Suzanne Styles on How To Bounce Back Stronger in Business
Suzanne Styles is Co-founder and Managing Director of Human Futurology
Can you start by telling us a bit about your journey as an entrepreneur, focusing particularly on your experiences with setbacks and challenges? How has this shaped your understanding and mastery of resilience in business?
I started my career in sales and advertising in the 1990s, having moved to Johannesburg from the UK aged 15. I worked my way up to be the first female director in a large corporation. But being an entrepreneurial spirit, I co-founded my first business in 2002, an advertising agency specialising in real estate called Airport Media. It grew to win numerous industry awards, before being bought by a top media house ten years later.
My second venture was not so successful. I set it up with my husband, Chris Styles, in 2011. It was an events business called Makes you Think. The intention was to book high-profile speakers in the international self-development and coaching world, fly them to South Africa to speak at a big business skills event.
But the business did not take off as we thought it would. What we failed to realise was that while the life coaching industry is a multi-billion dollar success in America, South Africa was just not ready for this trend. Culturally, the geographical demographic was not on the self-development journey yet.
We lost all our savings, and properties. This devastating experience smashed my self-confidence to smithereens but I overcame this by practising positive mindset exercises, which I outline further on in this interview.
In the world of entrepreneurship, failure is often seen as a stepping stone rather than a dead-end. How do you perceive failure, and can you share an instance where a failure led to an unexpected growth or success in your business?
Failure is most definitely not a dead-end. Quite the contrary. Successful entrepreneurs have learned to control their emotions to the point where they perceive failure and its “embarrassment” as a gift which we call the “5R Opportunity” (to re-group, re-think, re-plan, re-energise and re-execute). Here’s an uncomfortable but important truth – you have not succeeded at business, until you have failed at business. You cannot call yourself a true entrepreneur until you have navigated both emotional landscapes. Only then, will you realise that there is no failure, only learnings, that top entrepreneurs fail their way to the pinnacles of success, that self-made people all learned the hard way.
Here's a failure to success story of mine: I left the corporate world to launch my own advertising agency in South Africa with a co-founder. The business launched in time to bid for a huge advertising tender at a newly opened airport terminal. Our business was a hot favourite to win a huge slice.
On results day we waited with bated breath. Results were to be announced at 11.00am, 12.00pm rolled around, we had heard nothing, 1.00pm nothing, 2.00pm nothing. At 7.30pm we were informed that because of a technicality with how our investor funding had been set up, we were disqualified from the tender. We had borrowed heavily against this outcome. But instead of letting this get us down, while we sorted out the legals, we spent six months people-watching at the airport, watching how passengers moved and navigated areas in and around the terminal buildings.
When we had the legals in place, we submitted applications for new advertising sites, which we had identified through our patient people-watching. We were awarded these sites and within 18 months, not only had we been awarded Advertising Concessionaire of the Year, but we had acquired a market share of 30% of the ad-spend at all airports.
What strategies have you employed to cultivate a culture of resilience within your organization? How have these strategies made your team more adaptable and innovative, especially during trying times?
We adopt a strategy we call “Imaginative Persistence”. Imaginative - because the creative mind is the open, engaged, questioning, curious mind, and when your mind is in that imaginative mode, that’s when the genius within you flows. Persistence - because with this will come success. Entrepreneurs who have set about actively cultivating the habit of persistence within their lives, enjoy a form of invisible insurance against failure. No matter how many times they are defeated, they pick themselves up, carry on enthusiastically, and eventually, they are rewarded.
Having this Imaginative Persistence strategy at the core of my businesses, means I have not gone aggressively head-to-head with adversity. Instead, I find clever, imaginative ways to turn the perceived adversity into a practical opportunity, because I know that every adversity brings with it the seed of innovation.
You've spoken about bouncing back from failure, but I'm curious to know if there is a methodology you follow to analyze what went wrong and how to correct it. Could you describe your process for assessing and learning from mistakes?
The methodology that I follow to bounce back from failure flows from how I choose to think about failure. Sadly, many of us have been conditioned from a young age to think of failure as being the end of the world. Once you embrace this destructive paradigm, you will think yourself out of the results you want.
Few entrepreneurs understand the mechanics behind why they keep getting results they do not want, repeating a cycle of failure. Every result begins in the mind. Your thoughts create your emotions, and your emotions create your actions, and your actions create your results. So, if you desire to change the result, then you need to change how you think about the challenge to hand. The fastest way to create this success-enabling mindset pivot, is to stop making negative statements (e.g., “There’s so much competition out there, I really do not want this business to fail”) and to start asking positive questions (e.g., “What do I need to do to differentiate my business in the mind of the consumer?”). The raw power behind a mental approach like this, resides within the fact that statements close the mind whereas questions open the mind.
This is what I did when faced with the business failure of 2011 described above. Instead of thinking negative statements: “How did I let that fail?” I started thinking positive ones: “What can I learn from this for our next venture.” I did this many times a day. It helped steer my mental ship of future dreams away from the jagged rocks of failure in my mind that were itching to sink it.
Persisting with this exercise for many years meant I was ready this year to pour in the passion and enthusiasm required to co-found a new venture. Together with my husband - a human futurist researcher - we set up Human Futurology, applying a formula he created, which we call the “Intelligent Mathematical Blueprint” to help business leaders understand and predict their future timeline for opportunities and risk.
Many entrepreneurs fear failure to the point that it paralyzes them. How do you balance taking calculated risks with the fear of failure? What advice would you offer to other entrepreneurs who struggle with this?
It is a sad but harsh truth that around 80% of start-up businesses will cease operating within two years, leaving owners emotionally distraught and often, financially ruined.
Through a business talk radio show, which I co-hosted while living in South Africa, I spoke personally with many entrepreneurs who, after losing their life’s savings on a failed business, said they would never again attempt to build their own business. Many went on to say how they wished they had known better. What these brave yet hurt entrepreneurs did not realise, was that all they needed to do was better understand risk - both present and future. This entrepreneurial knowledge gap inspired my husband and I to design a forward looking, predictive risk model. As a mathematician he spent years developing this model based on spotting patterns of number sequences and synchronicities. He has high functioning Aspergers and this enabled him to create a highly sophisticated model, with its roots in numerology. It works by identifying “Red-Amber-Green” risk-based clues that exist within our own unique Intelligent Mathematical Blueprints (IMB) set by our birth date and birth names. It sounds ‘out there’ but we are convinced that every entrepreneur can use our information framework to manage and understand their risks and opportunities. We’ve applied it to hundreds of people and we always pinpoint the years and even the months when an individual peaks or experiences challenges.
Sometimes, resilience requires knowing when to pivot or even walk away from an idea. How do you recognize the difference between a challenge that requires persistence and a situation that necessitates a change in direction?
Persistence is not about being a lemming - relentlessly pursuing something until you race over the edge of a cliff. The enlightened persistent entrepreneur is one who has a clear goal in mind, but who is head-up, eyes-up, constantly taking in the opportunistic lie of the land and adjusting as the journey evolves.
The unenlightened persistent entrepreneur is the one who is forcing, grinding, head-down, eyes-down, unable to see the bigger picture ahead. They are the ones who pivot way too late because they never saw the obvious risks. When it comes to walking away from an idea – pursue what you know and understand. It costs to learn. Unless you have stacks of cash to throw around as you learn the ropes, it’s better not to venture into a business that you do not understand.
The global economic landscape is always changing, and recent years have seen some extraordinary disruptions. How have you adapted your business to overcome unexpected global challenges? What were the key factors in your successful navigation of these waters?
I have adapted my business to overcome global challenges by choosing to put focused effort into that which I can control, and not get overwhelmed by that which I cannot control. Because of the sheer size of the global economy, there will forever be elements over which entrepreneurs have zero control. So focus on what you can control - thoughts, emotions, actions. This is what dictates results. It is a conscious choice when you allow the external chaos and confusion of life into the inner sanctum of your mind. When you do, you allow what you cannot control to cannibalise that which you can control and that’s when you start to feel out of control.
“Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom” (James Allen). Keep your mind calm and you will find innovative ways to win when everyone around you is losing their mind.
Resilience in the face of failure is often linked to personal growth as well. How have your business experiences shaped you personally? Can you share a moment where your professional resilience translated into a personal transformation?
We often say that if our failed events business in 2011 had worked out and we had made lots of money, we may not be together now because we would have been sucked into the endless spiral of busyness or chasing the materialistic high life looking to replicate the success.
Also, it plunged us into alternative employment as we started coaching and mentoring other entrepreneurs. This gave my husband, Chris the time to plough into his futurology research. He made it a full-time pursuit to analyse the number sequences of hundreds of people — in the public arena and his personal network — to build our signature Intelligent Mathematical Blueprint (IMB), which now forms the basis for our current business, Human Futurology.