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Don’t look back too much – you’ll trip over

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“If you keep looking backwards,” Michael Caine is quoted as saying, “you’ll trip over.”

It would, of course, be foolish to never recognise mistakes and ensure you never repeat them (or, in the case of Sir Michael, the odd bad film in a truly illustrious career). However, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a morass of self pity and negativity about where things have gone wrong.

In my own – not illustrious and as yet not as long – career running my business, I have regularly come very badly unstuck. A lot of this has been due to ignorance, no doubt. I fell into running a business, having never even worked in business before. That’s about as ignorant as it gets. I managed nearly ten years before I dared entertain any idea of outside training, and when I did finally allow a business coach near me, I lived in continual terror for months that they would find out what an ignorant fraud I was. 

Later it dawned on me that, if nothing else, you learn from your mistakes. Employing people on the basis you like them is not a good idea – check. Underestimating financial needs – check several times. Moving from small units into a factory is not as easy as moving house (you don’t just load up everything in a van one day and re-start work the next) – check. Expanding without any systems is not a good idea – check. Not understanding how important training is at any and every level – check. These would be some of my most glaring and galling ignorances that my poor old business has had to battle through and recover from. No great soul searching is required, however, to ensure those are not repeated. 

In recent years, I have come unstuck less through the recession but more through staff problems and my own uncertainty about where the business was heading. Lack of focus has to be one of the biggest business killers of all time. I did spend a time tripping over it. Sir Michael is right – that time, over and above recognising where it had gone wrong, was wasted. 

I was days away from walking away on two occasions. Someone said to me at a business do this week that Nobel Prize winners are normal in their fifties but it is over the hill for entrepreneurs. Taking a deep breath, narrowly avoiding hitting him, I told myself (possibly inaccurately) that I just look a lot younger than I am. However, age certainly factored into my doom and gloom – wondering if I was absolutely passed it. 

When finally I kicked myself out of it, the business was in an incredibly shaky state. We have pulled it right back. We have re-launched ourselves, in terms of structure, in terms of brand image, in product, service and culture. In some ways, it’s like starting all over again – which so many of us entrepreneurs cannot resist doing when we come unstuck – but with advantages. It had to be drastic to turn things around, but the effect has been equally dramatic. In a period of less than six months, I can happily report that we are growing faster than we have for nearly a decade. Not bad for the current economic climate. 

We are beating the odds. I may not have quite the energy levels I used to have, but we work around that. 

A re-birth is, in my opinion, possible at any age – be that of the company or the person. It is possible for those of us who have survived troubled times to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and look forward to a brand new and exciting future, and not waste time on crying over what has been.

Jan Cavelle is founder of the Jan Cavelle Furniture Company.

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