I am going to give away a secret to making money in the cattle business, no matter which segment you are in. You must think profit, and commit to it. If you hope to make a profit but spend most of your time worrying and/or thinking about losing money the predominant thought will certainly cause you to lose money. And you already have your excuse handy, its these up and down markets that make it impossible. There is nothing we can do right. However, if you commit to making a profit you will find yourself taking the necessary steps to hit that mark.
Here’s my closing thought this week: People are upset and saying silly things like the market is broken and we need government intervention or a bail-out for cattlemen. I, once again, outlined the market is trying to help us this week. How is that broken? We can make money on fats. We can make money as back grounders. The cow calf operator can make money with all the different classes of cattle in their inventory. The market is giving us a chance to make some real money right now. It’s also giving us the opportunity to lose big. Our free will and our way of thinking will dictate which side we choose to walk on.
Everyone measures their success in the Cattle Industry differently. Those goals may have many different meanings from producing and showing a National Champion to having a successful production sale or just having a productive sustainable breeding program. The Cattle Industry is one of the most diverse industries in our country, with many breeds, philosophies and kinds of cattle being produced. The great thing about that diversity is there seems to be a buyer for everything of quality within those different kinds. Our industry is very similar to the automobile or fashion industries. Over the years our industry has gone through many changes and usually those changes have translated into income. Right or wrong change equals an increase in income. When you have something that nobody else has they will want it.
Successful programs spend as much time developing and maintaining a marketing program as they do their breeding program. Regardless, if your program’s end product is feeder cattle or seedstock understanding and utilizing the basic principles of marketing give you an advantage and a much greater chance for success.
There are two truths that you will deal with in your marketing program. “Perception is Reality” and “You can have the best cattle in the world, but if nobody knows about them, how can you sell them”. Marketing is more than advertising, as you will see further in this article, advertising is only part of your entire Marketing Program.
Your Customer – Target Market
Before we get into the specifics of the Six P’s an understanding of your customer or “Target” audience is essential. As we already discussed the Cattle Industry is very diverse. Therefore, marketing to the entire industry is a waste of time, money and resources. It is critical to identify who your market is and get as specific as possible to reach that market. Some programs only sell bulls while others only sell females and some programs sell both. That along with identifying what type of breeder will buy your cattle based on pedigree, kind and philosophy allows you to be more efficient with your budgeted dollars and ultimately the results.
Identifying your customer is essential as the first step to guide you in all facets of your Marketing Program. While its true that you never know where your next customer will come from, it is important to understand demographically where your base will come from. Where, who, what are all part of identifying your base. If you are selling bulls to commercial producers, sell the benefits of those bulls and promote the sale to that audience.
Planning – The First P
The saying, “if you don’t plan – you plan to fail” is particularly true when it comes to developing a successful breeding program and marketing program. Planning is an essential part of your success.
Planning your advertising and marketing effort to dovetail with your breeding and calving seasons is important, so that your product is what it needs to be – when the buyers will buy it. If you are planning a bull sale and you calve in April-May you would not want to schedule your sale for January when the bulls are less than a year old. You will compromise their fertility, performance and data with underage bulls. Schedule your sale after the bulls reach a year of age or perhaps even sell them in the Fall as long-yearlings.
Measurements are important to most buyers, both, commercial and purebred producers. Planning your sales effort with your ability to acquire and record that data is important to give potential buyers the information they require to make buying decisions. Planning your breeding program so that you can acquire necessary data in time for your sale is important.
Product – What Are You Selling – Getting Your Piece Of The Pie
The most successful programs that I have observed are those that have a clear vision of what their product is. They have a mission or goal of the type and kind of cattle they wish to produce and a solid philosophy regarding management of those genetics.
It is important to differentiate your brand or product to buyers so they can relate to the genetics you provide them. While thousands of people breed, grow and sell Angus Cattle – not all programs are the same and not all genetics are the same. Product differentiation allows your buyers to zero in on the attributes and benefits of your genetics. In the grand scheme of things the cattle industry is a big pie and you want to get your share of that pie (market share). This is a tool used by other products and industries.
Look at how the soft drink industry has differentiated their products to gain market share. Coke is not just Coke anymore it is – Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Coke Zero, Caffeine Free Coke and on and on and on. Regardless if you buy a Coke or a Coke Zero you are buying a Coke rather than a competitor’s product – increasing your market share of the soft drink market.
Identify your product to your customers and potential customers and promote the attributes and benefits of your gene pool. Production and performance will be a part of identifying your product – SO KEEP RECORDS ! Production information such as progeny ratios, calving intervals, daughters production are all important if you have identified your product as one that excels in maternal traits – so not only take down the information but submit it to the breed association so it is well documented. If you are selling bulls, birth weights, weaning weights, yearlings etc etc are all critical to give your buyers the information they want to make a buying decision.
Price – Getting Every Dollar They Are Worth
We all want to sell our cattle for as much as we possibly can. I am amazed how many times I go into a program and they expect top dollar for their cattle – but they don’t take care of the basics to create value and increase the value of the cattle they have for sale.
As mentioned above under PRODUCT, the money is in the details. Well documented production and performance information adds significant value to your product and increases price. Sure, some buyers are only interested in phenotype but most in today’s industry want to utilize the tools in the toolbox to make a decision, particularly since prices are at all time highs in all segments of the industry.
In addition to record keeping management also adds value. Nutrition, stock development and herd maintenance all play key roles in adding value. Over fed or under fed cattle will not command the highest value. Providing adequate nutrition to all the cattle to express their genetic potential at optimum levels gives you the greatest chance to add value to your product. The best pedigree and the best cattle “on paper” will not bring the best dollar if you don’t pay attention to the details of records and management to add value to your product.
Place – Where Do You Sell Your Cattle
If you are selling privately off the farm or ranch then you need to make it easy for buyers to find you and provide directions to them. Same is true if you are having an auction but you may have choices. An auction at the farm requires more facilities and more work to have that sale regardless if it’s a pen sale, video sale or traditional auction with cattle coming through a sale ring. You may find it easier to utilize a stockyards, fairgrounds or even a neighbor that raises another breed of cattle that would allow you to rent their facility.
All of these options have value depending on your circumstances and where you are located. The primary focus here is to conduct your sale at a location that is easy for buyers to find and participate.
More and more today we are holding video auctions where the cattle do not walk through a sale ring. These sales can be held anywhere. They can be held on the ranch or at a hotel that is in the nearest town. They could be held miles away if that is most convenient to the buyers to attend.
Possession – You Don’t Have A Sale Until The Buyer Takes Possession
This part of the Marketing Mix may sound self-explanatory, however, this is a key part of the mix. You conduct a sale and the buyer shows up pays for his purchases and loads the cattle and takes them home – you are done right ? No ! If he purchased purebred cattle then the possession of what he purchased is not done until you transfer the registration papers.
Many of the cattle we sell today are sold to absentee buyers – they are not present at the sale. Shipping costs today are higher than ever before with fuel prices what they are. It is a critical component of the sale to provide your buyers with service to arrange trucking
Promotion – It’s More Than Just Placing An Ad Somewhere
A successful Marketing Plan begins with a budget to keep you on track. This is always our starting point as it guides us through the process of keeping costs in line while placing a priority on media that reaches your target market. Our 20 plus years of experience in the advertising industry has given us insight to these different forms of promotion as there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them.
It is well documented that the most successful Marketing Plans utilize a mix in the kind of promotion used to reach the target audience. Technology has driven many changes in that mix over recent years, particularly since more consumers have access to high speed internet. Finding the mix that best reaches your target market has some trial and error to it. Talk to your customers and ask them what they read and how they get their information.
Print advertising includes magazines and newspapers that cover both regional and local audiences as well as national. A mix of all of these types of print advertising should be utilized as long as they make sense and reach your target market. Our budget will be limited therefore we try to utilize publications that give us the greatest “bang for the buck”. Dare to be different in your ads to capture attention. Your ads need to stand out and capture the reader’s attention.
Radio and TV provide opportunities throughout many parts of the country and deliver a low cost/thousand audience. Broadcast advertising puts immediacy to your message. Prepare yourself for some sticker shock with some of this media but our research has shown that it can deliver new customers to the established program and bring an industry to a new program.
Electronic media in the form of the internet and E-Mail have exploded over recent years. This is largely due to the ease at which you can create content and copy but more importantly the low cost.
Website – for as little as $500.00 you can direct your customers and potential customers to an electronic brochure that gives them information about your program. Websites should be simple and easy to navigate through. You can give customers a tour of your ranch and cattle program while they sit in their living room. You can offer cattle for sale and promote your production sale very inexpensively particularly when you promote it through an E-Blast program as we have at BSM.
This service has exploded in recent years with many firms offering the service. Be careful through – just as in a “snail mail” mailing list it as only as good as the database. The database needs to be constantly added and deleting bad addresses that waste your effort – however the cost to do this is very cheap and can add further traffic to your website and more interest in your upcoming sale.
Direct Mail Advertising
Traditional direct mail, brochures, sale books or newsletters are still very affective tools. Not all producers use the internet (or do not use it regularly) and will not get your E-Mail or view your website.
Attractive brochures and newsletters grab attention and can tell your story. Many producers will keep your brochure to refer back to when they are ready to buy.
Brochures, newsletters and post cards can be expensive to produce however they are still cheaper to mail than a sale book. We have found it a good strategy to send out the direct mail first and ask for a sale book request – rather than mail thousands of sale books that can run as high as $3.00/each with postage.
Nothing takes the place of personal selling. While you may hire a firm like Brubaker Sales to do a lot of the for you – many customers still want to talk to you and get to know you before doing business.
Attend events locally, regionally and nationally and give others an opportunity to get to know you – I’m sure you are a likable person and this will allow a selling connection – even if you never try to sell them anything. Get involved with breed associations and cattleman’s associations to build relationships with other producers that can become your customer.
You may be amazed how important a sign at the end of your lane or along the highway can be to your marketing program. Not everyone has a location suitable to a billboard on the interstate but if you are this can be a great way to promote beef to consumers and promote your program.
I’ve included Customer Service as part of promotion simply because that is exactly what it is. Good customer service becomes good promotion and bad customer service becomes bad promotion. In our industry we deal with mother nature and things don’t always turn out the way we want – we can limit the negativity by working with a customer to repair the problem. The programs that take care of their customers keep their customers and those that don’t loose them. Be fair and responsible to your customers and they will return to do business with you for many years.
In 2004, Kathy Voth invented a method for training cows to eat weeds. The idea grew from the responses from ranchers when she suggested they use goats or sheep to manage weeds. That just wasn’t an economically viable or sustainable solution for them.
Kathy believes that animals are a good solution for weed management, so she decided that if cattle ranchers weren’t interested in goats or sheep, she’d figure out how to turn their cattle into weed managers. Using discoveries made by researchers at Utah State University, and decades of animal behavior studies, she put together a very logical set of steps for teaching cows to eat weeds.
Minimal Time Investment
Using Kathy’s process a cattle producer can teach cows to eat weeds in as little as 10 hours over 10 days and then sit back and relax while the cows get to work.
Cows Are Good Learners and Teachers
A small group of trainees will teach their calves and herd mates to eat weeds, to create a weed eating army in the course of one grazing season. Cows will continue to eat the weeds year after year and add new ones without additional training.
Ranching is different things to different people but like all types of agricultural endeavors, it comes down to converting sunlight into wealth through green plants and photosynthesis.
This wealth can take several forms aside from money. Grazing animals, especially ruminants, can convert vegetation that is inedible to humans into high quality food. This can be done, without machinery, on land that is unfit for cultivation. Lately this has been getting press under the guise of “upcycling.”
There are other beneficial products, but one desperately needed in today’s world is improved water management. In some situations, if grazing management is used properly, it can double or triple the amount of precipitation captured and used to grow vegetation. This management will also greatly increase the amount of water that accumulates in the soil and in subsurface aquifers.
Proper grazing decreases the likelihood of flooding and increases the usefulness of precipitation. These advantages come about through creating the conditions that allow water to enter and be held by the soil. Foremost amongst the conditions is keeping the soil surface covered with organic matter.
I was on a ranch recently in the hot dry summer when a four-inch rain fell in about four hours. This was followed several hours later by a two-inch rain. This ranch is rolling sandy loam with sandy clay subsoil and has some steep slopes. Little, if any, water ran off the ranch while the neighboring areas had heavy runoff of muddy water.
The difference was the amount of bare ground on the two areas. The ranch with good ground cover absorbed the rainfall to the degree that the tanks (ponds to those of you not from Texas) caught no water. Twenty-four hours after the rain stopped, clear water began to flow from springs into the tanks.
What is the value of six inches of rain stored in the soil rather than running down the creek? There are millions upon millions of acres world-wide that are totally ineffective in capturing and storing rainfall. Water shortage for crops but also for humans is already critical in many areas. Good grazing management can dramatically improve the water cycle of these degraded areas while producing food and profit.
A second condition critical to improving water capture and retention is soil organic content. Organic matter that has been processed by microbial action can seize and hold many times its weight in water. Soil life is dependant on soil organic content, and plants are dependent on soil life. Soil life, especially mycorrhizal fungi, produce the organic compounds – essentially the glue – that holds soil particles together in aggregates and gives soil the porosity and permeability that allows it to take in and hold both water and air.
A big portion of soil organic content comes from root exudates – mostly carbohydrates – pumped into the soil by living plants. In a classic example of symbiotic relationship, the root exudates nourish the soil lifeforms which nourish the plants that provide the root exudates.
Given the opportunity, natural forces promote life to the benefit of the whole soil-plant-animal complex. This is not always a straightforward process. Drought can cause an explosion of grasshoppers by killing the fungi that normally limit the viability of the hopper eggs. When normal weather returns, the fungi will return, and balance will re-establish in insect populations. If we intervene with insecticides spread over large areas, the ecology of that area becomes unstable with ongoing wide swings in both populations and numbers within populations.
Catastrophes such as wildfire, drought and flood happen in the natural world, but only man prolongs the effects of these events. Millions of acres of grassland have been destroyed by holding stock on areas that can no longer feed them. The diversity of life from plants, animals and microbes provides stability and productivity, but it is destroyed when management focuses on “kill the pest” rather than on fostering the conditions that promote health through out the local environment. This may sound sophomoric, however it is not only possible but much more effective financially, ecologically and to human benefit than what is common practice over most of the world.
Winds were gusting over 45 miles per hour on an overcast day at the Dunmire Ranch in southeastern Wyoming. Black cows grazed in the distance with wind turbines lined up on the horizon. At the center of ranch, young colts milled around the corral. Gator, a 14-year-old blind and deaf dog, barked, guarding the home of rancher Les Dunmire.
Inside the house, Dunmire put on his dirt-caked cowboy hat and boots, as he told me how he’s owned this ranch for just over 30 years and that this lifestyle goes back generations.
“My dad had a ranch in Iron Mountain Wyoming and my granddad had a ranch in Sioux County, Nebraska,” Dunmire said.
Land on the Dunmire Ranch
CREDIT COOPER MCKIM/WYOMING PUBLIC RADIO
Back when he started in 1987, Dunmire only had a few hundred head of cattle. Now, he owns over 100,000 acres and 1800 head of cattle. But at 66, Dunmire is starting to take a step back from it all.
“I always tell people that I’m going to work as long as I can and then become a burden for my children,” Dunmire said,”but seriously, as we get older we do a little less. As we get older, we transfer more of the day-to-day operations of the ranch to our children.”
Dunmire said he sees passing on lands as the last responsibility of a rancher. “We’re trying to get it to the next generation, or the next two generations, intact with the smallest amount of tax pain that we could possibly have,” Dunmire said.
He’s been preparing for succession now for 26 years. It’s required an accountant and lawyer to figure out the best way to keep his kids from drowning in estate taxes. One strategy has been to divide the land into six legal entities. To put the situation in context, Dunmire recounted the story of how his dad came into his ranch. It also serves as a worst-case scenario of poor estate planning.
Sign at the entrance of the Dunmire Ranch
CREDIT COOPER MCKIM/WYOMING PUBLIC RADIO
“There was kids that wanted to stay there, but when the grandfather passed away he had not done any estate planning or gifting or anything to get ready to pass it on. And they had to sell the ranch, basically, because of [the] tax situation,” Dunmire said.
He’s far from the only one going through this process. In 2012, the average age of farmers and ranchers hit a record high of 58 years old. According to a report from the National Young Farmers Coalition, 63 percent of farms are on the verge of transitioning. Experts say the U.S. needs to be prepared for a massive land transfer in the next decade.
John Hewlett, a farm and ranch management specialist at the University of Wyoming, is one of many who working to smooth that transition.
“A lot of folks need help in terms of transferring ownership, worrying about how to best structure their farm or ranch in terms of tax, as well as making sure that the ownership is transferred such that the ranch or farm can be viable after the transfer,” Hewlett said.
He said easing the transition isn’t just about helping the older generation, but the younger one. That’s increasingly tough with fewer and fewer young people joining the industry. In 2012, only 6 percent of farmers were under 35.
“They become educated and they have other income opportunities as a result. It’s a lot different than 50 years ago when a lot of people’s focus was to be on the land, and to do some kind of jobs on the farm. It was part of the family’s activities,” Hewlett said.
Principal operators by age group
CREDIT USDA CENSUS OF AGRICULTURE
He’s helped create a website full of resources on steps to take in land succession. There are many other organizations offering seminars, programs, and workshops as well, like the Plank Stewardship Initiative, University of Wyoming Extension, and the Western Landowners Alliance. Lesli Allison, executive director of the WLA, said her organization wants to help lower the barriers to entry for young people by supporting policies like loan debt forgiveness programs for those weighed down by student debt.
“As a nation, we need to be looking at policies and economic strategies to sustain these landscapes and make it possible for people to make a living in the rural west, to stay on that land, to raise families on that land, to stay in rural communities in a way that supports both agriculture and conservation,” Allison said.
She said a football field worth of land is lost to development every two and half minutes in the west. And that’s partially private land that supports wildlife, clean air and water, and biodiversity.
Average Age of Principal operators
CREDIT USDA CENSUS OF AGRICULTURE
Allison said beginning the process of land succession early is crucial to preserving ranches and farms, whether there’s an obvious heir or not. That starts by simply talking about it.
“Simply raising awareness and encouraging uncomfortable conversations.” Allison said, “they can become quite positive and transformative.”
Back at the ranch, Dunmire drove his red truck through a shallow, ice-laden stream, giving way to an open field with hundreds of cows grazing. A few trotted out of the way as the truck drove past. Dunmire said he’s loved raising a family on the ranch.
“The family is intertwined with the ranch and it’s a great place to raise cattle and kids,” Dunmire said.
Let’s face it, transitioning to a niche market or picking up more work is not a solution for every farmer facing hard times. Some will need to stop farming. While that may be hard, it can also be an opportunity.
Outside agriculture, career shifts are often seen as a way to advance, points out Extension educator Megan Roberts. “In other occupations, if we switch jobs, that’s not seen in any way as a failure,” she says.
Here’s a look at how to stop farming and the opportunities that come with the change. Ending a career in farming begins with making a decision.
Mental health practitioner Shauna Reitmeier explains, “In some situations, that decision is something you’re choosing to do on your own without any external pressures, and in some situations, you have to do it in order to sustain. We know that this current environment we’re in, many farmers dealing with commodity prices and weather situations are needing to decide, ‘Do I liquidate? Do I need to sell half of my dairy cattle, or not?’ ”
Anxiety and worries about the unknown are totally normal, she says. To keep from getting overwhelmed, it is important to recognize what is in your control and what you can’t control.
Keeping your values front and center as you make decisions may ease the heartache of difficult choices. Ask yourself, what are the two or three values that drive you to get up every day?
“Yes, farming is a way of life and we identify ourselves with farming, but it’s really those strong values that get you up every morning to continue to farm. Those values don’t change based on whether you’re farming,” Reitmeier says.
“It isn’t the farm that makes the farmer – it’s the love, hard work, and character,” says Brenda Mack, who lives on a farm and works as a licensed independent clinical social worker.
After making the decision to end or pivot your farming career, don’t expect to bounce back overnight. Some people experience real grief and loss over the change, and that’s OK, says Reitmeier, who grew up on a farm. Be prepared for the following range of emotions as you make decisions, develop plans, and put them in place.
Shock and denial: Avoidance, blame, fear, numbness
Anger: Anxiety, embarrassment, irritation
“You might be having more fights with your spouse or get more irritable with the lenders you’re having conversations with,” Reitmeier says.
Depression and detachment: Blahs, helplessness, lack of energy
Dialogue and bargaining: Reaching out to others, desire to share one’s story, struggle to find meaning for what happened
Acceptance: Exploring options, a new plan in place
Return to meaningful life: Empowerment, security, self-esteem, meaning
The stages of grief may not all come in this order. “One day you’re angry, the next day you’re feeling a little acceptance, another day you’re depressed. You’re all over the place,” Reitmeier says.
Mack remembers watching her own parents process their decision to retire from farming. The transition was especially hard for her proud, third-generation row-crop farming father.
After retiring, her dad felt as though he didn’t fit at the table of neighboring farmers discussing their problems at the local café. He struggled to find where he belonged. Conversations with his wife, other farmers, his priest, and a mental health therapist all helped him find a new, broader identity for himself and a renewed sense of purpose.
“I was really proud of my dad for having the understanding and ability, and not feeling shame in reaching out to a formal provider because that can be really terrifying. It can be hard to go see a mental health provider, but it’s what he needed at that point in time,” Mack explains.
Mack acknowledges mental health resources aren’t always easy to find in rural areas.
In addition to seeking professional mental health services, there are other strategies to cope with the massive changes that come with the end of a farming career.
Keep in mind who you are in addition to your role as a farmer. Farmers wear many hats: parent, child, sibling, community leader, church member, history enthusiast, 4-H leader, to name a few.
Building self-awareness can help you discover you are more than what you do. If you’re struggling to get out of the grief and loss process, Reitmeier suggests knowing your body cues. Sensing when they become different can be helpful. Also, keep tabs on your relational, cognitive, and physical health
Cultivating Resiliency resources are presented by American Agri-Women, District 11 Minnesota Agri-Women, University of Minnesota – Women in Ag Network, and Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.
“Evil isn’t done so often by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves.” -Reinhold Niebuhr
My first post in this series was about my start-up and business failures.
When I was done, I felt proud of myself. I was proud of my honesty and vulnerability, because five years ago–maybe even one year ago–that post doesn’t get written. I would have hid my problems or argue them away, claiming the failures were other people’s faults, not mine, and I was proud that I wasn’t doing that anymore.
I should know this by now; as soon as I feel prideful, the fall is coming. The very first email response:
“That article was revealing, but missing something. How did you come to understand these flaws in yourself? You just tell us what your mistakes were, and not how you got to that insight, which is what I really want to know, so maybe I can do this for myself.”
Publicly owning my failures wasn’t hard. That was easy, actually.
What was hard was getting to the point where I could actually own my failures to myself, and I didn’t really explain how I did that at all.
I wrote about the result of that work, which is, at its core, just me showing off.
That’s the dirty little secret of the fetishization of failure in Silicon Valley. It’s by and large a high-status excuse to show off. You tell everyone how many businesses you’ve started and how much money you raised, and how you are a better person through humility. You are competing to see who can be more humble. No one dives into how they actually learned from their failures, because they didn’t. It’s entrepreneur porn.
I hate when people do that…yet it’s exactly what I did.
That’s bullshit. If I want to write for me, it’s totally fine, I just need to keep that shit in my fucking diary. If I’m going to publish it, it has to be for other people, to help them.
That’s what this post is. A deep dive into how I actually learned to own my failures to myself. I’m writing and publishing this so that, by seeing my process, you can help yourself do something similar.
When My Perception Of Identity Was Fucked Up
I’ll dive into one example of a big failure, probably my biggest and most personal ever:
The movie about my life failed. And it failed mainly because of my bad decisions, and all of those decisions were ultimately driven by my deep identity and emotional issues.
I had an immense amount invested in this movie. Not money–I actually had zero money invested in it. But I had my entire identity and emotional state invested in its creative and commercial outcome.
If it succeeded, then I was a success. It was, at least in my subconscious, nothing less than a referendum on me as a person. Valid or not valid. Good or bad. Worthy or unworthy. Everything about who I was rode on the success of that movie, and every decision I made was deeply and unconsciously impacted by that.
The full story of that movie could be it’s own movie, but some quick, easy examples of how this emotional identity issue impacted my decision making:
We had the wrong director. You know who picked him? Me.
Very smart people told me I was wrong, and gave great reasons to not select this director. I ignored them. Why? My deep need to show everyone that I was right about MY decision. I made it about me.
We had the wrong production company. You know who picked them? Me.
Very smart people told me I was making a mistake. We even had a HUGE offer from the best studio in Hollywood. I turned them down. Why? Because, again deep down, I wanted to prove I could beat the Hollywood system by making an indie movie that I owned and I controlled. I made it about me.
We still could have made a good movie–even with a bad director and the wrong production company. But the shoot sucked. You know why? I made the whole thing about me.
Why? My need to show how smart and important I was became so manifestly important to my identity, that it sent my controlling side into overdrive. Nobody knew my life better than me. Nobody knew me better than me. So only I could make certain decisions. I screamed at a lot of people. Not because I hated them, but because their ideas about the character and the world of the movie so threatened my perception of myself that I couldn’t allow words or concepts that I disagreed with to even leave their lips. I emotionally and spiritually crushed everyone on that movie set, all because of my own emotional issues I would not face.
I could go on and on with examples like this. You get the point.
I can remember the night I knew the movie wasn’t going to do well. It was possibly the hardest night of my entire life. I cried more than I had ever cried in my life. I felt the worst I’d ever felt about myself. The emotional pain was so intense, so real, it became literal physical pain.
I wasn’t suicidal, but I honestly felt like I wanted to die. I’d spent the previous seven years scratching and clawing and fighting to get to this moment. I’d run through walls, over people, around obstacles, all for this? To feel this way?
I’d never felt so alone, so crushed, so utterly defeated. I had not failed at something. I felt like, in a very real emotional sense, that I was a failure as a human being.
Believe me, I FULLY recognize the self-indulgent absurdity of this scene: here I was, a rich and famous white guy, who someone gave millions of dollars and creative control to make a movie about his life based on his #1 New York Times bestselling book, crying because it didn’t do 50 million dollars its first weekend? Boo fucking hoo.
But emotions and identity and self-perception are not about objective facts (talk to any Trump fan to see proof of that). This is about the emotional reality of my life, and it was this moment–where I felt like my entire personhood was a failure and invalid–that set me on the journey I am on today.
That was my emotional bottom. From that moment, I knew I had to get help. I knew the way I looked at the world, and at myself, was broken, and it would break me completely if I didn’t change it. I didn’t know why, and I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was my reality.
A few months later I moved to Austin and started psychoanalysis. I also started angel investing at the same time. It was a coincidence, but those two things together taught me how to take responsibility for my actions and own my failures.
How Therapy Helped Me Shift My Identity Problems
It might be hard to understand how identity and the unconscious works. I can’t begin to give a full explanation of it, even in a long piece like this. One of my favorite blogs on the internet had a great explanation about how this works:
“The unconscious doesn’t care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets. It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo. Do not change and you will not die. It will allow you to go to college across the country to escape your parents, but turn up the volume of their pre-recorded soundbites when you get there. It will trick you into thinking you’re making a huge life change, moving to this new city or marrying that great guy, even as everyone else around you can see what you can’t, that Boulder is exactly like Oakland and he is just like the last guys. And all the missed opportunities–maybe I shouldn’t, and he probably already has a girlfriend, and I can’t change careers at 44, and do I really deserve this?– all of that is maintenance of the status quo, the ego.”
If you want to learn more quickly, Paul Graham has a great essay about separating your identity from the results of your actions, called “Keep Your Identity Small.” There are so many books and research papers about this idea, the problem is that they all have different names and different conclusions (quick start on background: a research paper showing people literally can’t do math when it goes against their identity, and a good book intro to this is Mindset).
The best tradition I’ve read to deeply understand this issue is actually the oldest: Buddhism (the actual Buddha called this problem in people “The Hungry Ghost”). In fact, you could say that this insight is the key insight of Buddhism: all the suffering of humanity is caused by the attachment to an identity or a result.
It’s even enshrined in their primary dicta, the Four Noble Truths:
[Don’t worry, I won’t lecture you about Buddhism, I promise]
How you define and see yourself and the results you strive for creates the suffering you endure. In essence, the less you are attached to things, and the more you just experience them, the better off your life is (I also included some basic reading lists for Buddhism at the end as well).
Simple to say, but hard and complicated to apply to your own life. I tried to learn this by just doing psychoanalysis and reading a lot about it. I have a large dent in my checking account and an even larger collection of flagged and annotated books as testaments to that effort. Eventually I got it “intellectually.”
But getting something in your conscious brain is VERY different than getting it deep in the unconscious. I only learned HOW to apply this concept (divorcing your identity from your results) to my unconscious—-to my own thinking and my own emotions–from the time I spent angel investing.
Lemme walk you through how that that process worked for me, maybe that will explain better.
How Angel Investing Taught Me To See Entrepreneurs’ Issues
When I was first starting my own companies, I was emotionally attached to each of my ideas, and attached to their success. Not in the sense that because I worked hard on them, I really wanted them to happen. That’s normal. I was attached in the way that the ideas and the success became part of my identity.
When I say “became part of my identity” I mean this as literally as possible. I would, at least unconsciously, think that if my business idea succeeded, then I was a success. And if the business idea failed, then I was a failure.
I couldn’t look at my ideas or my companies objectively, with any kind of detachment, because they represented, in a very real way, a judgment of myself as a person. Their success was, in my mind, nothing less than a judgment of my validity as a human. Just like on the movie.
Being so attached to results was a problem. It prevented me from honestly and critically looking at my ideas and their results–even if they weren’t working. Especially then. It was too painful to see they weren’t working, because that made me feel bad about myself as a person. So I would lie to myself or convince myself that something stupid was smart (if you’re familiar with western psychology, this is basic rationalization and projection, and I did 100 times on the movie).
If you do this in a relationship, that’s not good. But it’s just about the very worst thing you can do as an entrepreneur (or a creative). Facts are facts, whether you like them or not, and if you are making emotionally-driven decisions about factual situations in start-ups, then you are going to make bad, bad business decisions.
Here’s where angel investing helped me: I wasn’t evaluating my own decisions or identity. I was looking at other people and their decisions.
My job as an angel investor was very simple: I bet money (through buying equity) on my ability to correctly assess three things: 1. the entrepreneurs who pitched, 2. the product-market fit of their start-up, and 3. the market they were competing in.
The reason I did so well is because when I evaluated other people’s start-up ideas, I didn’t have any attachment to them. It meant nothing to my identity if they were good or bad, so I could be completely objective. I could look at the facts with clear eyes. I could ask hard questions. I could see other alternatives. I wasn’t tied to any ideas I had about myself, because these weren’t my ideas.
You know the feeling where you can see all the relationship problems all of your friends have with total clarity, but you can’t figure your own stuff out at all. It’s the same concept (there’s an entire business built around this ironic tension–it’s called ‘life coaching’).
What I found out was that when I wasn’t unconsciously worried about defending my identity from failure in business, and I let my ability loose in evaluating OTHER entrepreneurs’ companies, it worked great. I was really, really good at evaluating founders, start-ups, business plans–all of it.
The funniest thing is that I started to become an true expert at calling out the entrepreneurs who were just like me!
The entrepreneurs who were so tied to their start-up idea or their success were super easy for me to spot. Just like former drug addicts are the best at seeing the tricks of other addicts, I could see them performing all the mental gymnastics I used to do to avoid admitting clear facts that might make them see themselves in a way that hurt their ego and identity.
Simply put, I paired up the insights I got in therapy (being able to see how much I tied my identity and self-esteem to my fame and success) with the insights I got from my angel investing (seeing how other founders delude themselves in the same way I used to and how it affected their business decisions), and it showed me where I was making emotionally-driven identity decisions in business–so I could stop doing that.
Except, to make it REALLY work, I had to do something really hard: I had to turn this new super power on myself.
How I Combined These Insights To Own My Failures
“We do not learn by experience, but our capacity for experience.”
I turned that super-power on myself in a very specific way. It may not work for you, but I’ll list out the process to make it easier to find your way:
For each business I’ve ever been involved in (and I included books and movies as businesses), I wrote down everything that happened. The objective facts. Things like revenue, time, result, etc. I got all the facts (that mattered) out of my head onto a piece of paper, as many as I could think of.
Then I did something really weird (I learned this from a doctor who treats OCD patients): I pretended that I was talking to a different entrepreneur about THEIR business, and then evaluated the facts of that person’s business. I didn’t just pretend. I actually changed the name at the top of the page to a different company and a different person for each company. Of course I knew it was me, but this little mental sleight of hand was enough to free me up to dissect this company and “this guy” objectively, because it was a “different” person. It took MY identity out of the equation.
Because it “wasn’t me” anymore, I was totally free to let go of any assumptions and just approach every problem with a fresh, beginner’s mind. I listed out, in detail, every mistake, every reason that every mistake was made, what other things the entrepreneur could have done better, anything I could think of. I went at each company like I would as an angel investor–razor sharp analysis and totally fucking brutal.
Once I had all the facts and decisions out on paper, then I started to analyze them. For EVERY decision, especially the bad ones, I asked myself this simple question:
Why would “he” make that decision?
Usually the first few answers were rationalizations or excuses. So I kept asking the question, with small variations, over and over and over…until I got to a reason that “he” would make that decision that was not driven by facts or reason or logic or business sense, but was driven by emotions or identity or status. Just like I did with other entrepreneurs, I was relentless in digging until I found the real reasons for decision.
Those were the decisions I was looking for–the ones that had deep underlying unconscious motives that I wasn’t admitting it to myself.
THAT is how I was able to write the post so brutally and precisely dissecting my own failures in business. Once I had that angel investor perspective working, I turned it on myself, and my decisions–and I kept dissecting them until was able to see them for what they really were.
You Gotta Own It
There is one more part to this, one more key to the HOW of really digging into your failures. I left it to last, because it’s the hardest part, and no one ever wants to hear this:
This only works if you’re willing to take complete and full responsibility for everything in your life.
When you ask these “why” questions, when you really dig into your decisions, you are trying to find the place where you can own the mistake or failure or decision. If you don’t, then you aren’t really owning your failure–you’re just re-assigning the blame to someone or something else.
EVERY TIME I answered a “why” question and the blame fell on someone else, I asked a deeper why question, until I got to something I did or I thought that caused the problem. Only then would I let myself stop (and even then, I often had to go another level or two up to get deeper).
Here’s a great general example:
We all know that one person who says they keep dating crazy men/women, and they can’t figure out why. They go on and on about their multiple insane exes, and all of their problems…yet they never stop and make the obvious and simple observation that they’re the ONLY constant among all of those exes.
Obviously they’re making decisions that are either attracting those people, or allowing those crazy people into their life. Once is an accident, twice is a concern, and three times is a pattern. They will NEVER change until they admit that to themselves–that THEY are the cause of the pattern, at some core level–and then go about figuring out why and answering the fundamental question: what emotional need is being met by having crazy people as partners?
It’s not different in business. I did this for EVERY GODDAMN DECISION I MADE in this piece. It really fucking sucked.
I am not telling you that everything bad that happens to you is your fault. HELL NO. Even natural disasters aside, people have bad luck and shitty people do things to you that you did not deserve. God knows I’ve had those things happen–but did you notice I left pretty much all of that out of my failure list?
NOTE: Owning the decisions you made that led to your failures is not about beating yourself up, and it’s not about making yourself feel like shit. Don’t do that. Being honest with yourself does not mean you have to be mean to yourself.
Taking responsibility and owning failures is about clearly seeing where you are making bad decisions, and understanding why you are making them–so you can stop.
Taking Responsibility SUCKS
Make no mistake about it: that was really, really, fucking hard. It’s incredibly painful to honestly look at your mistakes and really fully own them, in all their glorious awfulness. To turn into that pain, instead of running from it, it about an unfun as life gets.
But it’s also incredibly liberating. Once I embraced the idea that I didn’t have to (and shouldn’t) judge myself by my successes, but that instead I could create a very small identity, and then see my businesses as things I did rather than things I was–then I was totally free to deeply critique them.
And once I did that, I could clearly see why I was making so many bad decisions–they were rationalizations for deep seated emotional issues. Not actual business decisions. And then, I could STOP MAKING THOSE STUPID ASS DECISIONS!
I honestly believe this identity shift in my mindset is responsible for why my current company is doing so well. Obviously, we are also hitting the three essential elements of start-up success out of the park, but Movie Tucker probably would have torn that all down, and all because he didn’t understand his issues, or even accept that they exist.
It’s not that I don’t have any more emotional issues. Please–just ask anyone on the Book In A Box team, they’ll tell you I have issues (we even talk about them in our meetings, like we do with everyone on the team). It’s that now I know where they are (at least most of the big ones), I can account for them, and I am open to talking about them and working to fix them. I understand that this is a process, not a result, and every day is about working the process.
The problems you know you have are almost never the problems that sink you. It’s the problems you don’t know you have (or won’t admit) that destroy you.
And that is why owning your failures is both so hard and so important–it’s the only way to improve and grow and change.
Buddhism Reading List:
There are so many places to start to learn about Buddhism. Maybe the easiest for many people is this book: 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s about how a person with SERIOUS identity issues found meditation.
But probably the best into Buddhism for Westerners, I think Zen In The Art Of Archery is also amazing. What both this book and 10% Happier have is an emotionally honest recounting of the way the mind works through these issues at the beginning.
I don’t feel qualified to give you any more of a list beyond that, because there is SO MUCH, and most of it is really contextual. What will deeply move one person is gibberish to another. And in fact, what was gibberish to me at one stage of my life, deeply moved me at a later one.
The only way to know you’re walking the right path is to walk that path yourself.