Mission Control: Abort!
In 1999, I was running a boutique Corporate Identity firm in London. We were doing amazing work and having a blast. There was a brief period that everything (EVERYTHING) we touched turned to gold. We witnessed first-hand, the birth of the webiverse as a legit platform for reaching millions with your story, product or service. We were cool and we knew it. I don’t think we were over-cocky, just acutely aware that we were an important part of an extraordinary moment in time.
Much like now, dot-coms were an investor’s wet dream. And we had many suitors who wanted to share the love and a piece of our pie. I once raised £150,000 for our little enterprise over a Soho Breakfast.
We nearly never said ‘NO’ to anyone about anything. One client wouldn’t hear the word; giving us a “Go on, have a play!” budget of £20k per month.
It was a time to mind our common sense and cash flow. But like all good mad dogs and Englishman, we minded neither. And why should we? We were actively encouraged to go big or go home. So, some of my people took that literally; staying all night to make sure we won big – really big. Keeping a sleeping bag under your desk was a badge of honor and my troops were heroes.
Then on March 10, 2000, everything changed.
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The dot-com boom went BAM and ended up in smoke and we hit the ground hard. Within just a few weeks, we were required to show evidence that we’d be in revenues within three months and if not, well…
REVENUES… EVIDENCE… Since when did that stuff matter?! We were curb-jumping, mind-blowing, cool-shit-creating, world-changing wunderkinds. We didn’t have time to think about the business. We were… um… we were… in a freeze frame – unable to move forward, backward or even sideways. I needed to quickly move past the panic and fear if we were going to survive this.
Somehow, some way, I was able to move my feet again. And when I did, I was surprised to experience a strange sense of calm. Calm and clarity. It was in one of these rare, lucid moments that I understood I was out of control. Phew, finally. I WAS OUT OF CONTROL. And it felt blissful.
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Control is not a four-letter word and can be a positive force for good. But that’s another story. Here I’m talking about the other kind of control; the more common, pervasive kind experienced to and between us folk. I’m referring to the power we wield to influence or direct people’s behavior/course of events for manipulating outcomes to our advantage. This kind of control is so common that we hardly recognize it for what it is: a toxin that stifles invention, diminishes agility and buries human spirit. I should know. I was an expert user and didn’t realize this until it was too late.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. We survived, I got out and broke even. However, it felt like I continued to pay the human toll for years. With hindsight being 20/20, here a few of my key takeaways from that experience:
- People never like being controlled or feeling controlled. And most of us can’t tell the difference.
- I didn’t try to control people, but a bullet is a bullet. There will always be casualties.
- Not all investment money is equal. I ended up working for my investors and not with them. I was a circus pony.
- If handing out a promotion/raise feels like paying a ransom, YOU ARE PAYING A RANSOM. I paid people to stick around. It worked until they left.
- Everyone has an agenda. That’s OK. Be upfront and direct with what you want/need. Anything else is a play for control. Again, there will be casualties.
- The best kind of negotiation is when all parties come away feeling they left a little on the table.
- It feels amazing to get out of (the need to) control. It’s then I can more easily recognize my own resiliency and the good nature of others.