Ep. #50: Avoiding Rabbit Trails in Your Business

Rabbit trails are diversions that take up a lot of time and energy but that don’t move your business forward. If you want to avoid them, you must decide on the one problem that your business will solve, and exactly the solution that will solve that problem, and carve away everything else. In this episode, I walk you through the process of doing this with a client’s business idea, so you can see how it works.


Welcome to Rich & Thin Radio, the only podcast that helps serious entrepreneurs get everything they want, and get out from under everything they don’t want.

Today’s episode is for every listener who’s chasing too many rabbits. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and if this is you I’m glad you’re here because there is an ancient proverb that says that the person who chases two rabbits catches neither, and this is as true in business as it is with bunnies.

It’s easy to visualize this problem of chasing multiple rabbits if you try. In my case I don’t even have to visualize it because I see it every day. We have rabbits around our house—lots of rabbits–because one of our neighbors decided it would be a good idea to let their pet rabbits out of the pens and run loose. I think at one point when the rabbit population was really high there were about 60 or 70 rabbits in my front yard one day, and coincidentally that happened on Easter Sunday, and some folks who were driving by stopped their car and were laughing their heads off because they thought we had deliberately brought all of those rabbits in just for the holiday, which of course we hadn’t. I am just not that gung ho about decorating for the holidays.

Fortunately since then, our rabbit population has fallen thanks in no small part to the arrival of a big orange cat who now lives next door. I’ve watched from my window as this cat stalks rabbits, and his focus is amazing. He zeroes in on a single rabbit and he doesn’t take his eyes off of it until bam! He has the rabbit. And then he moves on to the next one.

My tiny dogs Winston and Sheffield, on the other hand, do not enjoy anywhere near the same kind of success with rabbits. For one thing, the rabbits are often bigger than my dogs are, but I don’t think that’s the real problem. The real problem is that when there are bunnies in the backyard and I let the dogs out, they have no plan of attack. Rather, they just lose their minds and run helter-skelter amidst the rabbits and it’s pandemonium with a whole lot of commotion but absolutely nothing getting accomplished.

In essence, what I’m seeing in my yard is that the cat is chasing one rabbit at a time, over and over again, and he is cleaning up as far as rabbits are concerned, whereas Winston and Sheffield are racing around out there like two tiny imbeciles, and catching absolutely nothing.

Why am I telling you about this? Because what Winston and Sheffield are doing in the backyard is a perfect illustration for what happens in our brains when we don’t yet have an understanding of exactly what our business is.

I’ve mentioned in prior episodes that every successful business goes through a 4-step process. These steps are like dominoes. You must do them in order, and the first step, the one thing you must do before you do anything else, is determine what you are going to offer. You figure out the problem that your business is going to solve for its customers, and this involves carving away all of the things that aren’t the problem that you’re going to solve.

In this respect, getting your business going is exactly like writing a story or carving a statue. Editing is critical. If you want to write a great story, you must remove all of the narrative that isn’t the story. If you want to carve a work of art, you must chip away all of the marble that isn’t the statue. And business is exactly the same. Just as every story is about one thing and every statue is about one thing, every successful business is about one thing, and the most important thing you can do to get started on the business of your dreams is figure out exactly what that one thing is. I listen to a lot of business podcasts, and there are many, many episodes about “this is the year I finally hit six figures or seven figures or tripled my revenue” and if you listen hard in those episodes, the reason for the break-out year is frequently “this is the year I finally figured out exactly what to offer.”

So distilling your offer to its essence is key. If you don’t do this, you wind up chasing rabbit trails, and this is when business seems too difficult. Consider the listener we discussed last week. She wrote in with the reasons that she wanted a successful business, but also didn’t want a business, and a big sticking point was that getting a business off the ground just seemed too difficult. Rather, she said that she was thinking of getting a job or doing some pro-bono work instead. She’s a criminal defense lawyer, and she was thinking she just wasn’t cut out to have a business.

The first thing I’d like to say about this is that if you are wondering if you want a business or if you don’t want a business, you definitely want a business. Die-hard employees–those among us who are very strong in their conviction that they were put on this planet to work for someone else–do not ask themselves this question. The only people who ask themselves “do I want a business or not?” are the folks who definitely want a business. The only reason they’re asking this question is that it feels too difficult, it feels too heavy, to get the business off the ground.

So what I want every listener to know is that in business, it is ridiculously easy to become successful and to begin making money right away if you just go through the four steps that I teach to my clients. Step 1 is determine exactly what you’re going to offer, and this is where so many would-be entrepreneurs get hung up and burn years, sometimes even decades, trying to figure it out, and once you know the offer, business isn’t that difficult, my friends. Once you know what you’re offering, then you go straight to step 2, which is develop the message that describes that offer, and then you deliver the message to your audience and sign them up, and last is step 4, you do the transaction. You deliver the good or service into the marketplace in exchange for money.

Business seems difficult and time-consuming and expensive and fraught with peril because, left to their own devices, it takes most entrepreneurs a very long time to get clarity in steps 1 and 2. This is what I help my clients with, and today I want to look at step 1.

How do you know if you don’t have clarity in step 1? You find yourself doing, or tempted to do, a whole bunch of things that seem tangentially related to the thing that’s driving you, but you can’t really name exactly what the business is about or the problem the business solves, nor do you have a great deal of clarity on exactly how to go about solving the problem.

So now I want to tell you about the work I’m doing with the listener who wrote in from last week. Her name is Elena and as I said, she’s a criminal defense lawyer. She’s also a brand-new mom and she wrote to me that she wanted a business, but she didn’t, and a big reason she didn’t was that it seemed too difficult to get a business off the ground. So this past week we coached together to help her get some clarity about exactly what it is that she wants to do.

She’s clear that she wants housing and financial security for herself and her family. She’s clear that she doesn’t want to go back to employment. She’s handled over 5,000 cases in her career, but she was working for a legal aid provider in New York and for all the work she’s done, she wasn’t making a livable wage. And now she needs more than just a job that provides a livable wage because she’s a new mom who wants scheduling flexibility, and she also wants to pay off law school loans and stash some cash for the future and maybe even enjoy some travel and some time off.

So what were her ideas about her professional pursuits for the immediate future? She was thinking of starting a non-profit that helped female inmates sell their bead work and other crafts. She was thinking of setting up some kind of network that provided rides, clothing, or other resources to previously incarcerated women who are trying to get out of the system and back on their feet. She was thinking about taking on a pro-bono case representing a female inmate against a guard who’d been sexually harassing her.

Do you see how these kinds of things are all kind of related but none of them feel like they’re particularly in Elena’s wheelhouse? With all of these potential projects in front of her, it was clear that she was dancing around something that mattered to her very much, but she hadn’t quite hit on exactly what it was yet.

So we went through a distillation process to determine what was really driving her. What did all of these possible projects have in common?

The answer is that she was drawn to all of these possible projects because she wanted to help a certain type of client: women who are separated from their children due to criminal conviction and incarceration and who want to get out of the prison system so they can be with their kids full-time. This was a revelation to her. She’d been dancing around this, but the essential thing she wanted to do was exactly this. And this type of revelation marks the moment that an entrepreneur begins to get traction in step one of determining what their offer is. When Elena realized exactly who she wanted to help and the exact problem she wanted to solve, her offer began to crystalize before our very eyes.

This discovery made her draw towards the pro-bono case she was considering taking on especially interesting. Elena said she felt attracted to doing that case because it seemed to her that the system was keeping moms away from their kids unnecessarily, so she wanted to pursue things like the pro bono case in an effort to change the system. But what was immediately apparent in my mind about her pursuit of that case was that it would take a lot of her time away from her infant daughter for no income—she’d have to find an income during additional hours also spent away from her daughter—and the icing on the cake was that the case was unlikely in Elena’s mind to result in a monetary award.

You know how I always say that you get what you think? When Elena was thinking that the system was the problem, that she needed to change the system by basically becoming a civil rights attorney because the system was keeping moms away from their babies, what was going to happen? What was the likely result? She was going to spend time away from her own new baby girl, for no compensation, to change the system.

In other words, here’s the paradigm she was operating in:

Thought:              The system separates moms from babies.

Feeling:                Anger and Outrage

Action:                  Take on a case that probably won’t change anything regarding what she’s particularly concerned about, which is moms

Result:                  The system separates moms from babies (specifically, Elena is separated from her daughter, the beautiful new baby Sophie)

Notice how the result proves the thought. Whatever it is we’re thinking, that’s exactly where we’re headed and what we’re going to create. That’s why it’s so important, before you embark on a business or project of any kind, to know the thoughts that are driving your emotions and actions and to determine in advance if they’re taking you where you want to go.

In Elena’s case, this was decidedly not the direction she wanted to go. She wants to help moms spend more time with their babies, and this of course includes Elena spending time with her own baby. True wealth means that as you serve others, you also serve yourself. Also, no venture is sustainable if it creates or perpetuates the problem that it purports to solve.

None of this was apparent to Elena until we went through the distillation process in which we ascertained exactly what she wanted to do, who she wanted to serve, and exactly the problem she wanted to solve.

Once Elena knew these things, it quickly became apparent that the business she wants is not about getting certain guards punished or fired through civil rights lawsuits. The guard-harassment problem is something that Elena could solve, because she’s a kick-ass attorney, but in Elena’s case, it’s a rabbit trail. She could prepare and file lawsuits against one guard, or a hundred guards, or a thousand guards, but do those lawsuits help incarcerated women get back to their children? No. They’re just noise and lots of work and activity that don’t actually move the ball forward on achieving the objective.

What does move the ball forward to reunite incarcerated moms with their babies? Initially Elena said it was resources–legal assistance, a network, help with rides to and from the places they need to go, job training. Things like that. But this, too, felt like we were dancing around the essential solution, because all the resources in the world aren’t helpful to someone who isn’t in the right frame of mind to make use of them. Elena agreed that personal responsibility is huge. She wrote to me that,“[t]here has to be self-drive, for sure. At least some amount of buy-in by the individual.” She also wrote, “I’ve never really ‘saved’ anybody… The ones who went on to change their lives did that for themselves.”

So what do incarcerated women need to save themselves? Elena said, and I emphatically agree, that they need motivation, and what do we know about motivation? It’s an emotion that like all emotions comes from the thoughts we think. Motivation isn’t something that comes from our current circumstances or our past circumstances or our resources or anything else that’s external to us. And here I’m not singling out incarcerated women. The children of some of my wealthiest clients also struggle to find motivation, and they have all the resources and freedoms in the world. What they lack is the ability to manage their minds to create their own motivation. So if Elena’s clients are going to get motivation that is so critical to achieving the mission, that will have to come from within and the one thing Elena’s business would have to do is teach them how to achieve motivation.

What else do Elena’s clients need? Resourcefulness. Like motivation, resourcefulness is an emotion that comes from our thoughts, specifically the thought, “I will figure out how to make this happen, come hell or high water, no matter what’s standing in my way.”

So essentially, the solution that Elena’s clients need is to learn to manage their minds to create useful emotions that will serve them in achieving their goals. Elena is the ideal guide to teach incarcerated women how to create resourcefulness, motivation, and other necessary emotions, because when she is managing her mind, she is the poster child for motivation and resourcefulness. For example, she is from a family of three children. Her two siblings went to prison, and Elena went to law school.

And incarcerated women are ideal clients for Elena to work with. Why? It sounds kind of funny to say, but incarcerated women are in an enviable position to do some serious thought work to learn that their feelings truly are of their own creation. The way they feel is 100% within their own control, because their minds are their own, and no one can take the way their brains function away from them. They determine how they feel about anything, including any guard’s behavior, by the thoughts they think. For example, one reason Elena was drawn to do the pro bono case against the guard for sexual harassment is she wanted the woman to feel better. But how the woman feels is not dependent on the filing or outcome of a lawsuit against the guard. And here I don’t mean to suggest that prison is a great place to be or that guards should sexually harass female prisoners with impunity. What I am seeing as enviable about the circumstances of female inmates and others in relatively fixed circumstances is that when our circumstances are relatively fixed, we can quickly see the benefits of thought work because when we have little or no ability to shift our circumstances, the only thing we can shift is our thoughts and that’s when we realize that it truly is the thoughts that matter. Our thoughts determine how we feel, never our circumstances.

I definitely saw this in my own life when I was something of a prisoner due to injury. I spent a little more than three years basically lying on the floor because I couldn’t sit, stand, or walk for any length of time without pain. For the first two years, I seriously managed my mind and I felt pretty amazing. I felt like I was going places, even though I was literally stuck on the floor. Then, in the third year when my physical therapist added to my injuries by busting up my rib cage, I lost my mind and that year was horrible.

Notice something important: The circumstance didn’t really change. During that entire three-year period, I was injured and immobile. What changed were my thoughts. I shifted my thoughts from, “I’m going to make the best of this and learn everything I can possibly learn” to “My body is out of control.” When I was thinking about using the experience to grow, I did make the best of things and I learned an amazing amount of stuff. When I was thinking that my body was out of control, I got angry and I felt terrible and I dove into a pint of Cherry Garcia and swam around for what in hindsight turned out to be the worst period of my life.

Although I don’t feel great about the current state of my body, and I’d give just about anything if it worked the way it did prior to my injuries, I wouldn’t change this experience because it helped me to get so much stronger in my conviction that the way I use my brain is the most important factor in the way I experience my life and the results I achieve, and this same thing is exactly the thing that Elena could help her clients to learn and experience.

Self-made billionaire Gary Keller talks about the importance of finding the “One Thing.” The One Thing is the thing that makes everything else easier or unnecessary, and the one thing that would help incarcerated women get out of the system and reunite with their children, the critical skill, is managing their minds to achieve empowerment and autonomy and rise above their circumstances. With this skill, they require very few resources. Without this skill, all the resources in the world won’t help them.

So notice what just happened here. Through our coaching work together, Elena and I distilled a nascent, amorphous cloud of an idea to its crystallized essence, by determining the exact problem she wanted to solve, and the exact solution that would solve it. This is step one in getting any new business off the ground, and it only took a week. By investing in this process, she saved herself years, and with the resulting focus, she’s preserved precious time with her infant daughter that could otherwise have been spent chasing rabbit trails as she searched for the essence of what this business that she wants is really about.

What exactly is the business Elena is yearning for? I don’t think she’s attached a name to it yet, but it’s clear in my mind that she’s not just a criminal attorney lawyer. I think she’s also a coach. Either that or she’s going to run a business that provides coaching services to incarcerated women. It may provide other services as well, but coaching is definitely part of it, because without the coaching piece, it all falls down.

Notice something else here: Whatever the exact form this business takes on, it’s going to be tailor-made for Elena. It will be a blue ocean, because there’s no one else doing anything like this, and it’s right smack dab in her wheelhouse. She knows this audience. She knows their struggles and problems, and she knows where they get in their own way. She knows the prison system and how easy it is for people to get stuck in it. She’s also deeply concerned about serving this audience. So what’s happening now is that she and I are going to work together for the next 12 weeks on developing this business and bringing it to life, and she’s very generously agreed to allow me to share this entire process with you listeners, so please stay tuned to find out how this business shapes up in our upcoming episodes. And please also join me on Thursday this week, because we’re going to talk about avoiding rabbit trails in achieving the body of your dreams. Thanks for being here today. I look forward to connecting with you next time.

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