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Belief can be the hardest step.

Belief in the future, despite the present. Belief in ourselves, despite the past. Belief that, today, the ice will hold, despite it never having held before.

How can we have a belief in the future, despite all of the evidence to the contrary?

U.S. public debt has more than tripled in the last 16 years. Since 2008, the Federal Reserve Board has increased the monetary base 4.5 X. Equity and debt bubbles have been building since the 2008 crash. (For background, see Where Will Your Business Be When the Music Stops? in The Death of the Dollar.)

Look around. Gravity is having its day. Most any number is falling like an apple. Apple Computer itself lost $55 billion in market capitalization in January alone. Which major market index anywhere in the world is not down 10-20% year-to-date? Or, 20% off its 6-12 month high? Capital outflows from China topped $110 billion in January alone. Riots broke out in Hong Kong at the onset of Chinese New Year. Ah, but that was due to an unrelated, local issue, Chinese officials say…

A Belief in the Future . . . Anyway

Yes, despite financial gravity, we can still choose to have belief. These macro events are important because they provide context for business opportunities. Whatever our business—however coupled to financial volatility—we can choose to move forward. We can choose to view these events as shaping rather than constraining our opportunities. 80/20—as important as these events may be globally and politically, only a few are truly important to your business. Truly, the most critical concerns are your internal, day-to-day business affairs: are you able to service your debt, to meet payroll, are (key) customer receivables getting worrisome, and so on?

In our business, for example, we are eliminating debt and tightening credit. Interestingly, tellingly, our best customers in every sense of the term pay virtually upon receipt of invoice; while marginal customers pay, eventually, and then it is as if payment were some great favor. Most importantly, we have simplified our business around what we believe are our most viable, sustainable and profitable segment: independent businesses with sizable labor, material and / or transportation costs.

The 80 /20 rule tells us that 4 in 5 such businesses have just a few segments contributing the most significantly to the bottom line while the rest are delivering average, marginal or even negative returns. We believe that we can help such businesses to sort through the complex data, to filter out the noise, to see the variation for themselves, and—most importantly—to do something about it, quickly and cost-effectively. We believe there are quite a few companies out there that can use our help. And, well, that is why we believe in the future.

A Belief in Ourselves Despite the Past

Sorting through the complexities. Filtering out the noise. That can get overwhelming. Sometimes, we make mistakes and we question ourselves. I questioned myself; I did mention debt, right? I have spent money on bright ideas. I mean, really good ideas. Can’t lose ideas with which I found a way to lose money…anyway. It hurt. It was expensive. Banks send me Christmas cards.

While in college, I worked on a construction crew. There was a mechanic, Richard. Richard had a truck with lockers, chests and drawers built throughout and atop the truck bed. Each compartment was filled with tools. Richard had a place for every tool and every tool was in its place. When he told me to get something he would tell me from where to get it. He knew what each tool was for and when to use it. He also knew what would go horribly wrong if I used the tool the wrong way.

He had a story for every mistake. Each story would start with, “Don’t do that. I did that once and . . .” It was always just once in his stories. At the time, I would laugh—at him—because he seemed to have messed up just about every way imaginable. It took me a long time—too long a time—to realize that the important thread of his stories was that he made each mistake only once. It took me a bit longer to realize that making a lot of mistakes was all in the game.

Trial brings error, raw data, adjustments—a pivot. Even a complete change of cause, of career, of course. The farmer that becomes a preacher. The scientist that becomes an entrepreneur. The performer that becomes a writer. And so on. We grow—evolve—as our true purpose is revealed to us.

Belief despite our past? Perhaps, because of our past. We are each the sum total of everything that has brought us to this page.

The Ice Will Hold—A Parable

It is February and snow has finally come. It is cold out there. Will it be cold enough today to walk on the ice? Each day before, our team has set out. With each step, the ice thinned. Each time, the ice did not hold. A foot fell through or a leg. We pulled each other out. We came back wet, silent. The villagers watched us file by, asked us questions.

From the edges of the crowd, we heard mockery and laughter.

We dry our clothes, living questions, suggesting possibilities, vowing to start out again next morning. And the next morning after that. We have reason to believe. We have written the future throughout our minds. And, so, we set out again well wrapped in our belief.

Yes, with each step, we feel it is colder still. We share laughter amid our steps. Finally, it is cold enough. The ice will hold, we say. Today, the ice will hold.