Persevere or not: The challenge of deciding when to forge ahead, and when to walk away

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The question arises commonly in business (marketing) and life: When should you persevere on your strategy; or cut your losses and walk away? It isn’t always an easy question to answer because, of course, the most difficult decisions are on the borderline. Maybe just a little more effort will take us to our goal; maybe the effort will simply add to the waste.

Last night, I had a conversation with a marketing entrepreneur, whose business I will profile in this blog soon. He said it took him five years from when he set out to become an expert in online marketing in a field he entered after leaving his engineering job to find a future away from nine-to-five work. He says, with the knowledge he now has, he would have picked a different niche.

But, I said, aren’t you doing quite well now? “Yes,” he said, “my income is above six figures and I don’t really have to work that hard.” He paid his dues, he struggled, he mastered the necessary skills, and he got good enough at it to be successful.

I then pointed out the obvious. “Sure, now that you have succeeded you could see where you could have done things better. But you also now have the freedom and time to work on a new sector and apply your knowledge, and it will be much easier this time around.”

In any case, this entrepreneur certainly followed the perseverance rules.

But there are examples where perseverance is simply folly, at least unless you rethink your processes.

Say you want to win work with a potential major client who you know is entrenched with a competitor. The organization posts public RFP/bidding opportunities, but it is a long-shot at best to even have a chance, based on the competitor’s relationships. Should you persevere and submit entry after entry, hoping something will break to your favor?

This is bound to be an exercise in frustration. There are always one in a thousand exceptions and flukes, but generally the competitor will always be one step or more ahead of you, especially if the connections are so good that you can’t even know how much they are wiring the RFP process to ensure they win every time.

A more rational approach would be to figure out how you can build relationships with the target organization and others within the sector that you think is important to you. You won’t put all your eggs into one basket, but you can certainly focus on a sector. And you may find the best way to build connections is by joining and participating in a relevant sector organization. Volunteer, contribute, and eventually you’ll become a committee member and then an association director, forging relationships and making connections.

Call this perseverance: While you can sometimes get instant results, you may think of a decade before you reach your objectives. (But when this process works, it can be like a gold-mine. I’m enjoying highly profitable contracts with association-based relationships that started many years ago.)

Again, though, there is an element of common sense. Say you join an association and discover your competitor is entrenched with senior executive/directorships and (worse) there are junior staff in place to move into the higher ranks. You could spend years and years here, and get nothing, other than perhaps some competitive intelligence.

Best to pull the plug in these situations, or think of a way around the problem. In my case, when association essentially told me to “get lost” because their leadership was tied to a competitor, I went to that competitor’s biggest single secondary competitor and we formed a strategic alliance because of our common “problem”. That alliance remains in place today (and as a fun spin-off, I purchased some shares in the alliance company which has since divested its construction industry interests, but now shows a capital gain of (gulp) 356 per cent (in 10 years).)

There’s one other clue in the perseverance rule:  It is generally easier to persevere if the initiative reflects your underlying values, interests, and goals, and (as much as you can) you enjoy the process. So, in an homage to a personal choice, when my future wife said “let’s be friends” after four dates, I decided to take her up on the (platonic) friendship offer because I indeed really liked her. Fast forward 12 years, and she said it is time to become romantic. We married two years later — and have been together almost 25 years now.

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