Being an entrepreneur, like being a fisherman (or fisherwoman) is not for everyone. But everyone can learn something from fishing.
As strange as it seems, I recognize that not everyone enjoys rising before dawn, hauling gear down to a cold boat, wading through waters and mucking around with worms, leeches and bait fish. Stabbing yourself with barbed hooks, slitting your fingers on braided line and spending hours on the water hoping to feel a slight tug on the end of your line, remarkably, may not be everyone’s idea of a good time.
However, as with anything in life that can inspire great passions, especially one so intrinsically connected to our existence as a species, the bounty from fishing is always abundant no matter how many get away from you.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from fishing and fellow fishermen that I believe are worth sharing:
Go where the fish are.
The most obvious thing to do if you want to catch fish is to fish where there are fish. The more you know about the fish you are trying to catch, the more likely, if not inevitable, will be your success. If you’re hunting gamefish, you know where they like to hang out (usually where they can hide and strike out at unsuspecting passing bait fish) and you know what time of day they like to feed at. You know what they are most interested in eating for any given time of day or weather pattern you find yourself in, and you fish there. Putting yourself in the right place at the right time is the only way to ever catch fish.
Get your line in the water.
You won’t catch anything but maybe a hooked finger if you spend most of your time fiddling with rigging up your line. Better to try something simple, like jig and a worm, that you can set up quickly than waste precious fishing time creating elaborate riggings that take so long to get ready the fish have moved on by the time you get your line in. You are 100% guaranteed to fail if your line isn’t in the water.
Good fishing, like starting a business, depends on a lot of things beyond your control: weather, the fickle nature of fish, access to the best spots, etc. But being ready with all that you can control makes all the difference when it comes to actually catching fish. Read up on where you are planning to fish (research the market), understand the behaviours of the fish you are after, and focus on specific kinds of fish – catching a lake trout is not the same as catching a pike, even if both are swimming around in the same waters. Know what you are going after and have the right gear and rigs set up ahead of time so that you can start fishing right away when your boat hits the water.
If you’ve got a big tangle on your line, take it one knot at a time.
Problems rarely come in neat little packages. More likely, as the adage goes, when it rains it pours. Your server fails right when your top salesperson quits and your clients call asking for a rebate. Just like tangled line, the best way to deal with knotty problems is patience. As tempting as it may be to just cut the line or give up, slowly concentrating on untangling one small knot at a time is often rewarded, in business, life and fishing, with a clear new line ready for a fresh cast.
You’ve got to soak your lure.
In fisherman parlance, this means you’ve got to stay a while and work a spot before you can decide if it’s time to move on. As an entrepreneur you likely have many ideas going at once, and may be constantly battling the temptation to try new things if something you’re working on right now doesn’t appear to be working. There are great temptations in fishing a large lake to continuously move around if you’re not getting bites in one area. You switch up your bait, try multiple lures, cast about in all directions off the boat. Sometimes there really are no fish where you are fishing, or you’re doing it wrong or using the wrong kind of lure. But more often than not, you’re just not being patient enough. If you’re using the right lure for the conditions, and have made an educated guess about the probable location of fish nearby, and still not getting bites, keep trying. Most business success comes not off the first cast, but by diligently and patiently sticking with it until you get what you want.
Adapt quickly to ever changing conditions.
Now, of course, no laundry list of lessons is true if there aren’t immediate contradictions, because life’s just like that. Having soaked your lure you still may fail to catch anything but a tan line. You need to reel it in and try something different. There may be a whole school of walleye hanging out under your boat but that tasty looking jitterbug you’re flopping around on the surface just doesn’t interest them in the slightest. Drop a white grub a few feet lower and bang, you’re getting strikes almost immediately. Fish, like customers, are fickle. What they were going crazy over even just a few hours earlier may be totally rejected by them now. You need to pay attention to changing climactic conditions, light changes, wind, and the angle of the sun and try new things until you hit upon the right bait.
Catching a fish is not the same as landing one.
Getting that strike on your line after casting about for a while is pure joy. It’s the thrill of that first yes after a series of cold calls. You’ve got direct evidence you’re doing things right. But not so fast. There’s still a lot that can go wrong, and something probably will. You’ve still got to set the hook, and reel that baby in. Since nothing wants to die, that fish is going to put up a fight and if you slack for just an instant you may well lose it. Catching a fish is not the same as landing one. At the end of the day, what matters is not how many you tempted but how many you’re bringing home. If you can’t close the deal, you’re just tiring out the fish for someone else who can.
You need a partner to work the net.
Fishermen (and fisherwomen) work best in teams. While entrepreneurs are often reputed to be tyrannically single minded and driven individuals, the truth behind nearly all successful ones is that they were supported by a strong team. It’s almost impossible to haul in a lively 3 and a half foot pike all by yourself. If you’re the one holding the rod it will take all your skill, strength and mental stamina to bring that leviathan up to the edge of the boat without losing your hold. You need a quick-witted and strong partner to get the net and scoop out the fish or risk breaking your line trying to flip it out yourself. A good haul takes more than one set of hands.
When the fish are biting, keep fishing.
When you find the fish, and figure out what they are biting on, keep fishing. Just like finding your product/service market fit, build on your success by repeating the experiment. Many kinds of fish that are great fun to catch, like walleyes and big muskies swim in schools and hunt in packs. If one bites, there’s no reason to doubt, and every reason to expect, that others will follow. Cast, catch, repeat. Keep fishing!
If you want to catch a big fish, you have to use big bait.
In line with planning ahead of time for the kind of fish you are after, you need to use the proper sized bait for the size of fish you are trying to catch. You don’t catch a whale with a minnow. If you’re after big fish, you need to use big bait. Just make sure your gear — and you — can handle it.
The harder it is to get there, the better the fishing.
There are nearby lakes families can drive to with the kids on a comfy day trip and there are far off, remote lakes where cell phones don’t work and there is no electricity. The first kind is easy to get to and requires little planning. The other kind takes effort and commitment and energy just to arrive where you can start doing the real work you set out to do. It’s up to you how you choose to spend your time, but if you’re after real fishing, go further.
Don’t overlook what’s nearby.
Once again, the joyful frustration of fishing, and entrepreneurship, means that everything that is usually true, is sometimes just wrong. Sometimes you can land a big one just standing on the shore casting into the nearby weeds. It’s good to be ready to go far, but you may find that some big prizes are right under your nose if you know what to look for and are paying attention.
You’re going to lose a few.
Here’s the hard part. And there’s always a hard part. You use the right lure, make a beautiful cast, get a lively strike and start reeling that beauty in and poof! The fish is gone. Spit out your lure, wriggled off the hook. There it was, and there it goes. It hurts to lose, especially if you’ve been at it all day long and this was your first bite of the day, but that’s part of fishing. And life too. You don’t always win. Deal with it.
You’ll get snagged.
It happens. You toss a well-baited line into promising waters and feel that initial tug seconds later that makes your heart leap….only to discover you’ve caught your line on a log buried in the weeds. It takes seconds to do and much longer to undo. Snags are the inevitable disappointments in a day of fishing that make the real bites all the sweeter. They are going to happen so be ready for them, and treat them like the cost of doing business that they are.
Sometimes you have to cut bait.
As above, with every snag there comes a moment where you need to make the decision to either keep trying to unsnag, or cut bait and re-rig. If you’ve got an expensive lure on the end of that line, you won’t want to let it go, but at some point it’s counter productive to keep on trying to rescue that one and waste your fleeting hours of fishing. Knowing when to cut bait catches more fish in the end. It hurts, so do it quickly and move on.
You may not catch anything.
Nothing worth doing in life comes with a real guarantee of success. It’s the not knowing what will happen but trying anyway that makes it interesting. If you knew that every time you dropped a line you’d haul out a fish you wouldn’t really be fishing – you’d be in an amusement park. Of course the downside of risk is that you fail. You come home empty-handed. Your friends, wife and children laugh at you. It can happen, but it only makes the next trip that much more exciting.
The fish are out there.
If you’ve done your homework, planned your trip, picked your spot and are ready with all the right gear you’re going to catch something. It will probably take longer than you expect it to, and may turn out to be a different kind of fish than the one you started out after, but if you play the long game, have patience, adapt to all the uncontrollable changes that come your way, you’ll succeed. Just like launching a business, after doing your market research and convincing yourself that you’ve hit upon a unique solution to a big problem, you jump in and nothing seems to happen right away. Don’t give up. The fish are out there. They may show you nothing but silent indifference in the beginning but it can all change with one lucky cast. Fish on!