Take A Hard Look at Why Your Stuff Isn't Selling

December 11, 2016


If you love Springsteen songs for the lyrics like I do (not that there’s anything wrong with the music, of course), and if you’re not just sayin’ that (like the people who used to claim that they read Playboy for the articles instead of the anatomy), then you know what I mean when I say that there’s a line or a poignant phrase from some Bruce song that seems perfect for just about any and every occasion. I can think of dozens of time – staring down into one abyss or facing up to another impending disaster - when Springsteen was the only solace I could find. Even in the worst of times, his music has always been a touchpoint and an anchor to hold on to and, even when you may be at a loss for words, he speaks to all of us.

In This Hard Land, he asks a stranger: “can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown…..can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they’ve never grown?”  We’ve all been there – as entrepreneurs and founders - asking for answers, reasons, or even just explanations to the same recurring questions. And the ultimate answer, of course, is that there aren’t any answers – only the road ahead and perseverance.  Two ideas which couldn’t be more central to Bruce’s canon.

An entrepreneur’s life is a constant struggle – you’re caught each day between sadness and euphoria – teetering between crazy confidence and debilitating doubt – and cranking up one of these ancient anthems is as good an antidote for the everyday angst and the anxiety which we all face as anything I have ever known. The best music takes us to another, better, place – not forever – but long enough to catch our breath, hunker down, and hit it hard one more time.

The truth is that – even if you can’t recall the exact language (although a frightening amount of this stuff is stuck permanently in our heads) - you won’t have to look very hard to find the specific lyrics on Google which succinctly suit each situation. What’s better than chanting the mantra: “no retreat, baby, no surrender” when the going gets really rough?  No metaphors required – the meaning couldn’t be plainer or more direct – yes, Travis, he’s talkin’ to you. And it feels pretty good to know that you’re not alone in the struggle. There’s always someone standing there if you should falter. Crank up the live version of If I Should Fall Behind and say no more.

Bruce is, without a doubt, an oracle for the ages (past and present), a master storyteller for our time, and an entrepreneur as well. Every entrepreneur knows in his or her heart exactly the kinds of battles, compromises, and heartaches which he speaks of in his music. His songs describe and fit our feelings (and our failings) like a glove. The connection is similar to (but more emotionally powerful than) the way we interpret the text of every fortune cookie and each day’s horoscope so that it feels like it was meant just for us. Listening to Springsteen lyrics is like re-reading a specially-meaningful verse of gospel, an inspirational letter from a long-time friend, or a final farewell note from an old flame.

The Boss can sum up in a few authentic and heartfelt words what it seems as if we’ve spent a lifetime living and are living every day as well. The songs skip right over all the filters and all the defenses and get right down to the fundamentals. They’re perceptive and pithy without being patronizing or pretentious. Philosophical without ever being pathetic. Wise, but never whiny. Short, but oh so smart. And, as he hopes in No Surrender: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.” He’s written the uber-text for our lives. And, it’s virtually inescapable.

As 2016 draws to a close and we meet each week with dozens of the entrepreneurs who are building their businesses at 1871 to review their progress and their prospects, the Springsteen songs often act like shorthand in my head for the different (and often difficult) stories we’re hearing. The successes we’re seeing are easy to categorize and to deal with – up and to the right – double down on what’s working and kill the dogs - and let’s see a lot more of the same. They’re - Born to Run – all day long.

But the much harder conversations are with the folks who are just treading water and trying to keep their heads above the waves; those whose businesses are going sideways with no positive changes on the horizon; or, worst of all, the ones running out of cash, customers and runway. It’s never easy in these talks to say what no one wants to hear. But telling the truth comes with the territory and there are only a few ways – none especially kind or polite – to deliver the bad news.

A product that doesn’t sell or a service that no one wants or needs isn’t the basis for any kind of successful business. It may be a good feature, an attractive add-on, or a lot of other things, but it’s clearly not a company in the making. And the sooner that message sinks in, the better for all concerned. It’s always about time, alternatives and opportunity costs and the clock is always ticking. (See http://www.inc.com/howard-tullman/protect-your-startup-from-big-competitors.html.)

At times like these, the entrepreneurs’ own frustrations and disappointment are also more than obvious — they’re palpable. And these folks feel like they’ve let the whole world down. Bruce said it best in Jungleland: “…they reach for their moment and try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead.” But the very best entrepreneurs, the ones we’ll hear from again, rise to the challenge. They’re dangerously honest and, at the end of the day, they don’t argue with the facts or the truth. It’s as hard to tell the truth as it is to hide it – maybe harder.

It takes a great deal of strength, confidence and courage to stop the frantic, full speed ahead, charge (with you in particular running willy nilly down the road) so you can honestly take stock of where things in your business actually stand. It usually takes a lot more guts to pull the plug at the right time (for everyone’s sake) than to keep beating a dying horse. And make no mistake – it’s also an obligation you may owe to a lot of other people. (See  http://www.inc.com/howard-tullman/failure-happens-four-ways-to-do-it-well.html.) Startups don’t stop until the founders give up, but sometimes stopping and moving quickly to salvage whatever you can is the smartest thing to do. Even in the darkest hours, Bruce would say that you gotta believe that there are Better Days ahead. Leaving the past behind is the first real step to a brighter future.

And now’s a very good time to ask yourself the hardest of questions.

The process starts by acknowledging a pretty simple reality: that ultimately the marketplace decides everything. It’s not what you want to sell that matters; it’s what the world wants and is willing to buy from you that makes all the difference. Businesses aren’t generally paid to change or reform their customers; they’re paid to satisfy their needs. There are a million excuses, explanations, and other ways to avoid the question, but ultimately customers buy for their own reasons, not yours. They may say they love you – but they vote with their dollars, not their hugs. It’s actually pretty easy to keep score and know the difference. 

So if your stuff’s not selling – even if you are the greatest salesperson in the world and could sell shoes to a snake – or talk a dog off of a meat wagon - then you have two choices: sell something else to the customer or stop selling to the customers entirely and start thinking about selling or shutting down the business. Tech startups and digital businesses in general don’t typically have a lot of hard assets to sell (especially in distressed circumstances), but there’s still plenty of potential value to be realized (for you and your investors) if you go about the process correctly and so long as you don’t wait until it’s too late. Knowing what you’ve got to sell is just as important as knowing when it’s the right time to sell.

But it all starts with being honest with yourself. I think of a line from The River: “Is a dream a lie that don’t come true or is it something worse?”  I realize that dreams die hard, but living a lie is harder still. If you tell the truth, it becomes part of your past. If you lie, it becomes part of your future.