Make Business Problems Your Secret Weapon for Growth

by Daniel Jacobs

By mid-2014, Avanoo had been around for a year. We had a product people loved, but we barely had enough money to pay for rent and ramen, and our highest paying client allocated more of their budget to Kleenex than they did to Avanoo. Cofounder Prosper Nwankpa and I expected more from ourselves. We had huge plans for making a difference. But after a year of hard work, all we saw for sure was more 100-hour work weeks and pain.

After much analysis, Prosper and I concluded that our lack of growth was clearly the other person’s fault. While we shared the same vision of wanting to help others grow, we had different ideas about how to get there.

I believed the path was continuing to support world-renowned business and behavior experts in selling Avanoo. We’d made over 200 such partnerships, they loved Avanoo, they brought in 95% of our revenue, and there was so much more we could do.

Prosper believed the path was to stop asking experts to sell Avanoo, and to instead create an inside sales team. He figured it would help us better understand our sales process, predict our revenue, and grow more efficiently.

We were at an impasse. Although our expertise centered around helping others get through moments like this one, we couldn’t apply it to ourselves. Instead, we sought to convince each other with logic, hand gestures, increased volume levels…

Still, neither of us were willing to budge.

We were so entrenched in our beliefs about what was best, that we couldn’t hear each other. As a result, our business and vision was in danger, as was our sixteen-year friendship.

Finally, a long-time friend and mentor (now board member), Brooks Fisher, invited Prosper and me to his house for the weekend. Brooks was Chief Learning Officer at Intuit, a multi-billion dollar software company.

Prosper and I believed the invitation was to clear up who was right. But after we settled in, Brooks communicated a different plan: “Let’s imagine we solve your big problem this weekend. What do you think will happen?”

I knew the answer. So I blurted it out: “Life will be peaceful again, better, easier. We’ll be able to support and honor each other again!”

He laughed. “Sounds nice,” he said, “but not even close.”

Prosper and I looked at each other, then leaned toward Brooks.

“When you resolve this problem,” Brooks continued. “You will find a bigger business problem. Growth always invites bigger problems.”

“So what’s your point?” Prosper asked.

“The point is, you two get to choose how to use this moment. Either you can use it to strengthen your relationship to help you grow and solve bigger problems, or you can use it to tear each other down and make solving bigger problems impossible.”

“Let’s imagine we solve your big problem this weekend. What do you think will happen?”

Years later, Prosper still calls this “our holy elephant moment”.

For months, I had believed I was arguing with Prosper to protect our organization and make the best decision. In that moment, I realized that instead of protecting Avanoo, I’d been hurting us by destroying our ability to make future big decisions with my insistence on being heard and being right.

The rest of that weekend, I worked from a new perspective: I imagined that this hairy business problem was really our secret weapon for growth! – all we had to do was use it to strengthen our relationship and decision-making capacity to solve even bigger problems in the future! So instead of arguing, I listened a lot to Prosper and Brooks. Eventually, I agreed to put my heart into building an inside sales force for Avanoo. It wasn’t my idea, but it was the best idea for helping grow our vision and organization.

A few years later, we’ve doubled numerous times, and we work with top organizations all over the world. I believe it’s because we learned to get excited about using even the hardest business problems to grow as people and as a business. We love this stuff: we love to practice it, we love to teach it, and it pumps me up just to share this story with you!

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