Entrepreneurship (the country music version)

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table,
There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done.

Oh, Kenny Rodgers (actually Don Schlitz, but whatever).  In the chorus of The Gambler, the old timer lays out what are basically the rules for being an entrepreneur, which is as much about timing as it is about anything else.

I don’t want to suggest that I think business is like poker, because I think that attracts the wrong kind of people to it, those who fly fast and loose and often without regard for the heavy burden it puts on family, friends, and employees.  But as Churnless spins down, I’m certainly struck by people’s reactions to the news and (at a lovely meta level) my reactions to those reactions.

Almost everyone’s assumption (that we went out of business because we weren’t making money) is wrong: we were very, very profitable for our employees, our clients, and ourselves.  But it isn’t surprising that that is where people tend to go first: the dominant American viewpoint is that if a business closes, it must have “failed”.

But failure implies that we somehow lost the game.  Instead, we folded gracefully in favor of a better hand: our clients had plenty of advance notice, our team got time to find new jobs and personal introductions to good companies, and we were able to walk away with some cash.  And in doing so, we improved our board position in favor of new cards that I think both Avi and I feel will form a stronger hand.

And therein lies the first bit of the song: when to hold, when to fold.  Businesses are not simple win/lose propositions.  Like anything with an opportunity cost, you can be doing well but not as well as you would if you just laid it down and took the next deal.  So to be a good entrepreneur, you have to know which hands are worth standing by (even when doing so seems crazy) and which ones are worth shutting down.

That actually flows nicely into the next part: walking away versus running away.  A good call on when to fold allows for some grace in departure (which means bonuses for your team, time to find new positions, etc.).  A poor read of the board, on the other hand, means an ill-timed dash.

Which isn’t to say running away in a flat out dash isn’t sometimes the right way to exit a hand.  I’ve seen some pretty brutal spindowns where instead of just closing the doors and going home, people get let go one employee at a time as a company spirals straight into the ground.  Better an emergency landing than a crash.

And lastly, counting your money.  Entrepreneurs love money as as metric for success, which is ridiculous in that most entrepreneurs could make more money for far less work taking corporate jobs (a fact that doesn’t frustrate corporations nearly as much as it should).  Because money is the metric, that’s what they maximize for when they end a company, whether they are taking the hand or folding it down.

The trouble is, the game is more than just one hand; in fact, life is more than just one game.  And maximizing your life doesn’t mean maximizing every single hand (indeed, Barry Schwartz’s Max/Sat and Life Satisfaction work would suggest it means not maximizing most of them).  The best time to worry about money is when it matters: after you’ve spun down.  Only then do you need to start deciding on next steps for yourself personally; until the day that the company no longer exists, your responsibility is to your employees, clients, and partners.

By the Churnless calendar, as we spin down our last few things, soon will be time for countin’.  Until then: Muppets.

1 reply
  1. Julie
    Julie says:

    I think this is a very smart post. I work in medicine and am in the midst of making decisions about where to go for residency and I feel like these business principles could also apply in that realm. Although, it’s not as clear to me on the road of physician training where one hand ends or one game ends.

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