Dead End Season

There is an old adage about London buses, which goes something like “you wait an eternity for one to come along, and then three come at once”. It is deployed, primarily, as a metaphor for opportunities in life, and how perseverance is sometimes rewarded, but often in a frustrating deluge. It also speaks to the bias we have for noticing when life’s great gifts occur in inconvenient clusterings, rather than threaded out in a neat, well-spaced line through our linear temporal journey. (The bus metaphor is not wholly sound, because whilst there is definitely a cognitive bias at play, there is something to be said about the way that traffic clusters — you only need to drive around the countryside, seeing no car ahead of you for miles but realising that there are half a dozen strung along in an automobile-centipede behind you, to realise this).

Whatever, I am not actually interested in buses but in what they, on this occasion, signify.

In my day-to-day work (believe it or not, the £0.00 I make from writing these blogs does not sustain me) I run a podcast company, Podot. We make, essentially, client editorial and corporate work. We have projects that we’ve been working on for several years, over several seasons, but natural attrition means that we need a handful of new clients each year to keep things at even par (before thinking about growth). This is essentially how most small businesses work — some contracts run and run, others come and go. You have to constantly seek new opportunities.

So why buses? Well, my experience has often been that when something comes along, a bunch of other things follow in a rush. That happened to me earlier this year, when three new weekly shows joined the Podot roster within the space of a month or so. That meant that there was a lot of bandwidth that had to be given to these new projects, and a total rebalancing of the structure of work. Exciting times! It gave me the opportunities to expand, both in real estate and personnel terms, so that I could fulfil these new obligations and also work on that incremental growth.

But naturally, after three buses come all at once, the next period at the bus stop will be a lonely one. And now we’re in ‘dead end season’, that time of the year when nothing seems to come to fruition. Leads fizzle out, prospective partners ghost you, nothing seems to come off. I’m not talking about losing work, I’m talking about not gaining it.

For me, this period often happens in the summer, and there are real, practical reasons for this (‘dead end season’ is, obviously, predominantly a psychological phenomenon). People go on holiday, and usually not all at once but in waves, so that multi-stakeholder decisions are very hard to lock down over the summer. Heading towards the autumn, marketing and comms budgets have usually been decimated, and anything that’s being booked is looking ahead to the next year. And, here in the UK at least, politicians are like therapists — they take August off. This means that a lot of my clients in the current affairs space (and the same would be true if I was, say, making sports shows) want to take a break too. So things slow down. (It was also 40° in London last week, so we are still recovering from that light toasting).

But even though dead end season, like the buses, is cyclical, it can be dispiriting. Yes, things will pick-up again (if we manage to worm our way out of the decomposing carcass of 2022, which remains to be seen) but in the moment the sense of stagnation, of loss of momentum, can be very draining. Especially as it often follows a period of growth, of optimism, of success. And it’s rarely as simple as being told “no” (which is, obviously, even worse). Usually it’s just that sense of drrrraaaaaaaggggggg, as things that should be resolved in a few days spillover into weeks, which turn quickly into months. Life drags on.

So Nick, in the spirit of LinkedIn deranged optimism, what can we do to counter dead end season? Well, here are a few top tips:

  1. Follow-up (and re-follow-up) leads. Ghosting might be a thing for Tinder hook-ups, but it’s not a thing in a professional context. Both ends of any mooted procurement transaction know who the other is, know where they work, know who their colleagues are. And this engenders a much better sense of obligation — pushing people for an answer might result in the answer you don’t want, but it should ensure a resolution.
  2. Factor a fallow period into any projections, especially when you are building on that spurt of hope from a series of timely buses. For most small businesses and freelancers, a little bit of success can make you feel like everything is going to be ok. And yes, everything is going to be ok, but the growth you’re experiencing might not be i) exponential, and ii) might be follow by natural attrition. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
  3. If you, or your organisation, has unused bandwidth, use it for something. There’s nothing stupider than spending your work days watching YouTube videos about how to correctly season octopus tentacles, when you could be arranging meetings and throwing out pitches. And stuff that you do doesn’t need to be directly business productive — you could, oh I don’t know, write a blog. Or just post banal inspo on LinkedIn.
  4. Remember the cyclical nature of things. This is important in good times and bad. Things won’t stay bad (or, if they do, your decisions will probably be made for you) or stay good (or, if they do, your decisions will probably be made for you). Most of the time things come and go. Sometimes the best way to tackle dead end season is just to grit your teeth and get through it, because, chances are, in a few months, things will be much more exciting again.
  5. Understand the extent to which the feeling of hitting roadblock after roadblock is psychological. 9 times out of 10, if you wait for a bus it’ll come along, as expected, within a few minutes. And then once in a while you’ll have to wait half an hour. The human brain is wired to remember, and privilege, that feeling of waiting ages for a bus far more than all the many times you just got onboard, normally. Sometimes dead end season is a real, logistical issue; sometimes it’s an emotional reaction to fairly isolated frustrations. But either way, it’s not real. Your potential clients are not colluding against you. If there are economic trends that are pushing multiple possible partners in a specific direction, that’s not a seasonal response. The feeling that “everything is going against me right now” is bollocks, however powerful the sensation is.

My only other recommendations for dealing with dead end season would be to arrange lots of coffees with people you admire (or people who admire you). Also, get a dog. Furthermore, subscribe to this scintillating newsletter for just £2.50 a month (or £3.50pcm if billed monthly; either way, literally cheap as chips). And follow me on Twitter.

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Nick Hilton

Nick Hilton

Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in technology and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.