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The Entrepreneur's Achilles Heel: Terminal Uniqueness


There is only one answer an entrepreneur will give you when you ask how their new venture is going, “Great!” They may be 24 hours away from missing payroll for the first time, putting off replying to emails from disgruntled investors, struggling with a long sales cycle, and paralyzed wondering whether or not this was a good idea, but ten times out of ten they will respond with optimism and positivity. Ask anyone who has started a business and they’ll tell you, 50% of the game is just staying positive and pushing on. The ones that give up? Well, they weren’t cut out for it in the first place! Maybe. Maybe not. 

We all know the harrowing statistics around business failure. A staggering percentage of new ventures will close their doors by year three, and even more by year five. In the startup world, companies are allowed, and even encouraged, to pursue funding round after funding round without any real pressure to turn a profit. Users, revenue, and brand recognition create buzz, but they don’t always translate into a viable business. Entrepreneurs believe that they have stumbled into something special. Something unique, irreplaceable, well-positioned, and right on time. Until things don’t go as planned. 

I work up close and personal with entrepreneurs, helping them grow their businesses. A friend asked me recently, half-joking, “how many kitchens are you in these days, Matt?” Quite a few. It is one of the things I am most grateful for, being allowed to walk alongside men and women as they figure out how to build great organizations. Most of the men and women I work with are not running thriving organizations, otherwise they would not have reached out for help. Several times each week I find myself sitting across from an entrepreneur in a ton of pain. The emotional toll leading an organization can take on a human being is real. I do my best to create space for leaders to talk about how things are really going in their organizations. These conversations are heavy.

It happens almost every time. After opening up about the things that aren’t working or breaking their way, the entrepreneur will throw their hands in the air and say something to the effect of, “nobody understands what it’s like!” Of course, in their right mind, these entrepreneurs would be able to see and acknowledge that many have walked a similar path and many are currently in similar situations. There will always be someone better off and worse off than we are. But this sense that all of their problems are unique to them only compounds the difficulties involved in leading an organization. It is the entrepreneur’s Achilles heel, and I affectionately call it, “terminal uniqueness.” Terminal uniqueness is the underlying belief that other people may have problems, but not like mine. I have REAL problems. Sure, other people have challenges, but not like these. Mine are SERIOUS challenges. The onset of terminal uniqueness serves as the beginning of the death spiral. Unless an entrepreneur is able to get out of it and gain clarity, they and their organization are on the clock. The crash and burn are inevitable. 

If you lead an organization you’ve been there. Paralyzed and panicked, everything feels fragile. It’s no fun. When you arrive at this place you have two options. 1.) You can succumb to your terminal uniqueness and prepare for carnage or 2.) You can seek out others who have walked a similar path and ask for help. Our cities are full to the brim with leaders more than willing to extend a hand to their fellow entrepreneurs. What we are lacking are young people with the humility to tell it like it is and ask for help. I believe that laying all of our cards on the table with someone we can trust who is farther down the path is one of the healthier strategic moves we can make. 

After all, there are laws that govern business. You can’t spend more than you bring in, the taxman cometh, your business has a ceiling, etc. We are all subject to them. You should believe your idea is special, that belief is contagious and will win you business. Our organizations don’t struggle because we have bad ideas, they struggle because we think we are the exception to the rule(s). A helping hand and another set of eyes on our problems can go a long way towards helping us right the ship. You don’t have to go at it alone, and you shouldn’t.