Books: How to quit and live to fight another day

Knowing whether a business problem is soluble or terminal is a skill to be learned. Shaa Wasmund finds a kindred spirit.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Dip: The extraordinary benefits of knowing when to quit (and when to
Piatkus £6.99
Seth Godin

I'm a big believer in keeping things simple, so it's probably no surprise that I'm a fan of Seth Godin's work. Being in the technology industry but not a geek myself, I'm always pleased to find specimens of that rare breed, people who can make complex ideas seem simple, without being patronising.

The Dip is a short book, but don't let that put you off. A weighty tome doesn't necessarily pack any more powerful a punch than a well-crafted short story.

The key, at least for me, is: (a) whether the book makes any impact on its reader and (b) whether the reader will take any action on what they've read or learned. Now, the author is only responsible for the first part; it's up to the rest of us to decide whether to stay stuck in our ways or to try out some new thinking. Personally, I believe in trying new things. Someone once told me: 'The wise man is the one who continues to learn.' I try to continue to learn, and reading is certainly a good place to start.

The book gets off on the right foot with the statement that 'Being the best in the world is seriously underrated'. It's the sort of statement that is reflective of a certain kind of thinking, so it came as no surprise when I turned the pages to find out the book that changed Seth Godin's way of thinking was The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz, which happens to be my favourite business book of all time.

It's typical for the number one company in any given field to do 10 times the business of the number 10 company in the same market. That's a powerful motivation for any entrepreneur worth their salt to keep going when the going gets tough. The moral of Godin's story is that such perseverance can pay off, but only so long as you are in the eponymous 'dip' - that tricky point at which your new venture isn't new any more, business slows down and the real work begins - rather than in a genuine, going-nowhere cul de sac. Most people give up. The dip is just too much hard work; it is easier to try to make something else work instead. We've all been there. I know I have.

But if we knew that we were just in a dip, that with some hard work and strategic thinking we could get out of it, and when we did, we would reap the rewards... well, more of us would hold out.

If we also realised that our competitors were in the same boat and that most of them would give up too, wouldn't we all have more incentive to see it through, to persist, to work our way through the dip?

The premise of The Dip is that we all need to learn when to stick and when to quit.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not always prudent to 'stick with it', nor is it true that 'winners never quit'. They do, and often. The key is understanding the difference between a dip (which you can work your way out of) and a cul de sac (which you can't).

This is where the book needs a bit more substance. In my opinion, the answer is a joint venture with Blink author Malcolm Gladwell. I think the challenge is not accepting the fact that it is good, or even at times imperative, to quit; the challenge is, rather, knowing at what precise point to do so. Here we need to get to grips with our innate gut instinct as businesspeople. I believe that if we all listened to ourselves more, we would make better decisions. The worst decisions I have made have been when I have gone against my instinct and stuck with things despite 'knowing' I should have given up. This applies to our personal lives too.

Learn that strategic quitting is a good thing. There's no point going round and round like a hamster on a wheel, getting nowhere. When you reached a dead end, get out. But if you are simply suffering from fatigue and the initial excitement of the start-up has begun to fade, it's not the time to give up.

It may be time to pass the baton over to someone else, though. I have learnt this from personal experience. I am a great starter and a great finisher, but I am not the best person for the middle legs of the race. I've also learnt that it's OK to be like this. We can't all be the best at everything. Focus on what you're great at and become better.

My advice is to read this book in tandem with Blink. Get in touch with your gut and learn to tell the difference between a dip and a cul de sac. Push through a dip, and if you can't, get someone who can. But when you're in a cul de sac, get out and don't regret it. Quitting is not the same as failing.

Shaa Wasmund, a partner at Bright Station Ventures, was one of MT's '35 Women Under 35' for 2007.

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