If you’ve read my writing before, you know I love to make references to things that interest “old people” — songs, movies, plays, etc. from the 1950s and 1960s. That’s because a) I’m old and b) it was good stuff!
Today I refer to a particular song from a movie called “The Music Man.” It’s a musical about a film-flam man (someone who’s deceptive, who’s misleading — someone who likes to bamboozle people).
Harold Hill is a con artist who blows into an Iowa town (“River City” — as in “we’ve got trouble, trouble right here in River City”) and poses as a band director. His entire scheme is to sell musical instruments, at a great profit, to the simple townsfolk with the promise of “teaching them to play in a marching band!”
The townsfolk start off the movie warning Professor Harold Hill that he’s in Iowa, and that they are all “Iowa Stubborn.” (Watch the video linked for “Iowa Stubborn” — that’s the song I am referencing in this post). Probably the most telling sentence in the lyrics that describes “Iowa Stubborn” is this one: “And we’re so by-gone stubborn, we can stand touching noses for a week at a time, and never see eye-to-eye.”
Those are some stubborn folks — and unless I’ve worked with people from Iowa unaware, I’ve met some people equally stubborn. And by people I mean clients. Stubborn clients. The operative word being “stubborn” — an adjective meaning “difficult to handle, manage or treat” (Merriam-Webster).
When you have a stubborn client
Most of us (OK, all of us) who manage business incubators should be quite familiar with this term, and most likely all of us can identify an entrepreneur right now who fits in this category. The term reminds me of people who refuse to change, who refuse to listen, who refuse to consider alternatives.
I have many examples and will share a few with you here. Stubborn — ah, the very word conjures up past images of failure, struggle and disappointment, in addition to a song in “The Music Man.”
For example, I recall one entrepreneur who needed to raise capital. (OK, sorry, I recall ALL entrepreneurs needed to raise capital, but this one stands unique in my memory because he was too stubborn to learn).
He refused to listen to any advice about how to pitch his business, how to present himself, and how to attract investors to his company. He knew it all, and we simply weren’t needed. However, after about five months of zero progress, I received an urgent email asking for “rent relief” as he was running out money. Imagine that!
Yet another entrepreneur constantly made excuses to avoid meetings with his advisor or with me. She was “too busy” or “doing things that were more important.” Despite continual warnings that these meetings were required and in writing in her lease contract, she still dodged them on a consistent basis.
Her attitude changed rapidly when she received the termination notice (another very clear clause in the lease). All of a sudden, she said “it would be a good idea to have a meeting!” It was interesting how she finally found time and considered these meetings “very important” when her space in the program was at risk.
Don’t fight stubborn with stubborn
My job as an incubator director is not only to advise people on getting funding, finding new employees, giving pitches and presentations, and growing their company — but sometimes it is also my job to advise people to hang it up.
Sometimes I need to tell them it’s time to give up their entrepreneurial dream. I tell them there’s no market or someone else has beat them to the market (faster/better/cheaper) or they aren’t making any progress, etc.
This is where being stubborn becomes a greater liability for your client — but then again, this is not an easy situation to face (and it’s not easy news to deliver, either!).
I have known some tenacious people who refused to give up, and some of those eventually triumphed over incredible odds. Just some of them. Good for those few! However, those who refused to give up and didn’t triumph suffered immensely.
Most of us, when someone tells us our dream is impossible, we want to work even harder to show they are wrong. When you’re dealing with a client who has a failing business, this can come at a high cost. So before your clients commit themselves to stubborn tenacity, try to encourage them to consider all sides of the situation. (I said “try.” I know that can be impossible too.)
And for you, manager, the individual who has to deliver the bad news, be understanding with stubborn, immoveable people. Perhaps you are unaware of some fact, some circumstance that is driving that “unyielding ambition” or that “overwhelming desire to succeed.”
Just as you would encourage your client to consider all sides of the situation, make sure you have all the facts before passing final judgment. Sometimes people are unwilling to admit defeat because of the stigma of failure; it’s embarrassing to be wrong and to fail.
But in entrepreneurship (as we well know), “failing fast” is actually a good thing sometimes, rather than expending tons of effort (and money!) to chase an unreachable goal. (Hmmm, that sounds like another good song — “to dream the impossible dream”…)
Care so they care
So, in your leadership role, ask questions. Listen intently. Pose alternatives for your clients. Help them consider different markets, different angles, different concepts. Help them reach the conclusion, through discussion and counseling, that perhaps it is time to stop and restart.
This is a key to success: learn to admit defeat, to comprehend obstacles, to use failure as a springboard to future success. As they say, “Experience is the best teacher.” So use your experience to help your clients (especially the stubborn ones), but don’t be too stubborn yourself. Don’t assume you have the only answer.
You want to know how the musical “The Music Man” ends? Prof. Hill stubbornly moves ahead with his deception until he falls in love with the local librarian — and decides he would do anything for her.
Caring for your clients — listening, brainstorming, sharing hard truths, advising them as you might your own children or your own company — might break through their natural stubbornness, whether they’re “Iowa Stubborn” or not.
Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues. UF Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the lab to the market, making the world a better place.
Originally published on August 25, 2020, on the IncubatorBlogger.