No, You Don’t Have to Be a Numbers Person, But ...
I am building a business around the concept of teaching entrepreneurs and business owners to find confidence and enjoyment in engaging with financial numbers.
By Steven Wilkinson
The phrase I hear most often from business owners when the subject turns—as it usually does when they are talking to me— to the financial aspects of their business is, “I’m not really a numbers person,” further qualified with a phrase like, “I’m more a people person.”
I find this fascinating. At what point in our lives did the great bifurcation, the sorting of the arts sheep from the math goats and their allotment to different pens begin? Usually early on at school. It is common knowledge that many entrepreneurs take an antipathy to numbers into adult life and into their businesses, often with disastrous results. Marco Janezcek of StartUp Nation writes, “While an entrepreneur might have an idea that is truly revolutionary, they also need to have an acute awareness of one simple truth: when it comes to business, it’s numbers that matter most.”
In the start-up world, founding entrepreneurs with a big idea usually have a bench of VCs and financial types to ensure that they do not have the choice of ignoring the financial metrics, but most entrepreneurs and business owners are on their own and will follow their natural proclivities when engaging with the numbers side of the business: ie doing the minimum necessary, often finding it tedious and unrewarding and leaving the grunt work to “finance guys.” After all they are people people, right?
I happen to believe that numbers don’t matter most—providing real value to a specific community of customers matters most—but understanding them dramatically increases the chance of surviving and thriving and building a good business and a valuable asset over time: a business that supports your life while you are running it and is sellable for a good price when you decide to leave it.
BUSINESS MATH FOR ‘PEOPLE PEOPLE’
The funny thing is that 99 percent of all business “math” was covered in first and second grade and never requires you to do anything more than addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and percentages. That’s it. If you want to get into the weeds and do Net Present Value calculations that require some understanding of the basic exponential function, then you are pushing the boundaries of the mathematical concepts you will ever be asked to apply in business. In fact no real mathematician will acknowledge the numbers aspects of business even qualify as math. I am assuming you can remember some of the concepts we were all force-fed at school: trigonometry, algebra, simultaneous equations, calculus, logarithms, statistics… hand on heart, how many times have you been required to use any of those concepts in order to run your business (I don’t need any smart alec readers with engineering businesses or architectural practices coming back at me and saying “every day mate”)? Answer: None. Ever.
Nonetheless and even though the level of numeracy required to engage with business numbers was delivered at primary school, still the obstacles to joyful engagement and what ought to be natural self-confidence appear legion. “People people” don’t do numbers, get “cotton wool in their brains” (to quote a successful entrepreneurial friend of mine) as soon as the dreaded financials come out, and literally switch off when required to make sense of them.
I am building a business based exclusively around the concept of teaching entrepreneurs and business owners to find confidence and enjoyment in engaging with the financial numbers that their business produces. Selling this concept is challenging as, although there is a well-documented sense that business owners should be better at the numbers part of business, should and ought are rarely reasons to move to action and make a commitment.
A conversation recently with an entrepreneur who has studied behavioral psychology, described a phenomenon called “discounting” which states that people will entirely ignore (discount to zero) benefits resulting from a transformation of which they have no personal experience. Referring to the transformational effect of being fluent in business finance, my friend posited the idea that because the business owners most in need of such a transformation can least imagine what it might feel like to enjoy the benefits of that transformation, those benefits (the ones you normally sell a product on) are effectively worthless. Which explains a lot.
A second psychological effect at play might well be the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance which is described as follows:
“In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and is typically experienced as psychological stress when they participate in an action that goes against one or more of them. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person’s belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein they try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.”
(L. Festinger 1962 Scientific American).
HOPE FOR THE BEST. PLAN FOR THE WORST
Explicitly here for entrepreneurs it is the ability to remain optimistic about the future when present reality is incontrovertibly bleak. Entrepreneurs are required to be supremely confident that the future will be outstandingly positive for them and for their business: this necessary optimism is what allows them to make sales, attract employees and partners, convince financiers and investors, and to sacrifice large portions of their personal freedoms, relationships and quality of life for their vision of success. In effect it is what keeps them going in the face of adversity.
The financial numbers however are not susceptible to charm or manipulation through the charismatic spraying with entrepreneurial endorphins. They are what they are and the truths they tell are often in diametric opposition to the rosy scenario of the future which the entrepreneur holds in his head. Cognitive dissonance and the stress it produces occurs when the business owner is forced to hold both these concepts (“today is horrible and the future is brilliant”) in mind simultaneously and is in my estimation a powerful motivator for not engaging with numbers at all, at least not at a level above planning cash flows for the next three months. Navy Seals deal with the problem of cognitive dissonance with their mantra “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” And business owners need to do exactly that in their own operations.
The three issues I have highlighted here—early segregation into a “not good at math” group, discounting the benefits of an abstract transformation and the stress of cognitive dissonance—form a Bermuda Triangle of disengagement with financial numbers into which many businesses mysteriously (or perhaps not so mysteriously) disappear. The challenge my business faces is finding a concept of engagement that is characterized by curiosity, excitement and a growing sense of trust in the transformative power of incremental gains in financial fluency. Only if I find that do I have a hope of fulfilling my mission of helping business owners navigate away from the Bermuda Triangle and onto the open blue seas of prosperity and self-determination in which they are running their businesses instead of their businesses running them into the ground. I have always stated that I am living proof that it is not only learnable but masterable even if, as I was, you were bifurcated into the pen with arts sheep instead of the math goats at a very early age. My escape from the confines of the innumerate came when I realized that numbers in business are a) not math and b) a language and that they tell a story. A story about people and their endeavors, trials and tribulations.
Which is exactly what we “people people” like to hear, isn’t it?