Wing it and work it out as you go, fake it till you make it, but never over promise and under-deliver

When I started Pacific Direct, I didn’t plan on setting up a multi-million pound, multinational company; I just needed to eat. An opportunity came my way, and I thought I’d give it a go. My grandmother told me that if I was going to sell this rubbish (I started off with pre-threaded sewing kits and shower caps), I should at least sell it to the Dorchester and then I’d get a decent cup of coffee when I went for meetings. And so, one Monday morning I turned up at the Dorchester with my samples and my knocking knees, and gave it my best shot.

When I went to the Dorchester, I had no business plan. I had no warehouse unless you count the space under my desk, and no infrastructure unless you count my ancient fax machine. They didn’t need to know that though, and when the Purchasing Manager told me, “You will store these for us in England; deliver within twenty-four hours; we only pay for the ones that we have delivered; they’ll be customised with the name “The Dorchester” and we’ll expect you to hold stock. You do have a warehouse, don’t you?” – of course, I said yes!

My point in telling you this is that most businesses fail at the first hurdle because of situations like this. The majority of people finding themselves in my position would have come clean and told the Purchasing Manager they didn’t have warehouse and had no clue how to ship and store such a large quantity of items. They wouldn’t have got the order, and they would have had to go back to the drawing board, calling other, smaller hotels and hoping for a big break. Alternatively people spend all their time working out the logistics of how they will deliver instead of asking strangers whether they are interested in buying the products or the service.

I had been in business with Pacific Direct for nine years before I even had a business plan, and while I wouldn’t advise people starting a business to go about it the way I did, I do think there’s a lot to be said for just winging it.

Whatever line of business you are in, you will most likely find yourself in a position like mine. You will be faced with someone asking you to fulfill an order or provide a service that makes the little voice in your head shout “oh hell” – or worse! You will have to make the decision: do I tell the truth and back out of this, or do I say yes and work out the details later? The voice in your head will want to back out; it’ll tell you that you can’t possibly do this, it’s way beyond your capabilities and who exactly do you think you are any way. Tell the voice to shut up. Plaster a big grin on your face, say “yes of course!” and worry about it later. Then get the help of experts.

These days we have mobile phones, and we have Google. You can ask Google just about anything and someone, somewhere will have written something relating to the answer. Where I walked away from my meeting thinking “oh God, how do I sort this out?!” you can walk away from your meeting and Google the answer before you’ve even left the building.

Don’t get me wrong; preparation really is key and I believe you need to look ahead and plan as much as possible. But there is only so much planning you can do. You can review your business plan every other day, and still be caught off guard. Even with the best planning in the world, you will come across moments for which you could not have possibly planned. I often thank God for the fact that I was a basically useless planner and a better doer, brought up to try stuff, know that if at first I did not succeed there was likely a lesson to learn and a different way. What a lucky girl I have been to have such great parenting.

You’ll be offered big opportunities that scare the life out of you, and you’ll feel woefully unprepared, like an impostor in your own business. I’m here to tell you we all have moments like that; we all come up against those big, scary opportunities that make us want to say “no, you’re ok thanks, I’ll stay down here where I’m comfortable.” I’m here to tell you to wing it, and sort out the details later. I have to learn French again, reach out to a near stranger to build a factory in China with me, overnight find a warehouse in a foreign land and even unpack (personally by hand on the 16th December in the cold) a whole container load of sports bags single handed 260 boxes at 21kg each. Where there is a will, there is a way.

You don’t always need to know every little detail of how things will work out. I was selling sewing kits and shower caps, so if the Purchasing Manager had asked me to provide tonic water for the bar of course I would have said no. But more of the same, that’s just bigger numbers. Realistically, if I was going to build any sort of a business I would have needed to get a warehouse and some sort of infrastructure at some point, so why not do it now. The question is not “do I feel comfortable taking this leap” but rather “do I want my business to provide this service.” If the answer is yes, then that’s what you say to the customer. Then get the hell out of there and start working out how you’ll do it. Health warning: Make promises within your strategic strength and you will grow faster and scale better with more laughs. Do not become a yes man just to stay alive.

There is a lot to be said for winging it and sorting out the details later. Your client has asked you to do this because they would rather have you over someone else. They don’t need to know you’ve never done it before! You can outsource the parts you can’t do yourself; you can hire someone on a temporary basis (as long as you have done your numbers); you can rope in friends and family members to help you bridge the gap. As long as you turn up with the goods when you say you will, your client is probably not bothered about how you got there.

I once heard a great story from the owner of a landscaping company, faking his size for when he had visitors. He put a massive map of his area in reception and placed all sorts of different colours pins in the board of the map. The assumption for the customer may have been these were his territory, his clients, his business scale. Actually they were just pins on a map! He then had more desks placed in the office. He was a three man band but felt 11 would be a good number, so roped in members of the family to look busy at work. That did the trick. He has never looked back.

So many people these days are stuck in the planning stage of their business, afraid to take that big leap into the unknown. It has to be perfect; it just needs to be tweaked a little more; we just need to wait for the market to pick up a little before we launch. You can plan and plan and plan, but you won’t know whether it will work until you take a deep breath and and start targeting likely customers. Once you’ve taken the leap, you can always tweak and edit as you go. You can change and grow and develop something that is already out there, but until it’s out there, you don’t know. Until you say yes to the big opportunity, you don’t know if you can do it.

Written by Lara Morgan
Lara Morgan is best known for growing Pacific Direct, from start-up to successful exit, 23 years later. She now invests her time in fast growth companies and represents UKTI as an Export Ambassador, having previously exported to 110 countries. Her vast experience and business knowledge includes specialisms in licensing luxury brands, manufacturing toiletries and selling to the hospitality environment through complex global distribution chains. She's also an expert in leadership and developing talent having learnt through her own experiences of employing 500 employees in an open fast growth sales culture.

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