Not to make light of the situation (no pun intended), but just when many entrepreneurs think they are seeing a light at the end of the startup tunnel, they suddenly realize it is the “reality train,” Speeding toward them like a runaway steam locomotive out of the Old West… spewing cinders and ashes from the smoke stack… wheels churning… clackety-clack… sparks flying… gaining speed… coming through the tunnel… heading toward…


What is the train heading toward? Is it gaining momentum, picking up speed, a head of steam to power on toward new destinations? Or has it somehow gotten too big a head of steam and the brakes aren’t working to slow things down to burn rate that can be managed, and where things are happening in a good way? Maybe it feels like that train is a runaway locomotive about to jump the tracks, spilling passengers and cargo and all its cars; The caboose may be about to end up passing the engine!

Letting Off Some Steam

As entrepreneurs it is all too easy to say “yes” to every opportunity and project without looking at the cost of each yes, or without laying out the resource requirements across every project. The business can get so focused on the revenue train that it forgets about the cash flow track and the profit caboose. A business has to have cash to pay its bills. It takes inputs of resources to deliver the products and services associated with the revenues…So the revenue engine gets going…sell! Sell! Sell! SELL! … FUEL (Cash)! FUEL! FUEL! The more you sell, the more things you need; the more cash you need, the faster the train must be stoked… And here comes that light at the end of the tunnel CLACKETY CLACK… CLACKETY CLACK… CLACKETY CLACK… Not CHA-CHING CHA-CHING… Saying “yes” to revenues that stretch you beyond your capacity requires you to add capacity. Capacity requires cash. Finding the right speed for the entrepreneurial train takes understanding the balance between your capacity for revenue (engine size) and the fuel (cash and resources) you are capable of generating. The number of cars (customers, projects, infrastructure requirements) you can handle will determine if your business can stay on the track (plan, targets, profits, cash flow) and maintain the proper speed.

Engine, Engine, Engineer

Maintaining the proper speed isn’t a one-time thing. It requires monitoring the track, the engine’s operations and the cars (how they are fitting together and whether they need maintenance), checking fuel levels and availability of fueling sources, and keeping in mind the caboose (business back office and sustainability). The engineer is charged with keeping his eye on all the information available and keeping a watch on the track ahead. He needs to be sure he can adjust speed by applying brakes to slow things down for curves (adaptation), turn on the lights for tunnels (vision), blow the whistle to get the tracks clear ahead and communicate the train is coming (leadership), speed up to stay on schedule and combat drag from steep grades (guidance), and just deal with the multitude of tasks that are everyday tasks (management) of driving the entrepreneurial engine.

Keep the Cattle Catcher Clear

At the front of most old locomotives was a grill-like device, slanted, and most they I’ve seen pointed at the bottom, referred to as a “cattle catcher.” I’m fairly certain that isn’t the true name, but refers to what it most frequently did: catch up a stray bovine from the track when it didn’t wisely heed the whistle or the rumbling of the train. Rarely, I’m sure, was it a pretty catch. But sometimes, the necessary things to keep the entrepreneurial train on track aren’t pretty. There can be casualties of jobs, egos, investments, friendships, and even more. But the reality of business can be costly if it gets down to getting things back on track after the train has jumped the tracks, or even if it is barreling at you full speed. If you are at the point of resorting to the cattle catcher, don’t expect it to be pretty.

Stop the Train, Unload, and Reboard

Sometimes, you just have to stop the train. You have to reach up and pull the emergency cord. Have the brakes engage and let everyone grab on tight until things come to a complete stop. Then assess the situation. Check and see what you have. Look for excess baggage and stowaways. Identify the wanted. And see who you need to let off at this stop or the next. Look for new stations and new routes. Once you’ve checked the tickets, verified who will continue to ride and checked the track, the train, the route, and the fuel, start up the engine. And become the little engine that could. I think I can. I know I can. Yes indeed I did. I saw the light! And it was good.


Copyright ©2008 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resources, Inc.

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