Knowing When to Quit

WhatToDoThere are a lot of ‘self-help’ books out there that will tell you what to do. But there aren’t many that will tell you when to quit. Who would buy such a book, or write such a book? Wouldn’t that be kind of admitting, or condoning, failure?

In our Western society, we tend to measure success in terms of more. More stuff, more customers, more profits, more revenues. It is almost blasphemous to suggest that less is more, that less is better. The term ‘subsistence’, making do with no more than one needs, is equated in our society with ‘struggling’, with ‘hardship’, with not having enough. When Jim Merkel wrote the book Radical Simplicity he was almost forced to label the idea — living with less — as ‘radical’.

As a corollary, we equate perseverance, against all odds (and often, against good sense) with success, with goodness, with ‘strength of character’. Quitters are losers. We don’t ‘quit working’, we ‘retire’ (a word that literally means ‘draw back’). And even when we retire we don’t quit — many choose to (or, increasingly, have to) do at least part-time work in what is euphemistically called their ‘second career’. Many choose this time to ‘give back’, as if retirement required some kind of penance.

Sometimes knowing when to quit is easy: If you really hate what you’re doing, either in a job or relationship, it’s probably time to try something else. If you’re swamped and unable to cope, it probably make sense to learn to say no to some things so you can do the others better.

But suppose you’re doing something you love, and it just isn’t appreciated (by your existing or potential customers, your boss and co-workers, or the object of your affection? When is enough enough then? When is it time to walk away and try something else?

A recent article by Jim Casparie in Entrepreneur says that, if you still love what you’re doing, and if it still makes sense to you, you still believe in it, you should consider the possibility that your idea just isn’t that great, and quit, if:

  • None of your closest friends or relatives has invested a dime — or even expressed any interest
  • The total amount you’ve been able to raise is less than $25,000
  • No one wants to join you in your madness and work for free (or stock)
  • No customer has been persuaded to buy your product or service
  • Your intellectual property attorney said there was nothing worth patenting
  • The last investor you presented your idea to asked if you were joking
  • You’ve been doing this for more than three years and still can’t support yourself or the company hasn’t hit break-even

That seems like good sense to me, but it also suggests that you didn’t do your homework before you started. One of the keys to stress-free entrepreneurial success I keep stressing is doing enough research up-front that you know the business is viable and that there’s a market for it now, that it fills a need.

You’re probably tired of me talking about the three intersecting circles in the figure above, and the need for entrepreneurs to find the ‘sweet spot’ (area 3) at their centre. But if you’re discouraged, I suspect that what you thought was an area 3 idea is actually an area 2 or even an area 1 idea. What is most likely is that you can see the need (the market) for your business’ offering but your customers can’t. There is nothing more frustrating than being too far ‘ahead of the curve’ and the entrepreneurial landscape is littered with the carcasses of businesses that were. Just as you cannot convince people of your political or philosophical or economic beliefs if they aren’t ready to listen to you, you cannot convince people to buy (or invest in) your product or service if they aren’t ready to appreciate its value. That doesn’t make you unpersuasive, it makes you prescient. In the world of business, they produce the same result. Every blockbuster success in the marketplace was preceded by many remarkably similar ideas that failed to catch on because they were too far ahead of their time. Life is too short to spend convincing people of things when if you wait awhile they won’t need convincing (Convincing people is what marketers and advertisers try to do, and most of them are an unhappy, cynical lot).

In his book To Be Of Use, successful ‘serial entrepreneur’ Dave Smith describes some of the very idealistic projects he has founded and worked on:

  • a natural, organic food coop
  • a distributor of high-quality professional garden tools (Clarington Forge)
  • a self-help wellness catalogue
  • a company offering renewable and alternative energy and home-building systems (Real Goods)
  • an organic seed company (Seeds of Change, now part of Mars Incorporated)
  • an organic products distributor (Diamond Organics)
  • an organic flower company (Organic Bouquet)
  • an organic food take-out and delivery store (Organic to Go)

None of these ideas is terribly novel. Smith just had the initiative to recognize the need for them and the commercial opportunity they presented, and he had the business savvy, learned by doing, to create businesses that would tap these needs. He knew before he started that there was a market and who that market was. (I’ll have a review of Dave’s book next week.)

What if you just can’t find anything in area 3? What if what you really love doing the world isn’t ready for yet? It may be harsh to say, but that probably means you haven’t done your research properly (i.e. there is something in area 3 but you’re so enamoured with more obvious projects in areas 1 or 2 you haven’t dug deep enough to find them). Finding opportunities in the sweet spot is hard work. Smith did a lot of area 5 jobs before he learned to recognize that that’s what they were. He learned that you can’t make an area 5 job into an area 3 job — you have to quit and start over.

The mistake that I think is most common among idealistic entrepreneurs is going it alone. That allows you to be uncompromising, but also precludes you from leveraging others’ talents and perspectives. Working with business partners with the same loves and principles you have but with complementary skills can allow you to find the area 3 opportunities you may be blind to. It will also make your thinking more practical and down-to-earth.

So here’s my advice on knowing when to quit:

  1. If you don’t love what you’re doing any more (or never did), it’s time to quit
  2. If you’re trying to do something that you know others do (or could do) well, but you can’t, it’s time to quit
  3. If you love what you’re doing and you’re good at it, but the market isn’t there, go back and do your homework, and if you then have to admit you’re well ahead of the market, then it’s time to put it aside until the market catches up to you
  4. If you love what you’re doing and you’re good at it and your research says there’s a market for it now, but you’re struggling, persevere but get help (partners, coaches)
  5. Before you quit, talk it over with those you love and trust to make sure you’re not missing anything
  6. Once you quit, when you’re starting your next project or career:
    1. don’t do it alone: work with partners who you love and who have complementary skills to yours, 
    2. do your homework first, and 
    3. keep digging until you find an area 3 opportunity (settle for area 5 and you’ll be miserable, settle for area 4 and your co-workers and customers will be miserable, settle for area 2 and you’ll be endlessly struggling)

This applies equally to quitting a job or your own entrepreneurial business. I’m not sure it doesn’t also apply by analogy to personal relationships, though I’m not an expert in that.

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5 Responses to Knowing When to Quit

  1. Another excellent article! I sent my husband here to read this post. By the way, Dave, I just linked to your blog on my brand new (still under construction) website You are under the category of “other good sites”.

  2. Daniel says:

    > know the business is viable and that there’s a market for it now, that it fills a need.I am not sure about this. Many products sell not because there is a need for them but because they create the desire to have them or to belong to the group of owners and not left apart. e.g. fashionNow if you are trying to promote meaninful products that is another issue, but I do not think products cover a need but many times create it.

  3. When I was twenty I had a job working graveyard shift. I’m a person who has trouble sleeping well even during normal hours (insomnia seems to run in our family–mine started as a teen), and I found I could not get enough sleep working those hours and living in a house where people were up during the day, including two nephews who were quite young and impossible to silence. I was always sleep deprived and even sick a lot from lack of sleep. My mother finally suggested I quit. That in itself stunned me, because my parents had grown up with and passed on to us a strong work ethic. For my mother to say this was revolutionary.I took her advice. The employer immediately offered me a day job, which I accepted, though I quit that a few months later when I found something better and healthier. For me this has always remained an important example of how sometimes it’s better to quit. That lesson enabled me to decide when it was time to take early retirement from a job that was so intensely stressful it felt like it was slowly killing me. It’s also the lesson that has kept me writing fiction, even without monetary success, for so long — because I love doing it. I recently read some statistics from an informal survey of novelists. The average novelist surveyed didn’t become satisfactorily published until around the age of 48 or 49 — my age now. One theory is that the amount of life experience by the time one reaches that age enables one to write convincingly about many types of experiences in an emotionally realistic and compelling way. Anyway, it made me realize it’s not time yet to quit this endeavor I love so much.

  4. Martin-Eric says:

    An absolutely essential skill it indeed is, knowing when it’s time to quit. Having said this, realizing that something has exceeded its potential or that it is way ahead of its time suscitates a dilema of its own: What to do next? Wisdom suggests that the answer will present itself once you have totally detached yourself from the project and factually quit. Unfortunately, sitting still and remaining open to new opportunities does not always work. I am myself facing a situation where I have realized that something is simply not working out and that persisting would in fact only make things worse, having accepted it and being actively solliciting ideas as to what to do next. Plenty of ideas have come, but all are empeached by circumstances out of our control (issues like having the “wrong” citizenship in an increasingly xenophobic EU). Going back to a country I simply never considered home has been repeatedly suggested and sounds like an obvious choice, but given how things there are already far worse than they were when I left, it’s basically not an option, especially given how I would be returning to nothing; a prohibitively expansive relocation without any immediate benefit.

  5. I totally agree with what you’re saying. I wish more people felt this way and took the time to express themselves. Keep up the great work.Mary Anne Martin

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