Entering the Horse latitudes

 (originally posted 14 March 2010)
You launch your business after a marathon of planning. You do more preliminary work than you ever thought you could tolerate. You collect advice from all kinds of experts. You know who your clients are and where to find them. You know how to price your work, and when and how to discount. Your financial projections are proving to be conservative. You’ve got work lined up into the foreseeable future. Still, you weigh the value of each purchase you make and every consultant you hire and avoid the temptation to be extravagant as a way to convince people you’re successful. You look in the mirror and see a happy future. Clearly, all that soul searching before you went independent was unnecessary.

And then suddenly everything stops.

You may not be out of work, but you’re making significant inroads into your backlog and the phone isn’t ringing as frequently as it had been. Clients and potential clients are still enthusiastic about your work, but more and more they want to put your information into a file, not hand you something to do now. Your biggest client tells you that they’ve decided to postpone a project until the next fiscal year; your second biggest is trying to pick a fight with you. The clouds roll over your sun. You wonder if you’ll ever work again.

Your business has entered the horse latitudes.

The horse latitudes are a region of the Atlantic ocean where the winds are always light. Legend has it that they are named because European explorers, heading to the West Indies, sailed into this area and were becalmed. As the trip lengthened unexpectedly, the crew would throw the horses overboard to lighten the load and preserve the drinking water.

There are good reasons to discount this legend in history, but the metaphor is useful, especially in businesses based in personal skill. Chances are excellent that, even with platinum-level planning, you will sometimes feel as if you're going nowhere. It’s important that you decide what you can and can’t throw overboard.

Most people have some business lined up before they get started: Finding that first assignment is not the problem. Nor is finding the fifth, or even the tenth assignment. The problem comes with the 120th or 215th, the job so far from the horizon you can’t imagine what it might look or feel like when you start out.

So how do you deal with the horse latitudes? Some advisers will might wag their finger at you, suggesting that even if you thought you were well prepared, you weren't. You haven't done enough of the right kind of marketing. You quit your “day job” too soon. You didn’t put aside enough income in reserve.

Any or all of these could be true without explaining why your business is becalmed. Before you start throwing the horses overboard, here are some things to consider.

If you like to analyze:

  • Think about the big picture. Your practice is like a ship sailing across the ocean: it’s a dynamic system that works in conjunction with other dynamic systems. First, there are the systems you (and your family) create as you manage your business and your life: they intersect in certain ways. But the same is true for each client or potential client and every supplier. Attitudes about and forecasts for the current economic situation are also a part of the larger system. When you’re all in sync it’s like the wind is blowing hard in the right direction and you’re moving forward. When you’re not in sync you can end up with delays or missed connections.
  • So now you have a reason to stop blaming yourself. How do you move forward?

If you like to plan:

  • Start with a review of your client and financial data. Re-examine your forecasts but don’t assume that you have done something wrong—you’re dealing with a situation that has elements beyond your control. Locate industry forecasts if you can and compare your situation to those statistics.
Then, think about strategies to get yourself out of the horse latitudes:
  • How might you bring in enough income to keep your business moving forward until the winds pick up? The opportunities available to you will depend on what you can do and what you like to do, of course. I often joke with my clients about that part-time job at the local hardware store, but maybe what you need is a low-commitment income source to give you some security until you move out of the becalmed area.
  • How could you revise your practice so that it continues to move forward (if slowly) until you pick up new wind? How you could build new partnerships and new ways to promote your skills?
  • What could you toss overboard to keep your practice afloat? Some people reduce their fees or salaries. Others reduce or expand the services they provide. Some shift to using more (or fewer) contractors, or assigning subsidiary tasks to consultants or outside experts. What would work best for your practice?
If you need to do something:

  • Call your clients and—assuming that it’s in their interest to keep your business afloat—ask for their advice. When do they expect their situation will ease? Are there other jobs you could do for them that would be of mutual benefit?
  • Develop ways to build your networks. This may not lead to work right now but will help you to keep from circling back into the horse latitudes in the future.
  • If your financial situation isn’t a complete disaster, use this time to build or consolidate new skills. Learn to use some new business tools, or take a course on something related to your field.

You need to identify ways to continue (to coast) until your practice picks up and you no longer feel becalmed. The trick is to avoid tossing the most valuable items—like the horses on ships bringing explorers to the new world—you bring with you for the future of your business.

It is possible to pass through the horse latitudes and survive.

The Caveat: I mean this advice to be thought provoking but general. Unless you subscribe to our management advisory, Research and Writing cannot provide specific advice about how best to manage your practice.