EOW Reflections: Be brave – ask

I’m chairing a panel session next week which promises to be brilliant if the discussion follows the line of this morning’s prep call. I was expecting to be thoroughly lost in the technicalities, but the conversation was human to the point of being heartrending. The topic: Why do businesses fail and what comes next?

Businesses fail because of cashflow problems. It’s what causes the cashflow problems that’s key. As we’ve discussed many times it could be late payments, extended payment terms, non-payment because the customer goes bust, or a whole range of finance related issues that leaves your business without the cash it needs to carry on or the wherewithal to finance the gap.

But underlying that there’s often another contributing factor. Human behaviour. We simply don’t or can’t accept, early enough, that there’s a problem looming, and we aren’t brave enough to ask for help.

It’s human to do anything but ask for help. We perceive asking for help as a sign of weakness and a signal to the world that we’re out of our depth and failing. We hang on, putting a brave face on it in the hope our fortunes will turn around. We want to protect everyone else, employees, family, the local football team we sponsor, or the charities we support, from the awful truth. Perhaps we’re trying to protect ourselves too, and of course there is always the chance that if we ask for help people will hear we’re in trouble and the rats will desert the sinking ship. By the time we do ask for help the situation has deteriorated, problems are insurmountable and it’s too late.

Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. It’s a sign that we are across the detail, have our eyes open, can see the direction of travel and are constantly thinking ahead, reviewing, revising, planning, and considering all options, even though we may be facing having to shut the business down rather than planning for growth. Asking for help is having the bravery to admit we don’t know everything and the wisdom to know that someone else might.

If you ask for help early enough someone else with experience may be able to see ways ahead that you, in your denial or panic, can’t see. There may be options such as diversification, selling, merging, restructuring, refinancing. If you’ve been running a business for some time, it’s easy to think there’s only one way to do it. A fresh perspective from the insolvency practitioner and turnaround specialist may present viable solutions. But you have to ask for help because people aren’t clairvoyants and can’t divine your need for support.

The discussion next week will be heartrending because there’s someone on the panel willing to talk about their own experiences and what it’s like to go through the loss of a business with the personal anguish and the constant worry about the impact on everyone else. Hearing the real story from the person who’s been there and lost the t-shirt means the messages will stick. That is the bit people will remember the next day and the next month. The technicalities may be lost on an audience, but the story will reverberate.

There will also be someone to talk about what can happen if there’s the opportunity to help earlier. I’m sure some people do just shut up shop and let others suffer but for most people losing a business is a bereavement. That takes a long time to recover from with the attendant worry and guilt about anyone else caught up in the aftermath. With Mental Health Awareness week coming up soon, given the shocking levels of mental health problems among small business owners, this is the time to talk.

Like all the other hardest challenges there may be better options if we get help sooner. We’ve just got to be brave enough to ask.