The gentle art of giving up

giving up

By Mark Schaefer

I recently saw a post from a friend proclaiming that his business was failing but that he would “never, ever give up.”

That makes a good sound bite and wonderful rallying cry for a movie script, but a lousy approach to business. Of course it is OK to give up. Let’s discuss that today.

The Drucker approach to giving up

When I was in grad school, I had the chance to sit with Peter Drucker for an entire semester to hear his approach to new business startups. His book Innovation and Entrepreneurshipis a classic, and one of the most important books I have ever read.

Dr. Drucker maintained that knowing when to hang it up was an essential part of making it as an entrepreneur. “It is OK to make mistakes, ” he said. “It is OK to fail. Just don’t fail so badly that you put yourself in a hole you can never get out of.”

That is a really important idea. Most business ideas fail. But to keep coming back and trying again, you have to give yourself a chance at another shot.

The best option for the business?

My friend Chris Brogan recently wrote:

“There are plenty of occasions where quitting saves the company (and everyone) time and money.

“Failure is not an option? Bologna.

“Failure is one of the best teachers you can have in business. As leaders, how can we equip our teams for success by showing them when to quit and how to fail? As contributors to a team, how do we make our failures hurt a lot less and recover faster?

“What must we do to ensure the company’s reputation while permitting for some level of imperfection?”

Qualitative measures

When I was writing my book KNOWN, I spent a lot of time thinking about this: How do you know when it’s time to keep going, pivot, or quit altogether? After all, the many brilliant people I interviewed for the book said the biggest problem is that people quit too soon when trying to establish a successful business or personal brand.

So I tackled this problem and came up with a little system to help people figure that out.

Most people keep track of a quantitative measure like sales to determine whether they are making progress or not — and that’s important. But there are other measures that may be equally important indicators of momentum to observe.

That’s why I have my clients also tally qualitative measures. A qualitative measure is something that you can’t necessarily quantify, but it’s important to capture nonetheless. Examples:

  • Getting asked to be on a podcast
  • Being asked to speak to a community group
  • Being featured in the local press or a trade journal
  • Being asked for your advice on a topic related to your business
  • Getting a shout-out in a blog
  • Seeing a steady increase in your social media mentions

Keep a tally of these sorts of things week by week. Is the weekly tally steadily increasing? That could be an indicator of momentum. Keep going.

Is it flat or declining over time? Maybe you need to tweak your approach. Is nothing happening at all despite your hard work — well, maybe it’s time to quit and try something else.

It’s OK to quit

I think the ultimate test is Dr. Drucker’s advice. Are you getting yourself into a hole so big you’ll never get out? Are you imperiling your future?

There was a time I quit a business I started because that hole was just getting too big. I had a good product but underestimated the B2B sales cycle. Month by month I was getting worn down into the ground and it was starting to impact the attention I could pay to my core business.

Finally, I had to suspend the effort. I still might find a place for the idea some day … but at least I have the means to try it again down the road instead of pulling myself out of crippling debt.

It’s OK to quit. In fact, sometimes it’s the smartest thing you can do.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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