Once they start, entrepreneurs have a hard time stopping. But that doesn’t mean they never get stuck.
For many business owners, it's a familiar feeling. When you’re strapped for cash and have to build your business on a budget. When once-frequent sales suddenly become scarce. When a pandemic forces you to shutter your doors. When you feel like you’ve exhausted all your options and are running in one place.
Building a business is like navigating a maze without a map. And every once in a while you are bound to hit a wall.
The good news is that "feeling stuck" doesn't mean staying stuck. In many ways, it’s what entrepreneurs do in these moments when they don’t know what to do—their resourcefulness—that defines them.
What does “being resourceful” really mean?
Everyone has their own personal definition of what it means to be resourceful, as we found when we asked what it meant to all of you.
What does “being resourceful” mean to you?— Shopify (@Shopify) September 23, 2020
For many, resourcefulness means some version of making do with what's available. But there’s a concept psychologists call “learned resourcefulness”, which refers to resourcefulness as a set of attainable skills and behaviors that help us control how we respond internally to adversity to put us in the right mind to find solutions.
Early research into learned resourcefulness focused largely on forms of self-control:
- Engaging in positive self-talk. Negative self-talk leads to defeat before we even try. Many entrepreneurs you'll meet are relentlessly optimistic people when it comes to their ambitions.
- Viewing problem solving as a process. The steps include clearly defining the problem, exploring potential solutions, evaluating and prioritizing each solution, and executing the best one. We often do this intuitively, but it's a process we can also consciously invoke whenever we feel stuck.
- The willingness to delay gratification. Working towards a larger goal, like a profitable business, often requires you to put in a lot of work before you can taste the fruits of your labor. Depending on the scope of your vision, it can be months or even years before it materializes. That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the little wins and major milestones along the way.
- Self-efficacy. The belief that we have the ability to control ourselves, our environment, and our outcomes.
Learned resourcefulness has since evolved to include “social resourcefulness” —not just our capacity to help ourselves when we're stuck, but our ability to make connections and seek out help from others.
From speaking to a dozen entrepreneurs about this topic, each of whom had at least one story about feeling stuck, getting unstuck meant embracing both of these forms of resourcefulness to find solutions.
Strategies for when you’re feeling stuck, from entrepreneurs who’ve been there
1. Pause, zoom out, and find your north star 🔭
Many business owners find themselves in their first rut not when they’re building their business, but when they hit a ceiling on their sales.
Hitting up against what feels like a limit can be frustrating, especially when you’re nowhere near where you would like to be.
While action is one antidote during these moments, you may also need to take time to pause and look up from the work to take stock of what you’re doing and what you've done so far. Or, as Adam of N/A Stock Company puts it:
Sometimes you need to spin your wheels in circles for a bit before you can figure out how to build a well-oiled machine.
During the early stages, my business partner and I were pretty much planning on the fly for the first couple of years. We were making sales, creating new products, getting new opportunities, but on a very small scale. Eventually, it felt like we hit a wall. We had months with no new products and weeks with no sales—almost to a point where we thought that offering huge discounts was the only way for us to make sales.
It wasn’t until we set up goals for the entire year where we saw the biggest difference. We needed to go through that first phase so we could actually have a benchmark. This gave us time to look at what our customers wanted, what wasn’t working, what could be improved, and what a realistic sales goal was.
We took our year goal and started project planning around those goals 6 weeks at a time. This change helped us take the business more seriously. We went from having too much inventory to having to do more restocks! Our sales tripled, our chemistry got better, the process got easier, and we started to have fun with it again. We were like a well-oiled machine.
—Adam Libunao, N/A Stock Company
Adam says that slowing down and rewriting his business plan, based on everything he’d learned, helped him gather his thoughts, focus his time and effort, and see the way forward through product launches.
If this feels familiar, you can use our business plan template to think through every aspect of your business, from your mission to your place in the market, set ambitious-but-attainable goals, and work backwards on how to get there.
Entrepreneurs may be known for bravely leaping first and “building the airplane on the way down”, but going through the process of planning—getting your thoughts on paper—can help you clarify your goals and prioritize the best path towards meeting them—whether it's creating a more profitable pricing strategy, outsourcing to free up your time or securing new capital to grow.
2. Get good at Googling (problems are rarely unique) 🕵️♀️
When you think about it, in a world of over 7 billion people (more than a million building with Shopify), many of the obstacles we encounter are probably not one-of-a-kind. That can be reassuring.
Our questions have likely been asked before and our obstacles have likely been overcome before.
Answers and solutions are often a free Google search away.
The world’s most popular search engine is a good place to start your quest for answers, but there are a few tricks that can help entrepreneurs in particular:
- Add “ ” around your query to force Google to filter for only exact matches of that keyword phrase (e.g. “holiday gift guide 2019” wellness to find out-of-date gift guides to pitch for your wellness products).
- Add site: before a URL to search for a topic or question on a specific site. You can use this to quickly search forums like Reddit or Quora for answers (site:reddit.com influencer marketing ecommerce).
- Don’t forget about YouTube, especially if you’re a visual learner. It's not just a place for music videos and entertainment. "How to" and educational videos are some of the most popular videos on the platform.
- Certain keywords can enrich your search results, such as case study to find real examples to learn from (e.g. facebook ads case study beauty brand -facebook.com) or vs. to compare two solutions you’re unsure about (e.g. sms marketing vs email marketing). If your search is turning up irrelevant results, you can add a - before a specific keyword to exclude it from your search results.
- Search the Shopify app store for solutions. The Shopify app store is home to over a thousand solutions built specifically for entrepreneurs building on Shopify. For little challenges, like how to make a good-looking sizing chart, to larger problems, like improving your conversion rate, chances are there's a free or paid Shopify app to solve it.
3. Find inspiration in your competition 👀
Comparison doesn’t have to be the thief of joy. It can also be a teacher.
Looking at your competitors or at what others are doing in your market can inspire ideas for your own business, such as how to drive traffic, how to price your products, and how you can position your brand to stand out.
There’s only so much you can glean from visiting a competitor’s website, however, so here are three ways you can peel back the curtain and see into the inner workings of other businesses for free.
1. Analyze their marketing strategy with Similar Web
There are hundreds of ways to market a business and the best approaches will depend on your context. But one of the better places to start is by analyzing your competitors.
SimilarWeb is a free tool that lets you plug in an established competitor’s website and see how they’re driving their traffic: what sources they’re relying on, what sites are linking to them, and other companies in the same space. All of this can be useful information for making your own decisions about where to invest your effort.
2. See what ads they’re running with Facebook Ad Library
Coming up with ads you feel confident betting on can be tough if copywriting, marketing, and design aren't your main strengths.
Luckily, you can look up other companies using Facebook Ad Library to peak at what ads they’re currently running, for design and copywriting inspiration, or angles to help you differentiate yourself from your competition.
3. Peak at other email marketing strategies with MailCharts
Email marketing is indispensable for most ecommerce businesses. But setting up your own email campaigns can come with a lot of questions.
Beyond one-off promotional emails and newsletters, you can set up automated emails, like abandoned cart reminders and welcome emails for new subscribers, to drive value for your business in the background while you work on bringing in more traffic, subscribers, and customers.
But because emails are restricted to the inbox, email marketing strategies can be pretty opaque.
With MailCharts (free plan) you can actually see what emails a brand is sending to customers, along with the frequency, subject lines, and promotional mix to help inspire your own strategy.
There’s also a gallery where you can filter by specific email types instead (order confirmation, Black Friday Cyber Monday, etc.), which are even graded based on effectiveness.
A thorough competitive analysis can make comparison your friend, helping you get the lay of the land so you can chart your own way forward. You can get started with your own using our free competitive analysis template, which includes key points of comparison, from price to target audience, to note down while researching your competition.
4. Don't be afraid to ask for help 💚
Being resourceful may mean figuring it out, but it doesn’t mean figuring it out alone. Social resourcefulness is an often forgotten option because of the pressure to stand on our own. But seeking advice or support from others is a form of resourcefulness, not weakness.
- Take advantage of customer support. Most of the tools you use to run your business will have customer support reps who might be able to help you navigate your issues. Support calls for technical issues can end with solid business advice on what to do next. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Shopify Support Advisors are available 24/7 to talk about your business and selling with Shopify.
- Attend virtual meet-ups. Networking with other entrepreneurs can lead to some of the most valuable connections you’ll make in life. These are people like you who “get it”. Some of them have even been where you are now, or vice versa. Shopify Meetups regularly hosts virtual events that you can attend and connect with other like-minded entrepreneurs.
- Hire an expert. If you're struggling with a critical area of your business, such as store design or paid marketing, you can hire an experienced Shopify Expert to help. You can also look for freelance help on platforms like Upwork.
- Ask around in forums for answers. People gather together in forums like Reddit and Quora around common interests and questions, making them a great place to find answers. Search to see if your question has already been asked. If not, you can pose it and hopefully find an answer. Shopify Community is our official forum for all things Shopify.
- Participate in online communities. There are dozens of engaged online communities you can join. Even if you mostly lurk, there’s value to be had in listening in. And whenever you have a question or want feedback on an idea, you can pose it to the group. Try searching through Facebook groups for a group that's relevant to you.
Community can be a lifelong resource for entrepreneurs if they can find it. For Lina, owner of Sooala, she found hers through an entrepreneurship bootcamp.
The first time I felt really stuck, I was selling at my second flea market. My first attempt didn’t go that well, but this one was just before Christmas and I had high hopes for it.
It ended with me making one sale, whereas the girl next to me selling jewelry was making hundreds of sales. I just completely shut down after that. I spent the next two weeks wondering, "Why am I even doing this?" It's really harsh when you get this kind of feedback from customers so early on.
What got me unstuck was a shift in my mindset.
I talked myself out of abandoning everything. "This is something that you really want to do. Two tries aren’t enough for you to say that you want to stop."
I needed to do something that would move me forward. So that was when I enrolled in this business bootcamp. I thought to myself, I need to be surrounded by my peers, by like-minded people.
In that environment, I was able to learn and pivot my business idea into the business I am running today. I also connected with incredible entrepreneurs, some of whom I have even partnered with. We support each other in the down moments but also cheer each other on, and that just changed the whole journey for me and added to what keeps me going.
—Lina Ravelojaona, Sooala
Mentorship doesn’t need to come in the form of a wise mentor who takes you under their wing and teaches you how to fly. It can be found in a community of your peers, all of you figuring it out together.
5. Consider pivoting your business
Things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes a newer, better opportunity emerges that your business isn’t equipped to act on. Or, a key pillar that once supported your business vanishes overnight, leaving you teetering, trying to keep your balance.
A pivot occurs when you make the decision to alter the very DNA of your business to help it thrive better in these circumstances.
Some examples of pivots include:
- Turning your company’s attention to a different audience or opportunity to find new customers (e.g. Pizza Pilgrim, a pizza restaurant forced to close their doors, started selling pizza kits online).
- Changing your product or positioning to resonate more with a specific type of customer (e.g. PopSockets started as a headphone management accessory for smartphones before pivoting to stand out as a phone stand that’s fun to fidget with)
- Overhauling the technology powering your business to keep pace with your customers' needs (e.g. Old World Kitchen switched from selling through a marketplace to selling in their own online store)
Think of your favorite companies. Chances are they’ve undergone a significant pivot at least once in their history.
Shopify started off selling snowboards and pivoted into a solution to help people sell their own "snowboards".
Such a drastic change to a business can be risky without the right market insight to back it. But for Lily of Lovelee Designs, a pivot was just what she needed when COVID-19 cancelled what would have been a big summer for her business.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was completely stuck. As a fashion designer who focuses on making custom designs for special occasions and events, I didn’t know how I would be able to continue making sales when the whole world was going to be on lockdown.
With several fashion shows booked (even one overseas), I had planned for it to be a summer of opportunities. Unfortunately, because of the effects of COVID-19, I was not able to attend any of these events.
I was actually questioning if I should go back to the corporate world and just work a regular 9-to-5, if being an entrepreneur was something I could actually maintain and sustain for the rest of my life.
I got unstuck when I realized that I should focus on the things that my market actually needed at that moment. With news that face masks would soon be mandatory I decided to learn how to make them.
I was then able to focus on bringing new customers through my “fashionably safe face masks” and a new online store. And as a result I was able to start pulling in sales again and bringing many more new customers to my brand.
—Lea-Asha ‘Lily’ Hibbert, Lovelee Designs
Where there’s a will
“There’s always a way” is the entrepreneur’s default when confronted with setbacks and challenges. But some obstacles can really throw you off your path.
Feeling stuck sucks. But it can also be immensely fulfilling when you figure out how to move forward. These moments when you're reaching for your goals and your resourcefulness is stretched can even serve as inspiration the next time you get stuck.
Illustration by Islenia Milien