While driving to work one morning, I listened with some amusement to a radio interview with an author, Robin Hemley, who recently published a book called Do Over! The book follows Hemley as he revisits the scenes of the biggest debacles of his youth (kindergarten, summer camp, and the prom) in order to give himself another chance to get it right. The vignettes from his first time around are hilarious and humiliating, as are almost everyone’s childhood memories if they are the slightest bit honest about them.
The do-over scenes, however, while rife with comic potential (a 48-year-old man sitting in a tiny chair, re-encountering papier-mâché; spending lots of time with 10-year-old boys; going out for a pre-prom dinner with his date … and her husband and their eight-year-old son) don’t seem so laugh-out-loud funny. But that’s because they are infused with an adult perspective, with lessons learned over a lifetime’s worth of mistakes and disappointments, coupled with the author’s genuine desire to change his future path by rethinking how a regrettable situation in the past might have been handled differently. To his credit, the author seems to arrive at some pretty important conclusions about and for himself. Of course, that’s the larger message of this book: that we can all learn from past ordeals using the perspective generated by our own experiences.
Most of us have just gone through a learning experience of the highest order, losing some combination of our savings, our businesses or our jobs, our homes, and, in general, our sense of security about the future. Could we, should we, would we have done things differently if we’d had the hindsight we have today? You bet.
The list of things home builders say they wouldn’t do again is long. It includes taking advantage of easy credit, making sales to people who couldn’t afford to buy, embracing short-term profits over long-term business goals, sacrificing good business practices for higher margins, and offering personal guarantees for leveraged debt.
I hope the lessons we say we’ve learned will stay with us for a long time. We all, buyers and sellers alike, thought we could reap great riches during the boom. We know now that making and especially keeping money is harder than it looked. There is no such thing as a sure thing, and there are no shortcuts to wealth. And ignorance of this fact is not bliss—it’s expensive and painful. Sounds like the perfect time for a do-over.
We can’t go back in time, but we can still learn from our mistakes. Here are a few lessons you may soon find relevant:
Be prepared for change. If change is, as they say, the only constant in life, then why not expect it? Think through all your what ifs and how to deal with them before they happen, so you can react quickly when the need arises.
Keep your financial house in order. When financial crises occur, the need for action increases while your ability to take that action decreases.
Guard against future downturns by keeping close track of basic performance indicators such as cash flow. By all means, grow your business, but do it as much as you can by reinvesting positive cash flow, not by taking on debt. Always make sure your neck is not sticking out too far.
Find out what your customers want. When money gets tighter, people think harder about spending it. More than any other time in recent history, customers are looking for value. But keep in mind that you can’t be all things to all people. Don’t spend money marketing to the wrong audience.
Beware of irrational exuberance. If you jump on a bandwagon, be sure you have a cushion for when the wheels fall off. And if it happens, don’t panic. Follow Rudyard Kipling’s advice about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. Panic paralyzes and makes things much worse.
When things are going well, it’s easy to become complacent, arrogant, or convinced of your own infallibility. So, lastly, don’t ever believe you’ve learned your lesson.