3 Times When You Don’t Have To Answer The Four Questions (and 1 Where You Do)

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  14. 3 Times When You Don’t Have To Answer The Four Questions (and 1 Where You Do)
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Last week, Abigail posted about the four questions you need to have an answer to in order for your business to succeed.

The post struck a nerve. I got a lot of comments and mail from people who were distressed that they didn’t know the answers and worried that they were doomed.


But there’s a difference between not knowing the answers, and being in the wrong business. It isn’t that you’re necessarily wrong. It’s that you can’t know if you’re wrong. You’re putting a lot of effort into something, and being able to answer the four question will help ensure that you’ll get the outcome you want.

[Tweet “There’s a difference between not knowing the answers, and being in the wrong business”]

On the other hand, not answering the four questions is not exactly a stake in the heart of your business. To that end, let me describe for you three situations where you have a reprieve to answer the four questions.


#1. You Just Started.

Back in the day, before you started a business, you were supposed to do a bunch of market research to ascertain there was a need for your Thing. You were supposed to figure out the four questions, and put them into a business plan.

That’s because businesses used to be expensive to start, and you had to get some capital from the bank to get rolling.

You can still write a business plan. But the fastest way to figure out if your Thing is valuable is to get out there and sell it. Real life market research. And eventually, you’ll be able to answer your four questions.

#2. You Didn’t Just Start, But Things Are Working Out Pretty Well.

It’s surprisingly hard to learn when things just work. You see things working out, and you can kind of hazard a guess as to why they’re working out, but until you can try a bunch of things, you can’t actually know. (This, in case you haven’t guessed, is why I take a laissez-faire attitude to the idea of failure. You learn WAY MORE when you’re failing.)

#3. You Have Another Form of Income And It’s Not Imperative That This Venture Succeed.

This is a variation of #2, actually. Some forms of business have a long lead time before you can know whether or not they’re going to grow to the point of sustainability. Art. Coaching. Podcasting. Writing books. These are what I think of as “long tail” business models. You’re looking at years of work before the effort pays off.

Because you’ve got to put in your years, I think that it’s more important that you get started than it is to answer your four questions. (The answers to the four questions aren’t static, by the way. They’re going to change over time.) Get started putting in your time, and you’ll figure out the answers by and by.

But Will I Fail?

Well, the current iteration of your business will most likely fail. It’s just a probability thing– the chance that you picked a sustainable business model on your first try is about as likely as picking the correct number of jelly beans in the jelly bean jar.

Abby’s post was right. If you’re not careful about building your business at the intersection of “what people want and need” and “what makes your heart sing,” sooner or later, you’re going to have to relocate.

And she phrased it in terms of failure and doom.

And the reason that I’m putting my spin on the same topic alongside of hers is to illustrate the reason that business advice differs.

Your Paradigm Is Subtly Expressed In How You Do Business

Abby and I agree on business matters about as much as is humanly possible. Our values and ethics sync to the letter. But Abby is divorced with three kids. Her lifestyle– her existence— is tenuously dependent upon her ability to succeed.

Abby can’t afford to fuck around. She either makes money, or she doesn’t. Therefore Abby is totally ruthless about making sure she sells things people are reliably willing to pay for. Yes, she wants to do her soul-work as much as the next person– but that comes after making sure the rent is paid.

That tenuousness is baked in to her experience of the world. And because it’s served her so well from a survival and success standpoint it will almost certainly persist until long after she’s broken six figures.

And that’s a good part of why I chose her for the #insidemymicrobiz experiment— because she’s hungry. Not desperate– desperate is hard to work with. But she’s hungry because there’s a chance it’s within her ability to provide security for her family, and dammit, that’s what she’s going to do. And yet she’s still aiming to do that soul-satisfying work.

I find that there’s very little advice targeted to the center of that Venn diagram between “Soul-Satisfying” and “Reliable Money.” That’s why the tagline of Change Catalyst is “Fulfillment. Security. Success… On Your Terms.”

We start with fulfillment, because that’s where you’ve almost got to start. If you’re not at least somewhat fulfilled by your work, you won’t have the staying power to see it succeed. Then we work on security. Building the foundation of a stable business, brick by brick. And if we got the ingredients right– that is, the four questions– after all this work, we see success.

Everyone wants security, fulfillment, and success. Maybe they don’t want it in that order, but they do want it. But the hungry people– they want it bad.

So the time you REALLY need to answer those four questions?

When Failure Is Not An Option.

Otherwise, you’ve got some leeway. I once read a quote from Steve Blank, entrepreneur and venture capitalist who was in the U.S. Air Force during Vietnam. I can’t find it, but to paraphrase, he said, “The best thing about business is that when you fail, no one dies.”

As a business owner, the ability to shift your perspective on failure and risk is the most powerful tool in your arsenal.


2 thoughts on “3 Times When You Don’t Have To Answer The Four Questions (and 1 Where You Do)”

  1. I know this sounds weird, but I often wish that failure in my business wasn’t an option. What kind of incentives would that create for me to work smarter, be more careful of using my time (a.k.a. being less generous with it), and actually make some money in the short-term?
    My reality is that I’m avatar #3: I have a sugar mama backing me and my family (and healthy financial accounts from my days of saving while working a corporate gig). I almost think that I should stop mentioning that I don’t need to hustle (for now) because of my wife’s income and our money in the bank. I mean, who’s benefiting from hearing that? I’m certainly not. And I doubt that my situation is going to resonate with almost anyone in human history. 
    What do you think, Shanna (or anyone else)? For the good of my business and my relationships, should I keep my yapper shut about my incredibly fortunate financial position?

  2. joeyjoejoe I actually think it’s cool that you’re upfront with it. Historically, well-off people have underwritten a lot of valuable stuff because they didn’t have to make the short-term trade-offs that the less prosperous people do. I was thinking today about how you donate — 10 percent, right?– to a local charity for people experiencing food insecurity. We could all do more. But in my opinion you’re doing all right. 

    You are in a fortunate position, and I don’t think there’s any reason to shut up about it. Certainly I don’t feel you rub it in anyone’s face. You always talk about it in the context of how lucky you are. This goes over a lot better than people talking about how broke they are, especially when their definition of broke is very different than your average single mother. 

    I’m really lucky, too. Especially as a Canadian, I never had to choose between health care (especially with chronic illness) and pursuing self-employment. My extended family is prosperous (and functional) enough that I could always depend on their support if I ever got into a *really* bad situation. There’s always going to be a roof over my head if I want it. And, of course, I don’t have kids. 

    One thing I remember from one of Naomi Dunford’s courses was the admonition “Don’t say you’re broke if what you really mean is you choose not to allocate funds there. It’s bad karma.” If I need to make an investment in my business, within reason, I can come up with the cash somewhere, somehow. But other people, for the want of a $500 [thing], stay stuck, stuck, stuck. But I always think about that when we talk in terms of “have to” and “need to.” Those terms sound inflexible, and they are– but the problem really is that we’re not explicit about who we’re talking to. You “have to” register as a business in your jurisdiction. But if that costs $40, and your grocery budget is cut to the bone, “have to” is actually… kind of loose. 

    Most of the time, people assume that if you have internet and a computer, you *must* be a Have, not a Have-Not. But actually, internet access is often the single most powerful tool for getting out of a bad financial situation. Or they’re working off their smartphone, because the smartphone is cheaper than the Comcast subscription. These people want to build businesses too, but all the “have tos” directed at people with more options make their situation seem all the more insurmountable. So I think it’s important to be clear and accurate about what stuff is mission-critical, depending on what your situation is. It’s difficult– it makes for some *extremely* tediously nuanced conversations–but I feel more pride at helping the hungry people succeed than if I just offered that Wonder Bread business advice.

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