photo (9)A while ago, one of my start-up clients messaged me. It began: “You’re probably going to hate me for this…!”

That’s always a good sign, right? Sigh.

She continued: “I just committed to an amazing opportunity for us to triple our advertising exposure,” she went on. “A sponsor dropped out of this big event my friend is holding, and for just $1,000 I could fill their place and get us $3000 worth of advertising in their program, a banner, and a lot of exposure! I know it’s speeding things up, but maybe this will really motivate everyone to get to work!”

I grimaced so hard that I’m surprised that I didn’t sprain anything.  They didn’t even have a product to promote yet.  This start-up didn’t even have a business plan. They were a new group of people with backgrounds in non-profit work trying to make the jump from volunteer work to a viable business model. They had held one training meeting — that half of the team couldn’t attend.  After two weeks, the other half of the team still hadn’t viewed the recording to see what they’d missed. They hadn’t even filed for a business license yet. They were not ready.

But they were committed. The money was spent. It was a train wreck waiting to happen. I knew that there was a good change I was about to lose a client – either because they were going to fail catastrophically, or because I  was about to offend her egos.

I thought for a moment. And then I replied:

“Advertising now doesn’t make any sense. We’re advertising when we don’t have a product or even a Kickstarter or a business plan. And it pushes a completely unprepared team into the media spot light before they’re ready. We aren’t ready. And advertising before we’re ready cuts our chances of success in half. Advertising is only good if we’re ready. 

“The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a very dangerous idea. Dangerous to the point that I would reconsider involvement. I’m also concerned that this decision was made without consulting your team – it’s a very bad habit to get into. Legit businesses can’t operate this way. We should not make such a significant commitment without the input of the entire team.

“I love this project. I want it to succeed. What are our other options? Can we sponsor them now and save the advertising for a future date when we’re ready?

To her credit, she responded immediately: “You’re right. I just did exactly what I’d do with my old non-profit, which is pounce on available energy and opportunity to make stuff happen. I’m sorry I made this agreement without talking to everyone first. I got carried away with the energy of the moment and my friend needing help. Crap.”

She told me how frustrated she was with how slowly the process was moving, about her worries that we’d miss our chance. She felt awful. “I can’t believe I did that! Why did I do that?” she said over and over again.

Of course she did that, and she’d already told me why. “I just did exactly what I’d do with my old non-profit…” she’d said.

It’s one of the great ironies of business:

Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

Yes, you read that right. Today’s problems are caused by how we solved problems in the past. And the way we solve problems today will cause more problems in the future.

She had done exactly what you do when you’re running a resource-strapped non-profit: beg, steal, or borrow help!  jump on every opportunity before interest and commitment fade! create a sense of urgency to motivate people to pitch in! And for her non-profit, that would have been the right choice.

But this wasn’t her non-profit. This was a fledgling start-up trying to turn a concept into a viable business model that could survive in a cutthroat industry. Where the non-profit needed urgency and action to survive, the start-up will die without planning and discipline.

Her mistake – one that’s part of our human nature – was to assume that this new problem was similar to her old one.

My first instinct was to say “OOOOH kay. Wow. That’s not a lot of time. We’ll figure out how to make it work.” Because – deep down – I’m a make-it-work kind of woman. Always have been. When a situation seems impossible, my instinct is to throw myself into it and get the job done through the sheer force of my will – and I usually do.  It has served me well over the years.

Case in point: When I was in middle school, a groups of us students wanted to put on a play – but the school wouldn’t let us. So I said “Screw that! I’ll direct.” And then I found a teacher to who’d let us use her classroom afterschool to rehearse. I delivered proposals to every church in a 5 mile radius and followed up mercilessly until someone would let us use their fellowship hall to perform for free. We stuck a “donations welcome” sign on a pickle jar before the show, and raised $160 – which we donated to the church as a thank you.

But it has also led to a couple of catastrophic business failures – the kind where companies and lives collapse because you’re so focused on “rolling with the punches” that you enable poor planning and bad habits.  It’s better to dodge a punch than to roll with one. It’s best to see a fight brewing and avoid the situation all together. And it’s absolutely best to tell the person punching you to knock it off.

Which is why I fought my instinct.  I took a moment.