"two steps forward, one step back"

My column for last month tended toward the very pessimistic, as I described just a few of the ways in which malicious individuals have attempted to harm me and/or Mile High Comics during the past 35 years. I wanted that essay to act as a strong forewarning to anyone choosing to enter any kind of business that they needed to be aware that there are not only sociopaths out there, but also jealous and spiteful people who will work hard to destroy your successes, just to make themselves feel a little bit better. In effect, I was repeating the old adage of "You're only truly paranoid, if they're not out to get you..."

So, OK, the world around us is rife with potential predators, who would like nothing more than to kill our dreams. That knowledge can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially after someone has managed to breach our very best defenses, and inflicted grievous harm upon us. It's happened to me more times than I can remember, and still happens today. Regardless of whether you're in business, or simply trying to make your way in the world, however, the key to a successful life is being able to rationalize the concept of "two steps forward, one step back." Simply put, your goal has to be to create some measure of net long-term benefit each day. There may be days when you don't meet your goals, but as long as you continue to strive and make progress, the odds that you will ultimately succeed are greatly enhanced.

In business, the miracle of accounting allows us to measure a great deal of our financial progress. Relying only upon that one criteria, however, can be very misleading. In 1996, for example, Mile High Comics was accruing over $1,000 per day in operating losses. The mail order catalogs, which had once been our primary source of cash flow, simply stopped working. Blessedly, however, the miracle of the Internet occurred just at the exact moment when all seemed lost. By the end of 1996, even though we were still hemorrhaging cash at a horrific rate, I could already clearly see that our salvation was at hand. Our website traffic and revenues were growing at an exponential rate, and by early 1997, I was able to step completely away from the debilitating expense of publishing and mailing catalogs. That single change in opportunity rescued my company from what seemed like inevitable oblivion.

The point I am trying to make in telling you about that one awful experience that I had, and about all the folks who will inevitably try to sabotage your dreams, is that life (and business) requires of all of us that we develop an inner wellspring of optimism that allows us to keep striving, even when all seems hopeless. As anyone who has ever been in business for themselves can attest, when things start to go wrong, you're frequently left to deal with the negative consequences entirely on your own. When you're staring at the ceiling at 3 AM, unable to sleep because you're so sure that all hell is going to break loose the next day, the feeling of nausea that you get in the pit of your stomach is almost unbearable. Quite frankly, however, it is exactly those moments that separate the winners from the losers. Winners figure out a way to survive. Even if that particular business enterprise fails (which many do...), winners already have a fallback plan in place in the back of their minds to utilize surviving assets (such as business contacts, potential credit opportunities, product knowledge, existing customers, etc.) to get back on their feet, and going again.

To digress for a moment, it is not a well-known fact, but aside from owning and operating Mile High Comics, I have also owned a certified organic vegetable farm for the past 20 years. I started off by selling a few extras from our backyard garden at the local farmer's market, just to get me through lean times at Mile High Comics when I couldn't draw a paycheck. Over time, however, my success in those endeavors resulted in my purchasing a 32-acre farm on the outskirts of Boulder. I now grow specialty vegetables on about 150,000 square feet, and am one of the largest vegetable growers in Boulder County. I mention my farming activities because they are what provide me with my own personal wellspring of optimism. A prerequisite to being a farmer is that you have to develop an incredibly positive outlook on life. In any given year, you are planting seeds with the intention of battling all the forces of nature (heat, cold, hail, wind, insects, disease, etc.), as well as manmade traumas such as poor markets, low prices, lack of irrigation water, theft, and vandalism. Quite frankly, you have to bit just a little be crazy to go into the farming business, as the odds are so severely stacked against you.

Where this all becomes pertinent to the concept of owning your own comics shop is when you realize that each given growing season is like a microcosm of an entire business life span. Just this year, for example, Colorado has been experiencing the driest and hottest April, May and June on record. During a period of time when I would normally be completely finished with planting seeds and setting out our 20,000 transplants, I am instead not even half way done on the 15th of June. Why? Because I have had to divert all of my time and energy to trying to move our irrigation water (through a series of canals and with 8 different pumps) to the right plants, at the right time. I've been getting up to irrigate at 4 AM each morning, and then working until at least 10 PM each evening, simply trying to keep what we've already planted alive. Just as an example, it was 102 degrees at my farm on June 13th, with a 10-15 MPH wind blowing all day. Even the plants that I had watered just the day before wilted before that vicious onslaught of heat. After 20 straight days with nearly no sleep and bone wracking exhaustion, I was ready to give up. About 10% of my plants had already died, and it looked like all the rest were going to imminently succumb to the heat, despite my best efforts.

Fast-forward 48 hours, however, and everything has changed. I woke up this morning at 3:30 AM to hear the blessed sound on a light rain falling. Better yet, the high today was only 70 degrees! The transplanted zucchini seedlings that looked mortally wounded yesterday were actually blooming this morning! All it took was a single day of recovery, and the entire farm took on a completely different vigor. I've seen that same sort of miraculous recovery happen at Mile High Comics, where incredibly dark and difficult days were followed by periods of completely unexpected growth and profits. The key element to everything, however, is to continue to persevere, even when all seems lost. It also helps a great deal to anticipate troubles before they arrive, and to prepare defenses. After losing 10,000 seedlings to the drought of 2002 (when the City of Boulder cut off our water supply for 10 days in order to repair a bridge, just after we had transplanted...), I took a significant portion of our farming earnings from 2003-2005 and invested in enough water storage on our farm to get us through the next drought. Constantly striving to figure out ways in which to better control your own destiny is a key element to surviving the next period of crisis.

I could go on and on about the subject of optimism, but my editor is frantic for this column, and I need to get back home to the farm to finish planting. I think, however, that I've made my basic point. Yes, when you're in business there will be folks out to hurt you, and most certainly the world is going to constantly throw difficulties at you that will make you want to give up on even your most cherished dreams. But you always have to keep in the back of your mind the thought that your ability to keep going, even in the face of severe adversity, is a measure of your own personal integrity and maturity. You're never going to win all of the battles in which you engage, but hard work and intelligent preparation will help you to tilt the odds into your own favor. This is true as regards opening your own comics shop, as well as any other endeavor in life. Start by building up your own personal inner strength, and you will put yourself on the path of maximizing your odds for your own eventual success.

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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