Humility in Business

Eating humble pie sucks.

“Life is a long lesson in humility.”
— James Matthew Barrie

We had gotten our first break. A major government contractor was overwhelmed with work and they needed someone to help out. A contact had recommended us, and with a 30 minute discussion and a handshake, we were in the door. At first, we had three people working there, and within two months, we had ten people there.

We couldn’t go wrong. We were doing great work there. However, hubris took over for me. I figured that we’d keep getting that work, and then others would hear about it, and we’d get more work, and then pretty soon, the phone would be ringing off the hook and the dings of Microsoft Outlook would be a constant din from inbound traffic.

Did I mention hubris?

I never envisaged a day when the client we had would no longer want us to work for them. After all, we were doing a great job and they were in a program which the government needed. Yet, within a year, they’d lost the contract, and when they lost the contract, they couldn’t afford to keep all of our people.

We went from on top of the world to scrambling to find the next contract. It’s quite a humbling lesson when you suddenly have to pull every idea from every nook and cranny out of your brain just to keep work flowing to be able to pay your employees.

What happened? Was it because we had done a bad job? Yes, and no. Yes, we did a bad job because we weren’t out there continuing to find new work. No, because we did a great job for that client. Five years later, the project manager asked us to be on his team for a contract bid because of the great work we did for him.

What did happen, though, is that we lost our humility. We thought that we’d made it to the big time and that we were going to hit the hockey stick of growth.

The hockey stick hit us instead. It took five years before we got back to the same size. Our heads got big, and we had to scramble to recover, and even though we did, we never forgot the lessons of humility that we learned.

  • Act as if the customer can fire you tomorrow. Because, in reality, the customer can fire you tomorrow. If you act entitled to the work, then the customer will fire you.
  • Don’t expect the calls to come in just because you’ve done something. You have to tell your story. Without a chief storyteller, you’re a tree falling in the woods, and the loggers will come and chop you to pieces.
  • Never think that you’ve perfected what you do. You can always improve. You have to be sharp and as good as you can be. There are others around who will pass you the moment you slip.
  • Seek feedback. Seek it from your customers. Seek it from those who don’t hire you. Seek it from those who might hire you. Seek it from those who work for you.
  • Be grateful for the opportunities that you have. You’re in a country that values freedom and individualism. You’re alive. You have people who love you.
  • Work to improve profitability. The more money you have in the bank, the more likely you are to survive the shock.

We managed to recover from the disappointment of losing that large client. I eventually successfully sold my company. But I never forgot the lessons. Working to make things happen will increase the chances that they do. Having the expectation that they should happen will, in some karmic twist of the world, decrease the chances that they do, and that disappointment in expectations will be a hard slap to take.

Have you ever had a big disappointment in your entrepreneurial ventures? What did you do? Tell us your story in the comments below!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

2 thoughts on “Humility in Business

  1. Much is true in the world. I saw this link on a recent post and decided to see what happened with you selling your company. I never thought this would be the post but never the less it was a very interesting read. I use to think land that one big client and you are all set. They are going to hook you up with their network of people. Well if it happens great but never stop networking and getting business. You never know when contract will end and it could have nothing to do with the work you did. You did a great job but the company that was paying you lost their contract. Things happen. Always be prepared.

    1. That’s what we thought too. Once you caught one whale, other whales would automatically migrate towards you. That’s certainly not the case. You have to go out there and tell your story. Yes, you have to be humble, but you are also your own best advocate. We did sort of expect that doing great work for one small division within a large conglomerate would lead to more work in other divisions, but the reality is that those companies are extremely siloed. You have to treat each division as if it’s its own company.

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