Adversity is a constant companion for entrepreneurs, but learning to push through tough times is a lesson sometimes harshly taught.
I was 9 years old when my dad broke the unbearable news that mom had died in a crash after a man high on marijuana ran a stop sign. It was a nightmare beyond words. In an instant, my world collapsed.
Sixteen years later, I’m the owner of a million-dollar chocolate business. When I bought my hometown chocolate shop at age 21, after having started there as a dishwasher in my teens, there was one store and no wholesale accounts. Today, Chocolate Pizza Company has five stores across four states and our products are sold in 1,500 locations nationwide.
It hasn’t always been easy. I know something about loss, pain, heartbreak and tragedy. I know what it is like to be angry and scared and sad. I know that some people, especially young people, never climb out of the pit that life suddenly throws them in — people who never make a future because they stay trapped in the past.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rise above the tragedy. My journey taught me four secrets that every entrepreneur can apply.
1.) Be passionate.
Faced with adversity, it is hard to dream big. Fear and anxiety can be overwhelming. Being passionate about something – anything – gives clarity to dreams, lifts our spirit, sharpens our focus and creates a vision of better times ahead. After my mom died, I learned that keeping big things in front of me kept me energized. I learned to play the saxophone, I trained to be an athlete, I traveled, studied and dreamed.
To be passionate is to be tireless, relentless and committed. My first year as owner, I was still a senior at Syracuse University. I tempered chocolate at sunrise, went to classes before lunch, made sales calls in the afternoon, packed shipments in the evening and did homework in the wee hours. I slept in the warehouse many nights. It was exhausting month after month, but passion starts where your energy fails. I graduated on time and doubled the business in my first year.
2.) Find a mentor
“When the student is ready the teacher appears.”
Good mentors don’t just teach; they inspire. They raise the bar not so you will fail but so you will grow, not so you curse defeat but so you appreciate gain. They do not change who you are, they change who you believe you can become.
In high school, I dreamed of being a kicker on the Syracuse University football team. I grew up 20 minutes from campus and love the Orange. But with no training all I could do was not quit on my dream. Enter Coach Paul Woodside who believed as much in my heart as in my foot.
He broke me down, called me out and challenged me. He sugar-coated nothing but in his honesty I anchored my quest. He rebuilt me from the inside-out and taught me that kicking, like life, is more will than skill. A freshman walk-on, I made the SU team.
3.) Make a promise
My mom’s death was devastating. I know what it feels like to have the bottom fall out of your life. But recovery starts with a promise.
On the day she died, I made a promise that she would be proud of me. I could not bring her back, but I could make her proud. So I work every day to keep that promise – it is part of who I am and it drives me, pushes me.
Science is also on my side. Studies confirm that verbally committing to something programs our mind to hold to that obligation even if it is difficult or dangerous. We take ourselves very seriously. Refuse to become a tragic epilogue to whatever setback interrupted your life. Make a verbal promise to yourself, to God, to someone you respect or love but commit to moving forward.
4.) Outwork everybody
Dreams are a chassis but sweat is the fuel. Imagine a Ferrari in the driveway – nice to look at, but without gas, it sits idle. Success is earned by tuning out the noise and leaning into the stone.
Every banker told me I was too young to own a business. People said I would fail. I ignored them all – never let others define your dreams. I did whatever it took. I am the first one in and last one out. I knocked on corporate doors, sold from a table in any venue and made countless calls. It was exhausting and frustrating work and often perilously close to ruin but I loved every minute. We grew one sale at a time but we grew. In 2013, after three years as owner, we topped $1 million in annual sales.
In his book, Conquering Adversity, my dad teaches that there is a hero inside each of us. I grew up embracing that truth. Life challenges us in ways we cannot anticipate but inside those experiences are secrets that help us be not only better entrepreneurs, but also better people.
Ryan K. Novak owns Chocolate Pizza Company, Inc. He graduated from Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management with a bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurship & Emerging Enterprises and is honored in the school’s Hall of Fame.