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What Can Pottery Teach Us About Starting a Business After 50?

What Can Pottery Teach Us About Starting a Business After 50?
Margaret Manning

When it comes to starting a business, is it better to focus on quantity or quality? Should you try a lot of things and be ready to “pivot”? Or, should you focus on building a single “perfect” product that you can be truly proud of? This is not a trivial question. In fact, based on the conversations that I have had with other entrepreneurs over 50, this one choice can make the difference between start-up success and business failure. To explain why, I’ll need to take you back to school – to art school to be exact.

This Ceramics Teacher Can Teach You How to Start a Business

In his book Art & Fear, David Bayles describes a simple experiment by a ceramics teacher. The instructor divided his class in two and asked one half to focus just on making as many pots as they could, while the other focused solely on quality. But, which group produced the higher quality product?

By now, you can probably guess where this is going. At the end of the experiment, the group that focused on quantity not only produced more pots, but, their results were of higher quality than the students that focused on producing a single perfect item.

This result is not limited to creative pursuits. As I have reached out to older entrepreneurs for the Profit After 50 podcast, I have seen the same pattern. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones that are willing to try new things. They don’t wait to launch their first product until it is “perfect.” They launch early and often, incorporating feedback from their customers as they go along.

Over the last few years, numerous bloggers have written about the “ceramics class quantity vs. quality” lesson, so, why raise it again here? Because, based on my conversations, it seems like older entrepreneurs are especially at risk for chasing perfection and avoiding risks.

Why Are You Chasing Perfection?

As I have written about numerous times, older entrepreneurs have several advantages compared to their younger counterparts. Simply put, our experience, wisdom, contacts and skills make us statistically more likely to succeed than other demographics.

At the same time, we are often our own worst enemies. Fearing that we have fewer days ahead of us than behind us, we have a tendency to avoid risks. Many older entrepreneurs also struggle with an irrational fear of failure. Perhaps we feel that we have too much experience to make mistakes. Or, maybe we just don’t want to prove society right when it says that we are “too old” to start a successful business. Maybe we were just raised to “do things right the first time.”

Whatever the reason, many older entrepreneurs find it challenging to focus on quantity vs. quality. As a result, we chase perfection instead of following the “launch > learn > refine > relaunch” model.

The irony is that our generation could be the “ultimate entrepreneurs” if we could bring these two sides of ourselves together. If we could combine our skills and experience with a willingness to adapt and pivot, we could be truly unstoppable. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs that I know have done exactly this.

How to Conquer Your Fears and Build Your Dream Business After 50

I wish that I could say that “pivoting” came naturally to me. Unfortunately, I’ve always been a cautious person. So, when it came to starting my own business, I had to force myself to focus more on speed, iteration and experimentation. Here are a few things that I learned along the way.

First, if you are naturally cautious, partnering with people who are more adventurous can create the perfect conditions for a successful business. In my case, I partnered with my son, himself an established business person, to found Boomerly. Together, we were able to find a “golden mean” between speed and stability, experimentation and quality-control. Of course, working with someone from another generation, especially someone in your family, has its challenges. However, if you follow these guidelines, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Second, do everything that you can to make your business nimble by design. In my case, I found that setting firm deadlines for launching new products to be extremely productive. When I worked at Microsoft, we used to talk a lot about “scope creep,” or the tendency of software requirements to expand exponentially over time. One of the challenges in running a small business is that there is no-one looking over your shoulder, forcing you to launch by a certain date. Left to our own devices, we continue to add requirements. We search for perfection. Don’t let this happen to you. Once you have reached “good enough,” launch! Your customers will tell you more about what you are missing in 2 days of testing than you will come up with in 2 months of planning.

Finally, and I will be the first to admit that this sounds a bit “wishy-washy,” take the time to reflect on the real reasons that you are so cautious in your business. Do you really believe that your products need to be perfect before you launch them? Or, is it possible that you are afraid of negative feedback or a sense of rejection? Are the features that you are waiting for truly essential? Or, is launching blindly simply emotionally and logistically easier than the rollercoaster ride of “launch > learn > refine > relaunch”? You won’t be able to change your personality overnight, but, by gaining an awareness of yourself, you will better be able to recognize the signs that you are being too cautious.

Based on my conversations with other members of the community, I truly believe that we have the opportunity to change the world. We have the passion to act and the wisdom to know how to act. If we can find a way to combine these traits with a willingness to focus on quantity, not just quality, we will be truly unstoppable!

What do you think of the debate between quality vs. quantity with starting a company? What steps have you take to avoid “feature-creep” and indecisiveness in your business? Please add your thoughts in the comments section below and “like” and share this article to keep the conversation going.

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