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How Other Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Olive’s Dragons Den Experience

At 7am, on the morning I woke up to pitch on Dragons’ Den, I rang my husband and said I couldn’t do it. Told him I was coming home.

Told him how scared I was that I would make a fool of myself. Worried about what people would think of me – would they think I was too big for my boots? Would people hate my idea? What if I messed up on my financials? Or tripped and fell and made a fool of myself? I even worried about people seeing my weight gain on television because they wouldn’t know I was pregnant during the interview.

Reading this, you might think these are strange thoughts to have, but to me, they were real.

I was doing everything and anything in my power to convince myself not to do it. But my husband wouldn’t let me. He answered every fear with a logical answer. Told me I could do it and reminded me of everything I had achieved to date. Told me to be myself and all would be okay.

And so I did it. With morning sickness and all, I took that deep breath and walked out in front of the “Dragons”.

I remember the moment exactly when my nerves eventually started to settle. Gavin Duffy sat back, and asked me how I overcame the toughest of family health circumstances while creating my new product, the MediStori. My answer to Gavin was simple – back then, I felt a need to mentally escape the reality of my situation by allowing myself to tap into my creative zone, thus giving me a small chance of escapism from my “real life” situation. I first and foremost wanted to help my family, and as I explained to Gavin and the other Dragons, I had never really meant for my innovations to become a business, it just happened naturally.

But there was so much more behind that statement than met the viewers eye. 

When I answered Gavin, I suddenly remembered why I did what I did. Just like when my husband reminded me that I could do it. I had turned my idea into a business simply because of my passion to help other patients, carers and families – and I managed to succeed with my business because I had learned on a deeply personal level 1) how to survive when times got tough and 2) how to become resilient to adversity and others judgement of me.

Resilience is a word quite often bandied about when it comes to entrepreneurs, and what the world calls “heroes”.

But what is resilience? In the dictionary it is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” My issue with this definition is the term “quickly”. In my opinion, there is no time limit on when one is “resilient”, but there is when it comes to “survival”. It is critical to know the difference between the two.

So I decided to write my thoughts down about my experiences of resilience in the hope that it may help other start ups. I feel it important that entrepreneurs, in particular, stick together and “learn to share, and share to learn”. For this piece, I broke down the word resilience into an acronym, highlighting the key components of what I feel are needed to survive and most of all to become resilient in the business world.

R = Reactivity

How we react initially to adversity and crisis does not necessarily mean that is how we’ll react in 48 hours from that time. My emotional reaction before Dragons’ Den was very different to how I felt afterwards. Even if I didn’t get investment I knew I would have been proud that I did it. It is so critical to pause, reflect and try to remove all emotions when making critical business decisions. Think future. If you don’t do something, will you regret it – and vice versa. If something negative happens today, how do you feel now? I always say it’s okay to have a bad day, but don’t let it be a bad week. Take some time to allow yourself be upset or angry and absorb the situation. Talk to friends, family and trusted colleagues. Then start thinking logically – that day has past, how do you feel now about the situation? Think will your decisions impact negatively/positively on others, on you, on your business – tomorrow and the day after that? Think about the words you use and the need to move forward, not backwards.

E = Empathy

To survive in the business world, entrepreneurs need to be kind to themselves, first and foremost. Upon reflection, I was so harsh on myself before I pitched in the Den. Unlike computers, humans are emotional. When times get tough, many entrepreneurs sink back into themselves and often are too afraid to discuss the situation with others because of how they may be judged – especially if they were the ones they feel could be at fault. This is one of the biggest reasons businesses can fail. Remove the unkind thoughts you may be having about yourself and allow yourself to listen to what others have to say. We can often make a “mountain out of a molehill” simply because we feel deserving of the negative situation at hand. We often internalise our thoughts and concerns. Most people we reach out to will listen, show empathy and try to problem solve with you. Others may not be so – they could be harsh and berate you for what they see as your flaws. Either way, I would say, take the risk. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.

S = Survival

There is a strong connection between survival and resilience. Survival mode gets us through each minute, hour, day. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will say the basic needs for humans are food, water, heat, rest. I always say in today’s world, before these needs, another  component needs to be added. And that is money. Nobody can survive without it – everything costs money, even water nowadays. And that is the bottom line for all entrepreneurs. How do we make (and keep) money? Survival mode steps in when this bottom line is affected negatively and all emotional and critical thinking resources need to be applied. The important question to ask is, what is the absolute bottom line that you can tolerate that will not affect the basic survival of your emotional or physical well-being? Or impact your families lives. Overstepping this mark may impact on decision making in your business, and worse, your personal life. Resilience steps in when you know when to stop, and know when to keep on going. Resilience is about tomorrow, not today. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t taking huge risks by doing the Den: it cost me nothing financially. If done well, I could gain in every aspect, at worst, my ego would be the only thing hurt.

I = Intuition

I very nearly let fear get in the way of my dreams. Deep down I knew the Den would be okay, but I allowed negative thoughts to come in. The strongest of entrepreneurs will always listen to their intuition. What is your”gut feeling” telling you? Does something just not feel right but you can’t explain it? Or is it just fear of the unknown; fear of what people think of you; fear of failure; fear of people thinking you’re crazy? Critically and logically analyse your thought processes. Fear is an ultimate game stopper for many people who have big dreams but don’t pursue them. But are these fears real (i.e. logical and could mean the failure of your business) or theoretical (i.e. fear based meaning you are preventing yourself from moving forward). If you can’t answer these questions then go back to your inner instinct. If it doesn’t feel right, then chances are, it isn’t. For now, anyway. Apply this way of thinking for potential investors or partners too. Don’t rush in and think of the money in short term – think of the close relationship you will have on a long term basis. What are their reasons for investing and will they stand by you when the going gets tough, or will they shy away? All investors want a return on their monies, but many also have other reasons (e.g. excitement of being involved with new companies, passionate to help society etc etc). Emotional intelligence plays a huge part in business-relationship developments – for both parties. Listen to your intuition – any niggles of doubt need to be ironed out before proceeding with such commitments. I knew I got the right investor in Barry O’Sullivan – his questions and responses felt right in my gut – I also knew the reason why he wanted to be involved. Before I accepted his offer I had stated ” 1% of 100 is far better than 100% of nothing” and I really meant this. He saw the need for it, he believed in me.

L = Learning

I can’t count the number of times I was told by “experts” that my product wouldn’t work because it wasn’t technology, or that I didn’t have a “degree” so I wouldn’t be able to run my company (yes, true story!) I can’t count the numbers of times I didn’t win competitive pitches. I can however count the amount of awards I have won, and the competitions I have been successful in. Before going on the Den, I reflected on the good and the bad. One critical character of resilient people is their ability to learn from experience. Not just bad experiences, but good ones too. Reflecting on times when everything was on an upward incline, and also times when it all fell down like a house of cards. Thinking about how they reacted and turned a situation around, both personally and financially. If the same mistake keeps happening over and over again, then it is time to reflect on why this is so. Is there a cycle? Additionally it is important to learn from your market. If your preliminary research is sending you a resounding ” I like it but wouldn’t pay for it” then deeply consider where you go from here. But be aware, if it is not your potential customers who tell you this (i.e. friends, family or mentors) then consider why they are saying this. It could be that your friends and family are scared of you taking risks – it could be that potential advisers, experts or mentors have their toes dipped in other related businesses, or more simply – that they are not your target market. Research, research and research again. Listen, ask, learn – and listen again. Then take action.

I = Innovation

Resilience is also about the ability to become innovative. Apply the same processes to product development to problem resolution. Do your research; think about the objectives, the vision, the outcomes; think about the how, why and where. How are you going to communicate your message? Bringing a team around you can be critical to providing a broad spectrum of solutions to a situation. As the saying goes “there is always more than one way to skin a cat” – a horrible expression, I know, but an apt analogy for any business person. Thinking outside the box is an absolute when times get tough. As an entrepreneur, you already have the skill-sets to be innovative.  Resilience will become a pattern if an entrepreneurs creativity is applied in a different context. When in the Den you have to think on your feet – and fast! If you watched my episode, you would have seen me make a critical error because I had not interpreted Chanelle McCoy’s question correctly. I could have left it there, but I knew I couldn’t. Many would have said nothing, but I knew I had to figure out a way to set things straight. Thankfully Barry had noticed something was amiss, and this allowed me to clarify the situation but my head at the time was swirling trying to figure out how to say it!

E = Eagerness

When times are good all entrepreneurs are willing and eager to get up in the morning and make the next day better than the day before. But when times get tough this is when we can tend to put our heads under the sand (or under the duvet as the case may be!) No business, ever, has never had tough times and it is critical to realise when your eagerness to continue starts flailing. On these days, go back to the drawing board – take out the business plan. Think about the reasons why you started and the vision you have. Remember, money is usually only the outcome, it’s not the reason why. Some people want to use their money to travel the world, build their dream house (me!) or simply provide for their family. Others do what they do because they want to help others (me, again!). But to become resilient, the key to is to keep that vision in mind. It will get you through the tough days if you know your goals. I personally have a vision board over my computer and often, I look up at it and imagine it can happen one day. I then go back to my work and ensure I do what I can to achieve it. It is one of my tactics in becoming resilient to adversity. Just before walking unto the set of the Den I imagined walking into the front door of my dream house on the ocean – until reality hit me in the face haha!

N = Networks

I would always say reach out to those who can be honest with you, who will listen and may be able to help you see beyond today. The world of business will open your eyes to those who have your back, and those who don’t. Who once were friends may not be so when you dig deep enough. Try to figure out the reasons people are saying what they are saying. Is it because of their personal bias (jealousy, greed, envy, lack luster); their personal characteristics (honest, open, blunt) or your interpretation of what they are saying (perceptions of honesty as negativity). Don’t be defensive if they challenge you – think about why they are doing so. Be open to ideas, but do not ever allow someone to knock you when you are already down. Simply walk away and thank them for their time. Do think about what they said and why they said it, while being conscious of your own bias. Remember if you are defensive to someone for telling you to stop your business, then this is usually a sign you don’t want to give up! This is a good thing! But if they are telling you to consider changing your business model, marketing strategy or product lines, then listen. As I said on the Den – everyone should look back at their first product and cringe – customer feedback will be the determining factor to new ways of going forward, so listen to what they have to say.

C = Communication

Ask for help and be honest. There may come a time when you can’t communicate publicly or to the outside world (i.e. customers/partners) about the issues you are having in your business – and yet they still need to know what is going on. It is important to get advice from those who excel at communications. The same goes for legal advice. Write everything down as it is in the most blunt of manners, highlighting the pros and cons of the matter – remembering throughout how your message may be perceived by stakeholders. I have been in this situation, and particularly, just before the Den it was crucial I knew what I could/should and could/should not say. Your intuition may be to just blurt it out as it is, but often this not strategic or effective. Your companies ability to not be effective anymore may have been through the fault of the breakdown of a contract or another party – but it does not always help you to  share this with the world. As Michelle Obama says “when they go low, we go high”. Sometimes this is the most effective way of portraying your situation. Be careful with your words and expressions. Think of the big picture and long term vision of the company. Once it’s out there, there’s no turning back. The key is that you honestly communicate your issues with experts in the field – to help you, help your company.

E = Endurance

And finally, we come down to the strongest component of all successful entrepreneurs – endurance. Olympic athletes are an exemplar example for endurance – and believe me sometimes it does feel like you’re running a marathon. I couldn’t explain the adrenaline I felt after doing the Den, nor the similarities of sacrifices needed to grow the business to get to that place. Entrepreneurs will endure the sleepless nights, pushing their bodies beyond the average, sacrificing home life, finances, jobs or education – just to reach their goals. Much like entrepreneurs, athletes have coaches and trainers – and they learn every single little thing that will make them the best. They watch their competitors, learn from their teams and have a passion and belief that they can do it. They win some, they lose some. Many become resilient to the judgement of the world. Do they get disappointed? Yes. Fear the worse? Yes. Hurt themselves physically and emotionally? Yes. Many keep on going – but they too know when to stop. Resilience comes from perseverance. And maybe even, a dash of sheer stubbornness too. The key is to ask yourself how long you can endure the pains and positives that come with running a business – and when it gets to that point, don’t let stubbornness override sensibility.

So all in all, I ask myself, do I have all of these components? The truth is, on some days I feel I do – and on others I don’t. I am after all, only human.

Do I get scared? YES! Do I feel that it’s all too big for me? YES! Do I sometimes feel used by others so they can reach their goals? YES! Do I feel like the fear of people judging me negatively can be so overwhelming that I just want to stop? YES!

But…I don’t stop.

I pause, reflect and think about the reason why I do what I do.

For me, the worst thing that could happen in life is the loss of a child.

Every fear after that, is tiny in comparison. Entrepreneurs need to think about their ultimate fears; and use perspective.

Resilience comes after survival. It is what makes you not just eat breakfast in the morning because you need food, but to take that day until you reach the highest level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – self actualisation – to be the best person you can be. Resilience can not be taught – it can only be experienced.

I love the fact that I help people every day. I love the fact I am showing my daughters not to let anyone stop them from achieving their dreams. I am teaching them to be different, to be unique: to feel the fear and do it anyway. To be kind, honest and reflective.

This is my reason why. And it is this that makes me resilient in life, and in work.

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