A couple of years ago, I decided to start a business.
I had worked with entrepreneurs for three years very successfully before then. I’d managed a nationally recognized training program, then an angel investment group, then a specialty mentorship service. I’d helped to guide hundreds of businesses, and millions of dollars in checks had been written in part due to my work.
So, I figured I had a good shot at doing this right. I had an amazing network, and on paper, I knew exactly how to build a winning business.
I also had a kick-ass co-founder. Someone with a massive reserve of creativity, energy, and expertise.
We intended our two-man team to be the perfect marriage of art and business — I would bring the structure and practical sense, he would bring the genius and charisma. Woz and Jobs, for the new age.
We were big dreamers.
Since our names aren’t known in every household yet, we didn’t make the cut.
There are a great many reasons we didn’t make it to entrepreneurial stardom, and there is one in particular that has been in my thoughts lately.
I call it Squirrel Syndrome. The name comes from the dog in the movie Up, whose sentences regularly end prematurely when he thinks he sees a squirrel.
It’s a problem that many creatives, and thus many entrepreneurs, struggle with. You see, we creatives get excited about ideas.
When we hear a new idea that we like, there is nothing else in our world but that idea. We think about it, from every angle and in every context, for every minute of every day until we’ve gone over every metaphorical inch of it.
This, combined with the tendency of the average creative to come up with a lot of ideas, means that we can be rather distractible. Often, by the time we actually start working on a project, we’ve already had five new ideas. Staying focused on one thing thus becomes difficult.
As much as I may have claimed that I was the business side of this startup I founded, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was also a creative.
This meant that our team was 100% made up of creatives.
We were both very distractible.
So, we chased a lot of squirrels.
Every week, or sometimes daily, we would come up with some grandiose new idea for the business, and nothing would do but to put all our effort into it.
On the positive side, this certainly kept our energy and our passion up.
The downside was that we had no consistency. We presented no regular, reliable, unshakeable face to our potential customers. What we offered was changing and evolving at every turn, and that made it was impossible to even grasp what we were selling.
We had a million products, and thus, we had none.
Fundamentally, before someone buys anything from you, they have to trust you. And in order to trust you, they need to feel that you are reliable. The core of reliability is consistency.
Businesses can establish consistency in many different ways. Chain stores show consistency through their influence. Multi-generational business put their founding year on the door so people know they’ve been doing this for a while. Modern online companies barrage you with ads to show consistency; it’s a behavior that’s not dissimilar to the insistent, unrelenting style of flirting that results in so many cute origin stories of happy old couples.
We had no consistency, so our business didn’t work.
Thinking about this, I’ve begun to realize that this rule of consistency is present in all aspects of life. In order to get just about anything out of people, you need them to trust you at least a little bit. You need to prove your reliability through persistent, regular, unwavering action.
As I mentioned above, this is present in romance. Love is a bond of trust — trust that the person you love will continue to do what they have done to woo you, even after the wooing is over. This is why playing ‘hard to get’ is a common strategy — it tests consistency.
The need for consistency is present in endeavors for attention as well. Building an audience for your ideas or creations is a function of showing reliability, not only in how frequently you release content but also in the style of that content. If people are going to begin to identify with you (which is what it really means when they follow you), they need to see a level of stability.
Nobody wants to identify with something that is likely to change or disappear as quickly as it came.
This is also a big part of why we treat younger people as less trustworthy (see: inflated insurance prices and reluctance to hire). Young people change a lot. This isn’t bad, it just means that they are fundamentally inconsistent, thus unreliable. Until they build a record of consistent behavior, they are treated with rational caution by others, and rightfully so!
So, how does one counteract Squirrel Syndrome — this constant need to move on to the next thing that creates distrust in others?
Well, by being more like the squirrel and less like the dog chasing it.
The dog in this situation, the predator, is a creature on constant alert for the next movement in the bushes. The hound is opportunistic, waiting for the right moment to strike and pouncing when the chance arrives.
The squirrel, on the other hand, relies upon consistency to survive. Where the dog must always be changing its focus to adapt to the opportunities around it, the squirrel works diligently and predictably. The squirrel does one thing extremely well, and he does it constantly.
If a dog chases the squirrel, he runs away. But he never loses sight of the goal. Get more nuts. As soon as the dog leaves, the squirrel is back to work. Day in and day out, he’s out there collecting nuts, stashing them away, then going out to find more. Rain or shine, wind or hail, that fluffy rodent is hard at work doing the same thing he’s been doing for years.
And it works.
You can tell because squirrels are everywhere.
Consistency is king.
Embrace real Squirrel Syndrome.
Instead of chasing squirrels, learn from them.