The small business roller coaster

Today’s episode is a long one – I felt like teaching today 🙂

If you’re either in that happy place of feeling overly-optimistic and making amazing plans (but not executing yet) – or you’re taking action and feeling hopelessly discouraged about your business – know that it’s normal.

There’s a cycle to this and it’s really helpful to know where you are in that cycle and what to do for each stage. Video below (30 minutes) or scroll for the long-ass article. In this video/article:

  • The small business roller coaster (aka: emotional stages of change)
  • How to recognize each stage
  • What to do (or NOT do) in each stage (this part can save you a bunch of time and money)

If you’ve been in business for longer than a minute, you’ll be familiar with the small business roller coaster.

Ah…the stomach-turning thrill of starting your own business. Wheee!!!

It’s the alternating up and down feelings of “this is going to be great!” followed by “ugh, this sucks”, followed by “maybe it’s not so bad” – then back to “it’s going to be great” and on and on the ride goes.

There’s a name for this: The Emotional Cycle of Change – and it’s marked by high and low mood swings.

Developed by Connor and Kelly in the mid-70s (see: Emotional Cycle of Change) it describes 5 distinct phases that we all go through any time we undertake a change.

It applies to the macro and the micro: your business as a whole, a new product/service launch, a new idea for marketing – all the way down to writing a single blog post or article.

It also applies to any changes you make in your personal life: getting married, trying to lose weight, changing jobs.

For a small change, you may go through the whole cycle in a day (this was my experience learning how to use my video broadcasting system) – or over a period of years (your business or your marriage.)

If you’re changing something – this cycle will happen. Getting familiar with the territory can help you make better decisions for navigating through each change.

The Emotional Cycle of Change: Overview

I’m going to start with a quick overview of the entire system, then dive into some specifics around the first couple of stages.

If you search google images for “emotional stages of change” – you’ll see a lot of variations. Very few with cartoons. 🙂

Uninformed Optimism

My revolutionary idea will change the world! And as long as it stays in my head, it’s perfect!

This is your business plan before it encounters the real world. It’s perfect in your head or on paper.

It’s an idea you’re excited about. The book you’re going to write, the 10K you’ll run next spring, the product or service you’re about to launch.

It’s the honeymoon stage in a relationship or new job.

This stage comes with enthusiastic, can’t-sleep-I’m-so-excited energy.

It also brings along fear of success, fear of failure…or both.

If you’re partial to generating ideas, creating plans and learning new stuff – you can get stuck here for a long long time. (Ask me how I know!)

This is the land of Analysis Paralysis.

Beware of over-planning: you don’t know enough to do that! It’s called uninformed optimism for a reason!

Informed Pessimism

Nothing works. This is too hard. I want to quit. Or drink a lot of wine. Maybe both.

This is the inevitable crash that happens when your shiny glossy idea or carefully crafted plan meets the real world.

People don’t respond the way you hoped. You run into problems, challenges, frustrations.

You get disappointing results: 3 people signed up for your workshop when you hoped for 50.

You discover that holy crap: writing a book is not “just like writing a long blog post.”

This is the land of procrastination, wanting to quit (lots of people do) or searching for a magical miracle cure.

This stage sucks. Its also inevitable and necessary – because in stage 1 you don’t know what you don’t know.

Stage 2 is where you learn things! You may be down and discouraged – but you’re informed. 

Now that you know what you don’t know, you can learn it.

With this more realistic plan and some new skills – this might just work!

Hopeful Realism

Things start to look up again. You know what you’re up against.

You start to think: hey…maybe this could work!

Challenges are less daunting and feel more manageable.

You’ve learned some new skills, feel more confident, you have a better idea of what to expect.

Your shiny ideas give way to plans that are more grounded in reality, tested by the real world.

You know what you’re selling, who is going to buy it and why.

Informed Optimism

Yay! This is the upswing.

You’re confident you made the right choice because things are working.

You have more experience and confidence. You have the skills to handle things. You’ve gained wisdom.

I made it! What’s next?

You have energy and excitement, except unlike in stage 1, now it’s grounded in reality.

The finish line is in sight: you’re putting the finishing touches on your book or program, your business is humming along.

You push through to the final stage.

Completion (Amazing Success!)

Declare your project done.

Click publish on your blog post or the book.

Make your goals as an entrepreneur.

And the cycle repeats with the next project or next level.

What to do (and NOT do) when you’re overly-optimistic and stuck in analysis paralysis (uninformed optimism stage)

I don’t have ducks. I don’t have a row. I’ve got squirrels…and they’re at a rave.

Stop trying to line up your ducks!

You don’t know enough yet to make an accurate plan.

Use the energy of this stage to take action. Start anywhere.

Treat it like an experiment: let’s see what’s going to happen.

YES! Do these things to save time and money

Get personal clarity

Not sure what business to start – or even if you want to start one? Not sure about your purpose?

A life coach or purpose-finding program could be really helpful at this stage.

I’ve seen a LOT of people struggle with not knowing what they really want, yet trying to start a business. Get personal clarity first.

Basic business and marketing training

Buy a book about how to start a self-employed business and do what it says. Book Yourself Solid is fantastic. Mine is OK too. 🙂

Or take an inexpensive course designed for beginners.

Be careful if you like learning. Your goal here is to get the basics and then Do The Things. You need to read one or two books – or take a course – not 50!

Try stuff and talk to people

Talk to people!

Take your best guess as to a target market or niche, put together a simple service and go out to try to sell it.

Want to teach? Do your workshop live and get real feedback – don’t spend months creating a huge digital program only to find out you can’t sell it later.

Attend networking events and practice talking about your business.

Do some work for free or for a very low fee just to see if you actually like it. Listen to what your clients and potential clients are telling you. Do some market research: ask them about their problems and what they want instead.

Nervous about talking to people? Join Toastmasters!

Especially if you’re afraid of public speaking – and even if you never want to give speeches for your business.

You’ll meet positive, supportive, encouraging people – and overcoming your fear of public speaking will ripple through all the other “talking to people” challenges you’ll face. My Toastmasters training made it much easier for me to speak to people 1:1. (I say this as an introvert and situationally shy person!)

Find a club here: Toastmasters.

Make mistakes!

Flub your introduction, bumble your way through a sales call, make that awkward follow-up phone call.

You cannot avoid sales, marketing, talking to people. These things are absolute “must haves” for small biz success. They are learnable skills, and your fears will evaporate with practice.

If you’re absolutely unwilling to try, you’ll never make it as a self-employed professional. I don’t say that to be harsh. Self-employment isn’t for everyone – despite all the hype. There’s no shame in carving out a good career working for someone else.

Hang onto your wallet and avoid the following!

You can keep your magic blueprint formula. This uninformed optimist needs to experiment a bit first!

Lots of people will try to sell you stuff at this stage. The naiveté that comes with uninformed optimism can make you vulnerable to their pitches.

You don’t know what you don’t know – and they have the answers!

The following are often avoidance tactics: fun stuff that feels like progress and delays your having to do all that scary stuff I listed above.

Genuine well-meaning people will tell you that you need these things, but the truth is that you’re not ready yet. Uninformed optimism is not the stage to be making big investments in your business. You need the knowledge, experience and data that comes from taking action.

Predatory marketers will promise to help you avoid the next stage. “Learn from my mistakes so you won’t make them” is a really common promise. You can’t. You need to make your own.

Don’t invest in expensive branding or logos

Even if you think you’re absolutely certain. Until your shiny ideas meet the real world, you’re not ready yet.

Things are very likely to change for you. Trust me on this. You can ask my visa card for verification.

I invested thousands of dollars on visual branding at the Uninformed Optimism stage – some of which never saw the light of day – because things changed once I actually put my plans into motion. I made this mistake THREE times, despite having previous business experience.

Or a fancy, expensive website

I don’t know who’s going to buy – or even what I’m selling – but I need a fancy logo and a custom website!

My husband develops websites that cost $4,000 and up. He’s had many many clients in the uninformed optimism stage who were willing to fork over thousands of dollars for a fully customized design – but were unable to describe their ideal clients or even the service they were offering.

“Get a website” shows up on everyone’s “start a business checklist” – but you don’t need something super fancy to get started.

Set it up yourself on a DIY site builder or pay someone to create a simple wordpress site from a professional template.

Or go without a website while you get started. It will force you to talk to people instead of hiding behind your site. 🙂

Forget about scaling or automation

Don’t even think about it.

These come waaaay later – if at all.

For self-employed professionals, being personal and building relationships is your biggest competitive advantage.

Big businesses use automated systems to pretend to be more personal – you can offer the real deal.

You’re not ready for advanced training or coaching – and beware of those 3-day live events

You’re looking for your first clients, not your first million.

Honest marketers will say you “must be this high to ride” – if you’re making 6 figures, I’ll show you how to make 7. Or they’ll tell you that you need an email list of 5,000 subscribers or a product proven to sell.

Dishonest marketers will say you can do the advanced thing without a list, without a product, without experience. This is the land of make 6 figures in a weekend wishful thinking.

Be very very wary of those highly-appealing 3-day free or cheap business workshops. These are often carefully crafted using psychologically manipulative sell-from-the-stage techniques designed to get you to buy high-end programs on impulse.

If you do decide to go, please read this first: Don’t Buy Now

And once again, I speak from hard-earned experience: I once “invested” $30K in one of these programs.

Don’t hire me!

I do my best work in the next 2 stages – with people who are already taking action, but not seeing results.

Once you’re clear about what you want to do and you have some real world experience to work with, we can do some amazing things.

In short: use the energy and enthusiasm from the Uninformed Optimism stage to take action and dive right into Informed Pessimism.

If you cannot bring yourself to take action because you’re overwhelmed with fear – or if you feel depressed and stuck before you even start – you may need to do some personal work with a therapist or life coach who specializes in this area to get you past it.

What to do (and NOT do) when you’re feeling discouraged (Informed Pessimism stage)

Once you start taking action, you’ll meet challenges and frustrations like these:

  • People don’t respond to your advertisements
  • 3 people show up for the workshop when you hoped for 50
  • You’re blowing sales calls – even when you KNOW you can help the person
  • You’re getting hit and miss results – sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t

The journey through this stage requires action. Lots of it.

Yes! Do these things to speed up your progress


Let’s see what happens when I send out some direct mail letters.

Try stuff and see what works. Adopt the mindset of a scientist: there’s no such thing as “failure” – there are only results. Try not to take the “noes” personally – they are rejecting your offer, not YOU.

Learn from the feedback: pay attention to the results, analyze: what can you do better?

What do you need to learn? What works? What doesn’t?

Experiment with different service offers. What do you like doing? What do you NOT like doing?

Give it a solid try! Make 20 phone calls, not 2. Do 6 months of networking events, not a single cocktail mixer.

Get perspective & help (this is a good time to hire me)

Advice and perspective can speed up your progress considerably!

I often say that we “can’t read the labels on our own jars” – we’re so close to our businesses that we struggle to find the right words to describe what we do.

Without outside perspective, it’s really easy to go around and around in circles without getting anywhere – when the answer is obvious to someone else.

This is what really sets me apart from many others who offer business coaching. I work more as a consultant: I give advice and feedback, help you solve problems, make plans and find the right words.

Searching inside yourself for answers or getting accountability to take more action each have their place, but not in this stage! You don’t know what you don’t know – and doing more of what doesn’t work is a recipe for frustration and burnout.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”If you’re taking action and not seeing results – you’re doing something wrong – and you need to find out what and fix it.” quote=”If you’re taking action and not seeing results – you’re doing something wrong – and you need to find out what and fix it.”]

Take a targeted training course

Now that you’re out there doing things, you’ll know what you don’t know.

This is an excellent time to take some specific training on something you’re doing, but not doing well.

If you know that Facebook advertising could really help you, take a course on that! If you struggle with sales conversations, take a course on that! (Or buy my book and follow the instructions in Chapter 8.)

Skip the magical miracle programs

It took me 37 years to become successful! Buy my program and get the same results in 2 short weeks!

If you rejected my advice to get basic training in stage 1, now would be a good time to do that! (For your convenience, another link to my course.)

This stage is frustrating and discouraging, which makes it another target for Magical Miracle Programs. Many of these promise that if you follow the guru’s “proven blueprint” that you can skip this difficult learning stage entirely. (Even though they didn’t.)

I see so many people bouncing back and forth, dipping a toe into this hard stage, then taking the apparent easy way out by buying Yet Another $2,000 program. It borders on addictive because purchasing the program immediately transports you back to Uninformed Optimism where you can once again imagine all the success that is coming your way now that you’ve found The Answer.

This feels really good until you realize that this program, too, requires you to take action outside of your comfort zone.

Once you embrace that fact, get the help, learn the skills and take the actions, you’ll find yourself turning the corner and your mood improving.

Congratulations, you made it Hopeful Realism.

What to do (and NOT do) when you’ve made it to “hopeful realism”

Yay! Things are about to get a lot better.

  • You know what works and what doesn’t
  • You have more clarity about your offers, your market
  • You’ve started to build skills and confidence – you’re seeing some success!

This is the stage for solidifying your foundation.

What to DO

Build habits and create systems

A coach can’t do the push-ups for you…but they can help with accountability!

Now that you know what works, it’s time to do it more effectively and efficiently.

Consistency is really important in this stage. Create a calendar and schedule. Work on developing habits.

Get accountability if you need it

Accountability is crucial for certain personality types. (See Gretchen Rubin’s fantastic book on this subject: The 4 Tendencies.)

If you need support getting stuff done, hire a coach to report to. Or get an accountability buddy. Join or create a mastermind group with a focus on accountability.

But beware of getting too many new ideas from your support partners! Masterminds with a lot of brainstorming can send you off-track into the land of squirrels. Make sure you’re able to distinguish between an opportunity or distraction.

Refine your messaging, marketing and branding

Now that you have clarity about your offers and your markets – and confidence in your business model – you can spring for that fancy new site or spiffy visual branding.

This is a great time to refine your messaging and put together marketing materials that truly convey your awesomeness. (I can help with this: Messaging Makeover.)

You may want to offer a webinar or workshop as part of your marketing – or as an additional source of revenue. (I can help with this too: Create a workshop or webinar.)

What NOT to do: chase shiny objects or completely change courses

Everything is going too well. I’m going to stop doing the things that are working to make it interesting again. (Tip: don’t do this!)

This one is my personal downfall.

I find that things get boring riiight around this stage. So I stop and re-design things. Then I discover after 7 years of repeating the pattern…that I’ve been on the right track all along.

If you want to learn from my mistake: keep moving and make adjustments while you’re in motion.

If you identify as a scanner or a multi-potentialite, this one can really bite you.

Tip: try to find a way to incorporate novelty into what you’re doing. Pivot and adjust rather than start over.

Personally, I love the troubleshooting and challenge that comes with the second stage. I’ve finally figured out that I need to focus my problem-solving energies on helping my clients get through it – rather than constantly putting my own business back there!

Wheee! Informed Optimism – leading to Completion

Hey! It’s working.

You’re at the same sort of happy, excited emotional level you were when you started way back at Uninformed Optimism.

But now it’s grounded in reality: you know what you’re doing!

If you were working on a project, the finish line is in sight. Keep going until you reach completion and declare the project over. Then you can start a new project and start the cycle all over again. 🙂

For your business as a whole, you start to “make your numbers” on a consistent basis.

At this point you can decide to stay put and just maintain your successful self-employment status – or you can choose to hop on the roller coaster again and aim for the next level.

Your choice.

At least now you know what you’re getting into!