new skills, building confidence, honing technique, and having a very specific end in mind that you can truly visualise. This is enough to keep you focused despite frustration and setbacks along the way. Your entrepreneurial goals have to be as clear as this, and be all encompassing.  If, for instance, you want to achieve a good work/life balance, don’t leave half of this to chance: have a goal for life, as well as for work.

Be prepared to change

You will not be the same person at the end of the journey as you were at the beginning. All the skills you’ve already gathered when you reach the starting blocks make you a very competent and able person who is ready for the challenge. However, they will not be enough to take you to the end. Some changes will creep up on you as you learn your craft. Others you will implement thanks to feedback from others and your own observations on the ingredients of success. Either way, the person who reaches the goal will be a very different one to the person who set it: entrepreneur 2.0 ready for the next challenge.

The journey may be longer than you think

…. and almost always is. However hard you work, there will be external factors that conspire to slow you and push you off the straight path to success. Whether you’re derailed by illness, injury, family disasters, market changes, emerging technologies, unexpected costs, business relationships failing or new ones igniting, as long as you can still see that goal flickering in the distance you can aim for it. Very few things we aim for are truly time-critical, and much of the frustration you experience will come from a perception that you are not moving fast enough. Relax and focus on what you need to do, and deal with the distractions as they arise.

Feedback is everything

We cannot succeed in a vacuum. We all have a responsibility to accept and to give constructive feedback. In the past, there was a tendency for things like investment decisions to be shrouded in mystery, with applicants in the dark as to why they may have failed where others succeeded. The culture seems to have changed, which is a good thing. If you are simply told you are not good enough, how can you improve? It can be hard to see the precise faults in yourself, and without constructive feedback you could use all your resources to correct the wrong thing, only to fail again.

Accept feedback respectfully when it’s given: it shows that someone is paying attention to what you do, and actively wants you to succeed. Give feedback in a way that the recipient can understand and take to heart. Marginal changes make all the difference. When improvements in karate comes down to the angle of your elbow, the position of your foot, or the direction you look, you realise that the difference between progress and stagnation in business can be just as incremental – and just as vital.

Don’t judge yourself against others

So the business down the hall has more awards / bigger turnover / better investors than yours? Don’t beat yourself up as a failure. Look at what factors have allowed them to progress, and learn from good practice. There could be external influences: perhaps their product is more accessible; maybe they were lucky to hit a trend in the market. Judging yourself against someone else’s benchmark will not help you to succeed: assess yourself continually based on your own goals. Karateka are notoriously self-critical, always striving to get that perfect kick, that perfect combination. However, when I’m in a training session with 300 other black belts and realise the people to the right of me (the higher grades) include a three-time World Champion, and that there are many more people to the left (the lower grades), it gives me perspective on how far I have come on my own journey, and how much I have to be proud of.

Equally, if you’re romping ahead, have some humility. You never know the challenges that others are facing. If you find yourself a big fish in your startup pool, don’t judge the small fry as being unworthy of your attention. There is always a bigger fish – and in karate, they hurt!  Earning respect from your peers will result in genuine help and support when your journey throws up the unexpected.

Celebrate your success

Why would any of us sign up for a constant struggle? Stop and look back, see how far you have come, and celebrate your success. The journey never ends, but it’s worth admiring the view as you climb. If you’re ready for the challenge, you are a black belt entrepreneur.