The Secret to Business Success: No Back-Up Plan
Happy 21st birthday, Eclipse Communications! Today, 13 March, Eclipse finally became legal. I admit all the years of borrowing IDs and sneaking into pubs has been tough, but we’re over that now.
I founded Eclipse six months after my own birthday, so we’re astrologically challenged. I’m a down-to-earth Virgo, Eclipse is a dreamy Pisces, named after the total solar eclipse I saw in Kona in 1991. But maybe that’s why the business works.
I’d like to say that when I launched Eclipse, I had a solid plan and steadily climbed the ladder of success. But most of you know me better than that. We broke a lot of the rules that the local SBA would have shared if we’d spent more time there.
I’m not advocating rule-breaking—anyone who mucks too much with grammar or punctuation knows that—but sometimes the rules get in your way. So here’s Eclipse’s spin on some rules for starting a business.
1. You must develop short- and long-term plans--or evolve.
I can’t imagine what tool short of a crystal ball would have let me predict how I earn my living today. Remember, Eclipse launched in 1992. Even if I’d heard of the Internet, I’m sure I couldn’t have grasped what a commanding role it would play in my life. If you told me I worked with clients around the globe writing digital content—and now social content—including blogs and autoresponders and Tweets, I would have needed a translator.
At the rate technology evolves and business as usual changes, any plan for Eclipse would have required contingencies for a long list of who-knows-what. Being a company of one, I’ve always been nimble and quick (although candlestick jumping isn’t really in my repertoire).
Survival of the fittest today may mean the ability to adapt the fastest as the world turns. Sure it helps to have a general idea what you’re going to provide and to whom when you start your company, but flexibility may be even better. I think Darwin would be proud of how Eclipse evolves in response to whatever’s next.
2. You must have six months of living expenses in the bank--or sound financial sense.
Not having a plan when we started meant Eclipse didn’t have clients either. Nor did I have the recommended six months of living expenses tucked safely away in case stormy weather hit.
What I did have was a frugal lifestyle. My rent was $200 a month, including utilities. My car was 10 years old. My first computer was purchased by reselling a diamond ring from a failed engagement. (Don’t ask.)
My office was an extra room in the home I lived in, painted a dusty blue with white trim. I look up and see those same colors in a much different office today. More significantly, I’m sitting at the same computer desk I sat at two decades ago.
I don’t know if I can still call myself frugal, but I do believe in getting great value for my hard-earned money. I realized years ago that solid credit is as good as money in the bank, especially if you can buy what you need over time at 0% interest. I still look for the best deals on Internet and phone service. And I generally wait until the early adopters have added new technology; I ride the second wave.
Sure, if you have to support a family, you may not want to launch a new business on a wing and a prayer. But if you’re willing to sacrifice initially to make the dream of business ownership come true, you can keep expenses low until revenues exceed them. And living on Ramen makes for a better story when you do succeed.
3. You must choose a location--or a lifestyle.
I spent a lot of time waterskiing during my first year at Eclipse. That didn’t bring in a lot of $$$$. So my second year I worked part-time.
And in 1994, at the start of my third year, I found two solid clients. First came CIESIN, the non-profit that introduced me to the Internet. That was like being introduced to my own brain, not so much in quantity of information but in the randomness of linkages. I also signed a contract with General Motors Research that would last 11 years. Bye-bye part-time job …
Both companies had offices about 1 ½ hours drive from mine. And though I liked seeing my colleagues there, I showed up less frequently once it was clear that we could get business done using the Internet. So in the spring of 1995, I woke up one morning in Okemos, Michigan, and had a revelation: I didn’t need to be there.
Two months later, I turned on the CD player, started Frank Sinatra singing “The Best Is Yet to Come” and headed out the door with the world’s finest yellow dog. We drove west. From that point on, Eclipse has been wherever I am.
The office moved first to Hood River, Oregon, and then an hour away to Portland. Four years ago we looped back east to Missoula, Montana. But those are just the headquarters: Eclipse has operated from a cottage in Scotland, a sailboat in the BVIs and a beach in Miami—all while serving clients in the Americas, Europe and Asia.
So imagine my surprise last month when I ran across Natalie Sisson, the charming Suitcase Entrepreneur, who has built an empire by telling people this: I want to help you find creative ways to start and run your business from anywhere, using online tools, social media and outsourcing.
I applaud Natalie for capitalizing on the choice I made 18 years ago. And all I can say is Yes! If you want a lifestyle that lets you spend time with your family, play even on a workday, volunteer for causes that matter to you and work from anywhere, you can make it so.
4. You must keep it professional--or, better still, personal.
Excerpt from the life of a writer … Me: I often work in my pajamas. New acquaintance: Are you a sleepwear model?
Why mention I work in PJs? Because I want my clients to know who they’re working with—just like I want to know them. It’s no surprise to any of my clients that I usually get up after daylight, sneak out to ski or hike, and have a glass of wine if I’m writing late in the evening.
My nearest client is 550 miles away, but that doesn’t mean we don’t connect regularly. That starts with small courtesies, like asking "How was your weekend? Are you still digging out from the snowstorm? You aren’t a 49ers fan, are you?"
And it extends to chatting on the phone, connecting on LinkedIn when the professional relationship is established and on Facebook when the personal one is. Eclipse does not have printed stationery, but I do have notecards that I write with an honest-to-gawd pen. I send holiday cards, remember birthdays and occasionally hop in a car or on a plane to visit.
I don’t see my clients often, it’s true. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a beautiful long-distance relationship.
5. You must have discipline--or love.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the words, I’d love to do what you do. But I don’t have the discipline.
I’ve never needed discipline for the same reason I’ve never had writer’s block. A comment from a fellow writer explains why: I think I had [writer’s block] for about four hours one afternoon 35 years ago, but I also realized that this is the way I feed my family and writer’s block is a nice construct for a “writer with an independent income.”
I don’t have an independent income, a trust fund, a supportive spouse or an inheritance. $#%@.
That means I must write to pay the mortgage, buy peanut butter and afford triathlon gear.
But I start every day in my office just happy I get a chance to earn a living doing what I love, in a place and way I love to do it.
Am I grateful? How many ways can I say Yes? I love my work. I love the clients who keep coming back year after year. I love the friends and family who have provided undying support for a crazy journey since day one.
And I finally think the whole thing might just work out. Once upon a time, I would mention to my Mom that I had an interview. She would ask me hopefully if I was getting a job. And I’d say No, it’s for a story. She hasn’t asked in about five years. Maybe I can finally call myself a success.
6. You must have a back-up plan--or vision.
Let’s talk about Sylvester Stallone. In 1975, Stallone watched the Muhammad Ali-Check Wepner fight for the world heavyweight title. Wepner was paid $100,000 for the fight; Ali $1.5 million. But Wepner knocked Ali down in the 9th round. In the end, Ali won on a TKO in the 15th.
With that as inspiration, Sly wrote the first draft of the screenplay for “Rocky.” He shopped it around and finally found two guys who wanted to buy it for $125,000.
Stallone said, OK, but I’ve got to be the star. The guys said, No, we want Ryan O’Neal. Take it or leave it.
Stallone had no money. But he left it. Two weeks later, the guys upped the offer to $250,000 if Stallone wouldn’t star. Again he said No. They offered $325,000. He said No.
Finally they agreed Stallone could star—if he would take some of the risk. They offered $35,000 and a percentage of the profits. Stallone said Yes. The film cost $1.1 million to make and grossed more than $200 million.
I like Stallone. He had a vision. He stuck with it. And he scored big.
But it’s not about the money; it’s about the happiness. And maybe that’s the only vision you need.
So I’ll tell you this: I’ve been in business 21 years today and guess what? I’ve never had a bad day at the office. Thank you all so much for supporting Eclipse for 21 years!