How To Know For Sure When To Quit (or stick with) Your Business Idea

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action |

Ever ask yourself when you should walk away from a business idea that isn’t working out?

Ever worried if you’re making the right decision?

Even just thinking about quitting can feel like an entrepreneurial “thought crime”.

“Never give up!”

“Don’t listen to the haters”

“Be patient”

… these platitudes are (correctly) shared by thought leaders and successful people who genuinely want you to succeed like they did.

It’s also said – and sometimes said by the very same people – that you should find the right idea:

“Product market fit is everything”

“Your business idea has to have legs”

“Timing the market is key”

See the problem?

On one hand, entrepreneurs are told to be ruthlessly (almost pigheadedly) dedicated to their ideas… and in the same breath they’re told to only work on the right ideas, and to be self-aware enough to walk away from any bad ones.

What’s an aspiring entrepreneur – overflowing with exciting but risky ideas – to do?

To quit or not to quit, that is the question

Entrepreneurs working on new ideas experience terrifying existential angst trying to answer this.

The fear that you’re working on the wrong thing – where no amount of smart execution will guarantee that you win big – is paralyzing.

At the same time, the fear that you might mistakenly give up on a great idea – that will rocket to success in someone else’s hands – is a fear-of-missing-out big enough to be a nightmare.

Innovating entrepreneurs find themselves caught in the uncertainty of this mental bind all the time. It happens to everyone. Even the best.

Every entrepreneur agonizes over the “quitting question” because we are ALL victims of the same bug in the human brain’s software:

The human brain is bad at big new ideas

We’re all working with the same biological hardware. It hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years.

That’s why for entrepreneurs – living out on the pointy end of human potential – the brain is sometimes a friend and often a foe.

Thinking clearly (and working on) big, high impact ideas would be easy… if it wasn’t for the messy layers of out-of-date mental conditioning and cognitive biases that get in the way.

This mental noise gets in the way of every level of entrepreneurial ideation, from a new business itself to a new product, or even a new-fangled marketing strategy for an established product. In all these cases, the brain can get super confused about when to quit.

It starts with a cognitive bias called “Uninformed Optimism”

Simply put, anything new is sexy.

Your brain loves “new”.

Entrepreneurs are fundamentally positive, hopeful people who aspire to do big things and create upward mobility for themselves.

That optimism – beautiful and necessary thing that it is – lives deep in entrepreneur hearts. The problems begin when it gets projected outward and externally, onto the latest new idea or project.

The bias of uninformed optimism kicks in when you can’t shake the feeling that this new idea is gonna be the big one. Even when similar projects in your recent past went “just okay” or worse.

“I’m really pumped about this latest iteration, I think this is it.”

“It’s been a tough year but we’re about to blow up thanks to this new social media tactic.”

“I just heard about how the guys over at XYZ startup are growth-hacking 20% month-on-month and we’re gonna do the same thing.”

The newness of an idea itself creates the profound feeling of optimism:

The entrepreneur is able to project their hopes and dreams to a new idea precisely because it’s new enough that they don’t fully understand it.

Optimism in brand new ideas is born of naivety. Naivety that only exists because you’re uninformed by experience.

We see this all the time at Commit Action when the business owners we serve latch on to the latest growth-hacking tactic: Some PPC arbitrage or social media hack to scale followers, for example.

Whatever it is, they think they’ve found the answer to all their problems.

We call it “unicorn thinking” (not in the billion-dollar startup sense) because chasing new ideas fueled by uninformed optimism feels like you’re pursuing a miracle.

(If you can just catch this thing, magical success will be yours… or so the unicorn myth goes.)

New ideas are sexy specifically because you don’t understand them

That’s what makes them new. You’re not an expert so you’re not cynical or jaded. You haven’t experienced the grind required to make the idea work. You naively project all your hopes onto the idea. You’re literally optimistic because you’re uninformed.

Uninformed optimism is the honeymoon phase you go through with your idea. And like all honeymoons, it comes to an end. As you begin to execute, breathlessly excited for the win that’s about to happen, the optimism gives way to something far less sexy…

The descent into “Informed Pessimism”

CA_coaster1_lrg.pngThe more you execute on your idea, the more real-world feedback and experience you get.

“This isn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be” - Every entrepreneur, ever.

Every new and ambitious project gets harder the more you learn about the details required to make it actually work.

This knowledge has to come from experience and the school-of-hard-knocks: Theoretical insight gleaned from books won’t do the job. Neither will advice from other people.

None of that works. When you’re deep in the thrall of optimism bias, you only hear to what you want to hear.

(You can thank some other bugs in our flawed mental software for that: Confirmation and selection bias((Confirmation Bias is the tendency (observed in all humans, even those who are aware the bias exists) to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Selection bias is our tendency to draw conclusions from statistical sample populations that aren’t properly representative but – again – are selected in favor of our preexisting beliefs.)).)

The depressing state of informed pessimism gets worse over time. The further into the project you get, the more you learn about things you didn’t know you didn’t know.

This is where we see business owners start to doubt their sexy new idea:

“It might have worked for that other startup, but my industry and customers are different…”

“I’m not even sure if that author/guru/consultant was honest about the results they’re getting with this strategy.”

“I dunno if the juice is worth the squeeze.”

That last one really says it all: The journey into informed pessimism is a journey of realizing what you hoped would be a easy shortcut… isn’t.

It’s actually super hard work.

Informed pessimism grows and grows until the entrepreneur hits a critical point of “idea-depression”.

At Commit Action we call it “The Valley of Despair” because we like to be dramatic. It goes by other names: Seth Godin wrote a book about it called The Dip.

CA_coaster5_lrg-300x300.pngWhatever you call it, you’ll know it when you arrive: It’s the turning point where your increasingly morbid desire to quit becomes too much to bear.

The way out of the valley of despair – for most people – is by pulling the emergency exit lever on the project. They quit.

Sometimes it’s even an “I’m-sick-of-this-shit" quitting of the game of business itself.

There’s an alternative, of course: The other way out of the valley is through.

Through” requires uncomfortable, patient plodding up the steep other side of the valley. It’s pushing out of the darkness, through the pessimism, to the other side.

When they’re in the valley, people either quit or they commit.

(Committing is tough because when you’re in the valley, you feel very strongly that attempting to continue would be insane.)

It’s in the bottom of the valley that the question “To quit or not to quit?” really matters. Is your idea one of the ones worth pushing through and climbing out the other side for?

There’s a simple way to answer that question, but first you need to understand the final side-effect of this bug in human psychology:

Why so many wannabes spin in circles for years and years

Want to know why some amateur entrepreneurs never get their shit together and never build anything meaningful?

It’s simple: They execute on their ideas until they hit the valley.

Once they’re there, a new idea – a bright shiny object – seduces them. As soon as things get tough, a shiny new idea invites them back to the bliss of uniformed optimism.

Uninformed optimism is a wonderful feeling. It’s a world-is-your-oyster good vibe. It’s the heady, hopeful sense of possibility where the future is bright and anything can happen.

Uninformed optimism feels AMAZING.

And your unconscious mind just wants you to feel good. Too many entrepreneurs lack the self awareness to realize that their unconscious mind is seduced by dumb new ideas just because they feel better than old-but-still-good ideas.

When you’re stuck in the valley of despair, your unconscious mind cries out for a return to the warm blanket of beginning something new. It wants to feel the optimism and joy that AMAZING THINGS CAN MAGICALLY HAPPEN.

This is why the more an entrepreneur executes on an idea, the more tempted they are to look around and explore what other ideas could be pursued. This is why entrepreneurs get distracted by bright-shiny-objects.

Then they pick one and go back to start. They feel the heady rush of chasing a new unicorn idea:

This one is gonna be the big one.”

Unsuccessful entrepreneurs become trapped in this insidious cycle. Again and again they carry a new idea from optimism through to pessimism. They land in the valley. And then, they start anew with something else.

Self awareness is the key to breaking the cycle

You might be wondering: So what the hell do I do about all this?

There are two critical ingredients to escape the effects of this mental bug: The first is simply self awareness of the phenomena, and it’s the reason I wrote this article.

Knowing that this is a tendency all humans have – that you’re not above it or immune to it – is the key to spotting the temptation to quit for the wrong reasons.

When you know your brain is drawn to the easy feel-good vibes of new-idea uninformed optimism, you can deploy a healthy sense of doubt of your own intuitions.

When you get distracted by a new idea, just pause and ask yourself if the distraction is happening because the thing you’re supposed to be executing on… is getting tough.

This will save you.

The second solution deals with answering that ultimate question: Is your idea genuinely good and worth pushing through on, or is it a bad one that it’d be smarter to quit?

There is one more question we recommend the badass entrepreneurs we work with at Commit Action ask themselves. It’s worth meditating on for a hot second, in order to figure out this ultimate conundrum. And we have to credit Seth Godin for posing it:

Do you have what it takes to be the best in the world* at this?

If this question sounds scary, it’s because it is.

Whether or not the juice is worth the squeeze from your new idea comes down to whether or not you can win with that idea, as the number one player in the market.

(And remember, your idea could be for a whole new business… or just a product or tactic WITHIN your business. Either way the rule still applies.)

We always asterisk the word “world” when we ask this question (even verbally!) because it doesn’t necessarily mean asking yourself if you have what it takes to build a global empire.

Quite the opposite: The key is asking yourself whether you can be the best in the personal “world” of the people you’re trying to serve. Can you be the best in your CUSTOMER’S world?

This is why if the local butcher shop in a small town decides to reinvent itself by going organic, the owner only needs to ask herself if she can be the best in the world of the folks in her small town… at organic, farm-to-table meat sourcing.

“The world” of your customers is the world that matters to them. The specificity of your business’s niche or geographic location makes the prospect of being world-best a hell of a lot easier to swallow.

As the Shrink for Entrepreneurs, I am in no way the best therapist on the planet. But I’ll humbly submit that no one offers a better track record of niche experience, consulting with startup founders and entrepreneurs.

Best in world = Best in area/niche.

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How to know when to quit an idea

Bad ideas to pursue in business are the “me too” ideas you’ll never be the best at:

Doing what someone else did, only probably a little less enthusiastically or creatively.

Going where someone else has already gone, only to arrive after they did.

Following a map that thousands of others are too, only to find the market too crowded.

Can you be the best in the mind’s of the people – your prospective customers – who really matter?

The easiest way to make this work is to radically narrow the demographic/psychographic scope of who you’re trying to reach. A really good niche will set you free.

You can do it!

The juice is worth the squeeze specifically when pushing through the valley-of-despair means that you’ll make a huge impact, to the right people.

Even that growth-hacking social media tactic you want to use WILL WORK… if you’ve got the clarity to know precisely who it’s for. And if you get that right… When your market discovers it, they’ll think it’s the best thing ever.

Ditto a new product idea or whatever.

Remarkable product-market fit happens when entrepreneurs push through informed pessimism and create something their people adore.

All you have to do is recognize your innate human tendency to want to circle back to sexy-new ideas. And then ignore it. Push through on something you know you can make “a dent in the universe” with. It’s worth it.

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