I've been thinking a lot lately about the tension in running a business between experimentation and complication. No doubt part of what's driving these thoughts is the current seemingly unsustainable inflation that has been happening globally for years now and has only gotten worse in the last 6-12 months. It's easy to justify a budget for research and development when the coffers are flush, less so when the cost of everything from tools and software to labor is higher and the value proposition becomes harder to make. But it's not just a purely financial wager either.
As many know I currently own and operate a retro arcade with over 70 arcade and pinball machines along with a food truck and bar that opened in 2021. Previously I was cofounder of an educational-focused web hosting company that just celebrated 10 years in business. Arguably these are polar opposites in terms of industry, customer base, and unique challenges to both. So it's pretty interesting to me when I can find parallels between the two and utilize my experience in the first company to inform decisions I make for the second. There's a nascent period in a business's formative years where you're trying tons of new stuff. The limits of how and where you'll grow the business are less clearly defined as you experiment and explore. Ideas are a dime a dozen and the only way to learn what works is to try right?
At Reclaim Hosting this period of time for me was punctuated with literally trying to figure out how to make shared hosting not suck (how's that for a mission statement?), exploring agency models of hosting for universities that wanted to use all the same tools as shared hosting within their campus environment, and playing with this new containerization technology at the time called "Docker" as I explored a near infinite array of software both open source and commercial. It was not uncommon for someone to reach out asking if we supported a particular application they were curious about or had used elsewhere and almost always the answer was "we'll try!" Of course you have to have a stomach for disappointment with this approach because the success stories are usually outweighed significantly by the failures and the hope is you find enough successes to run and grow a business. I have to admit I fucking love this stage. As I grow and learn more about myself in this winding career path I've had it's clear to me that I'm a tinkerer and builder at my core. But that period is not always sustainable, especially if you're trying to methodically grow a business without huge influxes of VC money. A successful business eventually has to learn to say "Sorry, no" and say it often as the plaster begins to set and mold the company that you will become.
I say no a lot at the arcade too.
"You know if you put a few TVs up with football I could totally get a big group of guys here every Sunday supporting you all!"
"Can I rent out the entire arcade for my wedding reception on a Saturday evening?"
"What you all really need to buy are air hockey tables!"
The requests and suggestions are never malicious and usually center in a genuine excitement for what you've created with a bit of selfish desire to customize it for their particular use case. But customers are not privvy to the larger impact of those decisions, the "complications" inherited by saying yes. As one example sure I can rent the whole arcade out on a Saturday, and maybe I would make more in a rental fee from that one group than walk in customers if I price it right, but at the expense of all of the goodwill I would have earned from customers that would inevitable show up and be turned away. I can practically hear the negative review now, "I was so excited to show my nephew who was in town for the day about this amazing place but they were closed down for a private event, WTF?!" As the business develops you have to kindly learn how to let people down while building on your successes. In some cases compromise is possible, we do rent out the arcade on day's we're not open to the public! But sometimes compromise is simply not possible and no I absolutely will not be turning my arcade into a sports bar thankyouverymuch.
You also have to be open to changing your mind. "You did this for me before" is no reason to feel obligated to do that same thing in perpetuity. As the business grows and your offerings develop it's completely normal to adjust your thinking and make new decisions in the best interest of the business. I have to remind myself of this all the time because I hate to disappoint people. And what if their suggestion or request is a hidden business growth opportunity that I haven't yet explored? There is the rub. Continuing to innovate as you grow and leaving room for experimentation without sacrificing the parts that make the thing you built a success. I certainly don't have all the answers but I've had to get more comfortable over time saying no and still leaving space in my mind to sometimes say maybe, let's try it!