Building the Habit Muscles for Perseverance & Grit

Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve read a ton of books on starting a business. I read many more in my earlier days when I was trying to figure out a strategy for parting ways with my day job. Quit your job and go for it. Don’t quit and transition slowly. Fail often but fail fast. No, wait…you don’t want to really fail. That would suck and then you have to go back to your job. Raise money, but just a small angel round to get you to profitability. Actually, that’s a waste of time and legal fees. Raise a venture round. No wait, life will be better if you bootstrap the entire thing and just stay small. Out of the dozens of books, it’s hard to say if anyone was really right or wrong. Out of all of the advice, tips and tricks, one thing that I didn’t see get its due attention was the importance of perseverance. Some focus on the fact that everything takes much, much longer than you think it will. If your business plan has you going to market in six months, it will likely be closer to a year or eighteen months. That’s where endurance and grit come in. Regardless of the passion you have or how many baby seals you bring to salvation, anything can turn into a grind. Especially if things aren’t going your way. 

I’ve always been a fan of the exercise of making a plan that starts with the question, “Where can things go wrong?” Then come up with a backup plan. And the backup plan for the backup plan. That way when shit hits the fan, there's a map that was conceived from a place of stability, not stress. However, anybody that starts a business cannot ever imagine all the twists, turns and disasters that come with the endeavor. Planning for the worst doesn't work when it’s impossible to even conceive of all the shit can go wrong when running any venture. Imagine deciding to do your first marathon. Depending on what kind of shape you’re in, you know that statistically, there’s a good chance you won’t even finish. You also know that there’s a huge component of mental grit. Your body will hurt and your brain will plead with you to give up. You can plan for that part as well, and you decide that you are good with all of this and are going for it. But what if when you got to mile 22, you passed a sign that read “Psych! This is an ultra-marathon. You have 78 miles left. Good luck.” That’s entrepreneurship. 

We had started a very strange energy drink company and the product idea was largely based on a very unique bottle shape and size. Like most inexperienced optimists that take a run at a consumer good, we were very limited on capital and couldn’t afford to make our own mold. We also couldn’t afford any mistakes, so we were incredibly nervous to find our only supply option to be in China. We negotiated back and forth via email for about a month. If they turned out to be running a scam, the money we wired for a deposit would be a fatal blow. We were beyond elated to get the bill of lading when 35,000 glass bottles landed in the Port of Los Angeles. The day they were scheduled to arrive at our contracted co-packing facility, a massive truck pulled up in front of my house. They got the wrong address. No big deal. I directed the truck driver 60 miles east to the facility and retained one of the boxes full of bottles to check out.

I jumped on my computer to let my biz partner know what happened and noticed an email from China. It read, “I hope delivery get today with bottles ok. I hope fog not appear in bottle.” I anxiously tore open the box to discover a fine white powder evenly coating in the inside of every single bottle. I called the co-packer that afternoon to learn they had quickly put the bottles in quarantine. They actually laughed when I asked if they could wash them. “You want us to wash an unidentified white powder from your Chinese bottles before filling them with a food product? Hahaha. No. You can pick them up, have them cleaned and return them for filling.”

After much research and back-and-forth with China, we found out that it was a harmless silicate powder; a coating that forms on glass after it cools from the manufacturing process and is usually rinsed off as a final part of production. Just not in this case. The co-parcker still refused to wash the sketchy looking Chinese powder off of our bottles and we didn’t have much time. We had formula that was aging and a production slot that we would soon lose, delaying us for months. We did not have the time or money to order new bottles. This was a one-shot deal. This is where the big decisions are made. Pack it up and call it quits, or knuckle up. If there was a solution, it wasn’t going to be elegant. It was going to be a lot of work and it was going to suck. 

First we had to figure out how to get 8 pallets of glass bottles back to my house. We needed to keep it fast and frugal, so we rented the biggest U-Haul available. I think it was built in the late 60’s, had a steering wheel the size of a dining table and a semi-functional manual transmission. After a terrifying 100 mile round trip through the worst Los Angeles freeways, we disassembled the truck full of pallets and reassembled them in my backyard. 

An all-night brainstorming session produced ideas ranging from consumer dishwashers to robots. We finally decided to start placing Craigslist ads and began setting up a bottle cleaning production line system in my backyard. After half a dozen trips to Home Depot, we had basins, racks, air compressors and a bottle washing machines that we constructed from 2x4s and drip irrigation. We calculated times on the various methods of cleaning the bottles and found our machine to yield the most clean bottles per hour. However, it relied on a basic level of operator proficiency, such as turning a couple switches on and off in a specific sequence. This was a hard skill to come by on Craigslist, so we had our other low-tech methods (basins of soapy water and hoses) running in tandem. 

Our calculations showed that if we could get six workers to wash bottles seven hours a day, we could get through the 35,000 bottles in about eleven days with a labor cost that wouldn't break us. It was a long eleven days. My stomach sank every morning as I stepped over the tangle of hoses and electrical cords in my backyard and pulled the plastic covers off of all the pallets of bottles. My daughter was three years old and loved going out in the backyard. For two weeks it was covered in water, electricity, broken glass and an insane potpourri of strangers from Craigslist. Alliances between workers formed and then discord broke out between the groups. The backyard work area was completely exposed and temperatures were in the 90s. The abundance of soapy water attracted bees which terrified some of the more psychologically fragile workers. One of them composed a song about the bees and sang it loudly to keep them away from her workstation. It was absolute chaos, but bottles were getting cleaned. 

We continued to tweak the cleaning stations and supervise progress from our office (my garage) while doing the million other things we were also behind on for launching. For some reason, we paid everyone in cash. We had no idea what we were doing. Every day, I’d go to the ATM and withdraw the maximum amount. After the last bottle was cleaned, we had to then stack the boxes into pallets and then wrap them inside of another rented U-haul truck. We later discovered that having a freight company take it for us would have actually been cheaper and saved us countless hours and backaches. Oh well. It seemed like the fiscally responsible thing to do at the time. We got the bottles back to the copacker and returned the beast of a truck. 

The whole ordeal from bad news to getting it fixed and running production was inside of 21 days. Looking back at the venture, this was really one of the smaller problems we encountered, but at the time, it was totally soul crushing. The following four years were filled with equally insane stories. In one way, I feel like each chipped a little bit off of my life expectancy. But in another way, every one of those trials added something to me. Building the armor of my resilience, ability to cope with stress and most importantly, to persevere.

Sure, I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit the morning I opened that first box and I wanted to quit after only half of my committed Craigslist workers showed up on the second day. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and wish it would all go away, but I didn’t. Maybe it was because I didn’t leave my last job very gracefully. I set out to take the island and burned the boats when I landed on the beach. I didn’t mean to - the boats just kind of caught on fire. It's possible that grit is just in some people’s DNA, but I think it’s also there to earn. Maybe the next time something goes horribly wrong, I can think of it as another day in resilience bootcamp. Even better, it’s another opportunity to react a little less, approach the issue with a little more equanimity and then focus on working it out. Another time to let go of the fight for life balance and just dive deep into this very finite struggle that will pass like everything else.  

-Elijah Szasz