Neil Waller, co-founder at Whalar, shares his reassuring biggest lesson
If I could go back to that moment of leaving university early to start my own business, just for five minutes, there’s one piece of advice that stands out amongst everything we’ve learnt. Looking back, it has been the most powerful mental tool we’ve had in delivering success.
The phrase Mountains Look Like Molehills in The Rear-View Mirror is valuable to any entrepreneur for both its simplicity and versatility. In a disruptive market, you encounter unexpected challenges almost daily, often because they’ve never existed before, and at the time many can feel truly insurmountable. Once they are overcome, the learnings you gather make you wonder why you were ever so worried in the first place - until the next one slaps you in the face.
Our Learning Curve(s)
Back in the summer of 2006 my friend and I decided to drop out of university to start a company. Having already completed three years of a four-degree course, the decision, as you can imagine, did not go down particularly well with family and friends.
As I look back over the last 13 years, it’s been one hell of a wild ride. We’ve had manic highs and crazy lows, alongside more successes and failures than I can count. If you’d asked me 13 years ago where we’d be today, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted this journey. Whether that’s co-founding an influencer marketing company that would be first of its kind to win a Gold Cannes Lions, having to open entire offices within weeks, or reach 1.3 billion people in a single campaign, all the time wondering if we were ever getting any of it right, being an entrepreneur has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far.
As our journey evolved, there are some clear lessons. While sometimes there’s no substitute for experience itself, these are a few truisms that we found useful:
(1) It always takes longer than you think, but small changes can have massive impact.
I’ve yet to come across anything that didn’t take longer than I thought it would. At the same time, if you keep working on small changes, you can make a big difference. It’s essentially the principle of marginal gains, where you focus on making small changes every day that ultimately lead to massive leaps forward. As time passes, you begin to look back and laugh at how you used to do things.
It’s a continual journey of improvement. It’s an acceptance that you’re always looking to better yourself, rather than looking for that one ‘big’ change.
(2) Tomorrow you’ll know a lot more.
Every day you’re likely learning something new or understanding something better. Use that. Don’t stubbornly stick to a plan or view simply because you used to swear by it. When we started Whalar, we planned for it to be a completely self-service platform. As the business progressed, we realised that the market wasn’t quite ready for it. The level of understanding and standardisation surrounding influencer marketing simply wasn’t there yet, and the end output wasn’t as good as it should have been; we saw that we needed to be more involved and have broader managed services for clients and creators alike. So we started to get involved in parts of the creative process, and right away the quality went up. It was a fundamental decision about the direction of our business and the type of solution we were offering, and a huge shift from where we started. Without learning that lesson and making that change, we'd be a fraction of the size we are today.
(3) It’s not supposed to be easy.
This is probably the most obvious point on this list. However, believing it and accepting it is hard to do when you’re tackling new and unexpected challenges head-on. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be so much opportunity to be had, and everyone would be innovating an industry. I’m afraid that no matter how seemingly endless and insurmountable challenges appear in front of you - it’s very likely that’s how it’s supposed to be. Try not to get discouraged. Persistence is everything.
(4) Perfection is pointless.
Waiting for perfection is no good. This doesn’t mean do a bad job, it just means do your sensible best at the time and then always strive to improve. At Whalar we have an ethos: every six months, look back and see how far we’ve been able to improve processes and approaches. This is the manifestation of a healthy acceptance that the way we’re doing things now is actually far from perfect. The point being, we’d rather have this learning mindset of constantly seeking how to improve and evolve, than to be paralyzed into doing things a certain way for months or even years to come.
The experience and lessons we’ve gained have ultimately led to the success we’re having today. Personally, all can be wrapped into a phrase I came across a few years ago: ‘Mountains Look Like Molehills in the Rear-View Mirror’.
In the past, our challenges and set-backs felt like the end of the world at times, but with each one, we just attacked the problem one step at a time. Ultimately, and without question, I look back on every single challenge now and they seem far less dramatic than they did then.
I can’t understate how much coming to this realisation has had a profound effect on the way I handle a growing business. There are always going to be challenges ahead, but they get to me less, in part because I know it’s part of the process, as well as that they will seem less intense and scary over time.
This is not to say that you’re not going to have worries, concerns or moments of panic. There is no magic cure for that. It’s simply that you find yourself in a far better place far more quickly when you can draw upon the notion that any all-consuming ‘mountain’ will eventually look like a ‘molehill’ in your rear-view mirror.