Several years ago, in a small hotel conference room, I watched Dan Martell chart out a startup’s path.

He had a big a-frame writing pad and on the bottom left he started a line that went up and to the right.  Initially the line was straight, but after a couple of inches he started to scribble, and then take the line into a yarn ball of turns and twists.  Then the line started to straighten out to its original trajectory and eventually became true and finished on the top right of the poster board.

He tapped his yarn ball at the beginning of the line and said, “This is the murky middle.  After the initial optimism of your new startup you end up here.  Nothing is clear.   And you make an endless series of pivots to try and get your business to work with no idea of what will work and when it’s going to end.”

I come back to that illustration time and again.

It’s emblematic of what it means to be an entrepreneur because it is our quintessential problem.

The Murk is the fog of uncertainty where there are no known routes to success. It’s a problem that cannot be solved by reading a book or getting advice from someone who has been there.

Being able to navigate The Murk successfully and come out the other side is one of the core skills of entrepreneurship.

One Night in the Jungle

When I was in the Marine Corps, I experienced something very similar to The Murk.

I was a squad leader in the infantry.  During a training exercise, our company commander tasked my squad with leading everyone through the jungle on a patrol from one training area to the next.

There were a couple catches to this.  The first was that we’d be navigating at night after training all day.  The second was that the route he wanted us to travel had a lot of variability in elevation.  So much so that the contours on my map didn’t match the terrain features.

A couple hours into our trek and everyone was miserable.  150 Marines were spread out in a long broken line over undulating terrain.  We slid down muddy drops, climbed through dense thickets, pulled ourselves from tree to tree, up and down, up and down without being able to see more than twenty feet in any direction.  This was in dense darkness and carrying heavy packs, ammunition, and weapons.

Our commander had enough.  He signaled a halt to the patrol and sent our  lieutenant up to talk to me.

“Sergeant Hooley, where the hell are we!?” the lieutenant asked me. “Are you fucking lost!?”

I pulled out my map and pointed to a spot halfway to our destination, “We’re right here, sir.”

“Are you sure?  Because this feels a lot like we’re fucking lost.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll see…”  He pulled out a GPS accurate to within 10 meters.  We waited while it found its satellites and loaded up our coordinates.  He plotted the coordinates on the map and found that we were exactly where I said we were.

Navigational Instruments

That night in the jungle, how did I know where our company was after winding over that nightmare terrain, with no visibility, no points of reference, and a map that didn’t match the ground beneath our feet?

I had a working compass and I was counting my steps.

In orienteering, knowing how many steps you take in a kind of terrain to cover a set distance is one of the ways you get information on your location.  This is your personal pace count.

Using our starting point, the compass vector, and my pace count, I had three data points that answered the question of, “Where the hell are we!?”

Many entrepreneurs thrash in The Murk.  They simply try idea after idea hoping to find a solution before their resources run out.

This is a low percentage strategy.  It works some of the time, in the same way a broken clock is still accurate twice a day. Most of the time, thrashing leads to depression and goal abandonment.

A more powerful approach is to build your own tools for navigation. This is the application of method and method leads to confidence and goal completion.

How to Draw Your Own Map

Nothing exists in this world without betraying some sign of its existence.

You can’t drop a stone in a pond without causing ripples.

Regardless of whether you’re looking for product idea validation, a successful marketing strategy, or a special person to take over management: if a solution exists, it must affect its environment in some way.

These markers are how you start to draw a map that will help lead you out of The Murk.

Drawing a Map For a Service Re-Brand

For example, we’re in the early months of launching a rebrand of a service we offer.

Prior to investing in the rebrand, I proved out being able to get one customer a month through a new channel.  I want to get it to at least twelve- better than ten times my initial success.   

Between here and there is The Murk.

The map that I’m drawing looks like this:

  • There are more than 12x the number of customers in this channel.
  • It’s possible to get 12x the attention we achieved previously.
  • Or it’s possible to convert at 12x our previous levels.
  • Or a mix.

If there are 12x the number of customers in this channel, they must put off some sort of signal of this size and their intent. 

Similarly, getting 12x the attention would mean that we would see spikes in audience views or engagement as we tried different experiments in the channel.

If it’s possible to convert at 12x the previous levels then we should be able to find similar spikes of improvement in our funnel or offers.

How to Build Your Own Compass

When you’re navigating The Murk, it’s not a binary experience.  You don’t end up with “yes” or “no” answers.  You’re not here and then suddenly at your destination after a few tests.

It’s a dynamic journey, where you grow in confidence as you progress towards the signals you seek.

Progress is progressive.

Because of this, you need instruments to give you data on your relative success or failure in finding those signals.

On our patrol, I had a starting point, a compass, and my pace count providing me feedback.

Ideally, you have multiple instruments to gather feedback from the environment.  

This will help you to build confidence in direction and move more quickly.

Re-Branded Service Navigational Tools

For the rebranded service we’re launching, I’m measuring: 

  • Visitors in the new channel who see an offer. (12x the number of customers)
  • Visitors who have a sales conversation. (12x engagement)
  • Visitors who convert to low cost trials. (12x conversion)
  • Visitors who convert to normal subscribers. (12x conversion)

I’m trying lots of different things to see how they impact these metrics: different offers, different modes of presentation, different modes of communication.

But for every test I do, I’m tracking the above in a spreadsheet that monitors progress over time.

The Murk is Our Problem

I wrote earlier that The Murk is the quintessential entrepreneurial problem.

Entrepreneurial ventures are essentially about innovation. They’re about the new. The unknown. They’re high risk and high reward.

The Murk is what preserves these opportunities for you. It’s the barrier to entry that rejects those who don’t have the nerve to live with uncertainty.

Though it will start as your adversary, if you can accept it, it will become your teacher and eventually a guardian of opportunities for a few select people like you.

More on navigating The Murk: