Why Bad Business Goals Led My First Business to Fail (And What I Do Differently Now)

by | Aug 25, 2020

I was in so far over my head when I started my first business.

It’s been about 10 years now, but when I started my first business it was because my significant other offered to cover the ‘real’ bills so I could go out solo. My single business goal was to make enough to cover our utilities and part of our food bill each month.

I had a fuzzy idea of how I was going to DO that, what services I wanted to offer, and was googling and reading like mad everything I could find on setting prices. The business made it until we hit a bump in our relationship and broke up — and I had to actually survive on my own income.

Back to an office job I went.

The next time I went out on my own, things went very differently.

The biggest change?

This time I had better business goals — goals around the number of hours I wanted to work, goals around how much I wanted to be making, and goals around what I wanted my business to look like.

Hint: Don’t Pick Business Goals You Don’t Actually Want to Achieve

There’s been a lot written on setting goals — whole books on setting personal and business goals. And yet each year a staggering 92% of people who set New Year’s goals never achieve them, according to research from the University of Scranton.

The problem, which Scott Young talks about in detail in his post “You Can’t Set Goals to Fix Your Flaws,” is that we often set goals based on the flaws we believe we have… and it’s hard to stay enthusiastic and excited when it comes to your flaws.

“I used to think with enough hard work and ambition, you could achieve the things you want. I don’t believe that anymore.

— Scott Young, “You Can’t Set Goals to Fix Your Flaws” (July, 2010)

His takeaway? It’s the goals that you set that you’re enthusiastic about that you’ll actually achieve (and yes, part of that is in how you frame things).

I believe the same is true of business goals. And yet… most small business owners didn’t start their businesses because they’re excited about business. Dog trainers especially tend to get into dog training because (stunner here) they’re passionate about training dogs. 

So, how do we reconcile those two ideas?

We figure out what outside of the business matters to you.

Choose Your Big Picture Business Goals: What Matters to You?

When I went out on my own for the second time, I had a financial business goal in mind (initially, replacing my 70K/yr annual salary), a work-life balance goal in mind (weekends off, weekdays working flexible hours), and a business goal related to my target market — I wanted to do all of the above while working with small business owners directly, specifically dog trainers and other pet industry businesses. That would mean carefully balancing the amount of work I took on, the rates I charged (to make my goals AND to avoid pricing myself out of my target market’s budget), and being really strategic with my business decisions.

[Side note — these were not “immediate” goals. These were big picture goals. Some of them I’m getting close to achieving (yay not working *most* weekends!) and some of them I’ve already accomplished and have since replaced with bigger goals.]

Once I had those big picture goals in mind, though, setting smaller goals became MUCH easier.

So, what matters to you?

It’s much easier to be enthusiastic about taking weekends off (which requires being productive and efficient…) than to be excited about looking at automation software options or setting up a new project management tool. Suddenly those smaller goals become stepping stones to achieving those bigger goals… and its much easier to maintain momentum.

Handwritten note that reads: Do What you love and you'll work super hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries...

How I Went From Working 7 Days a Week to Taking Time Off

Once you’ve picked big picture goals consider where you are now — how far do you have to go to achieve those goals?

Let’s look at my goal to have weekends off and flexible hours during the week. When I set that goal, I was working 7 days a week most weeks, and often spending 10-12 hours a day at the computer (sometimes productive, sometimes…. not). That’s where I was.

Once you know where you are, then you can choose the next step you need to take to move toward that goal. That happens by splitting things down.

Could I get to the point where I was taking one day off a week? What would need to change to make that happen?

Asking yourself “What would need to change to make that happen” may spur a LOT of potentially answers. That’s okay — pick one that feels doable. Achieve it. Then pick another one to work on. (See where I’m going here?)

For me, it was better project management and planning (and building in bigger margins between projects and deadlines). Suddenly, instead of having a goal that was “figure out how to better manage projects” which is not my idea of fun AT ALL, I could look forward to a day off each week if I managed my schedule well.

And of course that goal got split down further. One of my first steps became doing a weekly project review each Friday to figure out what the following week would look like. Once that became a habit, I expanded my goals to choosing a new project management platform and setting it up. Then the goal became making sure I wasn’t actually scheduling more work in day or week than I could actually get done in a day (or week).

Now, I’ve gotten to the point where most weekends I don’t do more than an hour or so of work over the course of the entire weekend.

How To Work On More Than One Goal At A Time (Without Burning Out)

Each of the things I mentioned above probably took roughly 30 minutes to an hour of time in any given week. But it was working on them week after week that let me see real progress.

The hard part of this process is choosing milestones that are meaningful, that actually move you closer to your goals AND that aren’t actually all that hard to do. Re-read that last one…. yup, that’s right — the key is choosing things small enough that they’re not actually all that hard to do.

Why is that so important?

Because it’s unlikely you have just the one business goal. If you only have one big goal, then maybe you’ll do fine adding big things you need to check off to make progress. But if you’re like me, and most of the business owners I know, then you’ve got several things you’d like to achieve, and making progress on all of them at once can easily leave you feeling like you’re trying to juggle while walking a reactive dog who may hit the end of their leash at any moment.

In order to make progress on many different goals at once, it’s important to start off with small steps for each of them. And if you’re lucky, maybe some of those steps will actually help you make progress toward more than one of them at once. (If that’s the case, start with those!!)

Once you’ve established small, easy habits that will help you get closer to your big picture business goals, then you can start to increase the difficulty. But just as we know to break out distance, duration, and distractions when training a stay, you should only increase the difficultly of ONE thing at a time. Pick one direction to improve in, and a period of time that you want to focus on it. Develop a new habit that moves you in the right direction.

Then once that becomes a habit, pick a new direction, and increased the difficulty there while maintaining your previous habits and progress.

Can you see how this allows you to gradually build toward all of your goals?

a goal without a plan is just a wish - motivational handwriting on a napkin with a cup of coffee

Two More Critical Steps to Achieving Your Big Picture Business Goals

Now, it’s totally likely that as you focus on one area, another area may slip slightly. That’s okay… and to be expected. But that area or goal will get its own time in the spotlight soon enough, and then you can reclaim any lost ground and work toward improving past you previous personal “best” in that area of your business.

However… it’s not quite that simple. There are two more CRITICAL aspects to actually achieving your business goals. You need to pick metrics that will tell you if you’re making progress, and you need to set up time to evaluate those metrics on a reoccurring basis.

You’ll notice my goal wasn’t just to “work less” — I wanted to take weekends off. The first milestone to achieve on my way was to take one day off each week! That’s easy to track — did I do it or didn’t I?  The same is true for scheduling myself more effectively. The smaller goal was to aim to schedule no more than 5 hours of work for each day during my weekly planning sessions. The remaining time would likely (and does) get eaten up with email, task switching, meetings, and other odds and ends that tend to pop up just to get business done.

In addition to my Friday planning sessions, I set myself a Monday “Goals Check In” session. That’s exactly what it sounds like. Each Monday I check my list of goals, write down what I did or didn’t achieve the previous week, and then figure out how to ensure I accomplish what I need to for that week to keep moving forward.

What to Do When It All Goes Wrong?

You’ll notice this section is gonna be short. You ready for it?

If you fall off the wagon, don’t stress. Just get back on. Didn’t achieve your goals for the week? Ask yourself why not — were they unrealistic? Too big? Did something else come up? Was something harder than you thought it would be for some reason?

Then either modify the habit or task you’re doing to progress on that goal, or recognize that what went wrong was unforeseeable and unlikely to happen again, and aim to simply do better in the coming week. That’s it. Don’t beat yourself up, or spend a ton of time stressing about it.

An Example: Failing to Achieve 10 Minutes of Movement

For example, one of my “new” habits for a personal goal was to add 10 minutes of movement in after eating. I found the first week this went well — but the second week, I had a hard time sticking to it and was returning to my old habits instead. So I asked myself why — well, i usually eat at the computer, which means I don’t even recognize when I STOP eating, which should lead to my 10 minutes of movement. I also often don’t leave more than 30 minutes for a meal… which means 15 minutes to make food, and then 15 minutes to eat it. Once I recognized what was going wrong, I could think about ways to fix those things. This week (week 3!) I’m making a point not to eat in front of the computer, so that I recognize when I’m done, and I’ve picked up pre-made protein shakes… if I don’t have more than 30 minutes for a meal, I can grab a shake to drink and then I’ll have time to get in those 10 minutes of movement.

A Tip to Make Creating New Habits Easier

One final tip that has been really helpful for me in building new habits that help me make meaningful progress on my goals: whenever possible, make use of habit stacking.

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking is using habits that are already part of your routine as cues for new habits you want to create. I picked this tip up from James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits, but he explained the concept in a blog post on his website, “How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones.

As dog trainers, once you read the examples below, this will likely make an awful lot of sense.

“The habit stacking formula is:

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

For example:

  • After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.
  • After I take off my work shoes, I will immediately change into my workout clothes.”

— James Clear, “How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones.

…Sounds a bit like backchaining or adding a new cue to a behavior in dog training, doesn’t it?

Now that you’ve read all this (thanks for sticking with me to the bottom!), I want you to actually take action. What are your big picture business goals — ones you can feel enthusiastic about? What’s something you can start doing that will help you get closer to those goals? Share it in the comments!!

And if you need help… stay tuned! We’ll be taking more about how we can help in the near future.

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