Life lessons in business: The virtue of quitting

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Quitting is sort of frowned upon in our society. Supposedly, quitters never win, blah blah, etc. The truth is that it is not nearly that simple. In fact, let me say this:

In business, there is probably nothing more important to success than the ability to determine whether an idea needs more investment or needs to be axed. 

No, that is not what you typically hear. When you hear the inspirational business stories, you hear about people who hung in there for years before finally seeing success. From hearing those stories, it is easy to get the impression that if you just stick with any idea for long enough, eventually it will work out and you will live happily ever after. It is easy to start thinking that success is always attainable for the persistent and quitting is for losers and weak people.

If you want to go broke, go ahead and buy into that thinking. Successful business people as a rule do not think that way. Successful people know that if an idea does not start producing results in a timely fashion, it is probably not a good idea.

That brings me to another business maxim: sticking with a bad idea is never a good idea. 

Like I said, knowing whether to fish or cut bait is hard. It is what separates winners from losers in the game of business. I can’t give you specific advice about your situation but I can at least give some general guidelines for how to think about quitting in a healthy way. Here goes:

The best way to know whether an idea is good or bad is by looking at objective results
Actually knowing when to ditch a bad idea is hard. Likely, it will take you time to gain business acumen in this area. However, here is the best advice I can give: an idea that does not show promise fairly early on is probably a bad idea.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have developed a widget and rent a booth at a product expo in your industry to try to attract potential retailers. After a week at the expo, you have lots of business cards and a few possible leads and maybe one order for $200. Since you invested $3K in your booth, you are obviously pretty disappointed.

What do you do in that case? It is probably too early to quit but on the flip side, you need to understand that you have a problem. Obviously, something needs to be tweaked and it is possible that a few tweaks might completely change things around. However, in general, don’t count on it. Tweaks are by definition small changes. Small changes usually do not turn bad ideas into good ideas. So, go ahead and tweak and do another few expos. However, if you are still seeing a lack of interest after a few more shows, it is probably time to kill the idea and move on.

Obviously, I am speaking very generally here and I am aware that every situation is different. My point is that you should almost always be able to see if ideas have potential fairly early on. You don’t have to ride a bad idea forever. For example, in retail (my expertise), I would say a product should be showing good numbers within a year or it probably needs to be jettisoned.

Focus on winners, not losers
Human nature tricks us into thinking wrong about business. If we are working on a few ideas and some are winning and some are losing, it is very easy to think that we need to focus on the losers to build them up. That is almost always unwise. You will almost always get more bang for the buck if you focus on making your winners more successful rather than making losers less unsuccessful. There is a lot more I could say about this but I will leave it at that.

Not quitting is expensive and may ruin you
When you start to realize that it is time to quit, put aside the stubbornness and get off the sinking ship. You can only survive a bad idea if you get out soon enough. As Kevin O’Leary on Shark Tank says, take your bad businesses out behind the barn and shoot them.

I don’t know what my bad idea to good idea ratio is but I would guess maybe 4:1. That means I have four bad ideas for every good idea. There is no way I survive that ratio as a business person unless I cut those losers quickly.

The need to quit is very often not about you
I know people that are in businesses that they need to exit. It is not because those people are losers. It is more about the business itself. If you are in an industry that is shrinking, you may need to start looking for an exit. If you are in retail and source products from a company that has problems, you may need to find something else. If you are in a business that does not mesh with who you are as a human, you probably need to get out of it.

it is important to remember that we are all relatively insignificant when compared to certain factors that we don’t have control over. If you start to sense that you are up against forces that you can’t change regardless of how hard you try, it may be time to quit.

Quitting is not losing
Quitting is just part of the process of business. Do you think there has ever been a business that did not try ideas that had to be jettisoned? Google is a successful company but here is only a partial list of its failures it has given up on. Successful companies are simply companies that have enough winning ideas to outweigh the damage of the loser ideas.

No, figuring out that an idea is not worth further resources and killing it is not a bad thing. Rather, it is critical to your long term success.

Those are my thoughts. Go quit something today 🙂