If you haven’t been arrested in Tanzania…

…you haven’t lived.

Building a business is a lot like my trip to Tanzania. I was supposed to be there for seven hours just to meet a Congolese Chief. Five days later I was still trying to get across the finish line and get home.

The trip seemed to be over at least 20 times.

At the outset, my visa and passport didn’t come back to Denver from the visa processor in NY. The day before I left I set up two one-way flights to NY and DC to get it, and then canceled them as the passport ended up in DC. I got it 30 minutes before they closed the doors for my flight to Africa. I raced through security and walked on as they closed the doors.

I needed to be in Tanzania to honor two chiefs, who were going to do business with us for years to come. Even though we had competent employees there, it would be an insult to not meet an owner for their first export shipment. Two days both directions on an airplane for a few hours with them was well worth it.

The visa snafu was only a warm up. They were supposed to meet me at the airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When I got there Wednesday I learned they hadn’t been able to get across the border into Uganda from the Congo yet, but would arrive the next day, Thursday. I lost my non-refundable ticket home and bought a one way for the next night.

I had no hotel, no contacts, no knowledge of Tanzania. English is the written language but I was having trouble finding anyone who spoke anything but Swahili. I got a cab, a hotel, dinner, and went to sleep.

The next three days were spent trying to figure out how to get the Chiefs from the DR Congo through Uganda to Tanzania. It was excruciating, and at least twice I had to have the airline call the gate to release my seat with just 90 minutes or so before the flight, so I could get my money back and schedule one the next day. The third day I took a long walk. That was a mistake.

On that walk I took a picture of a street with nice trees and a tall wall down one side, and was quickly faced with three policeman in fancy uniforms who let me know it was the President’s house behind the wall, and I has just taken an illegal picture. As they confiscated my iPhone and were walking me back to the guardhouse I realized my passport was back at the hotel, a big no-no, and my one-day visa had expired three days ago, a bigger no-no.

I was in the country illegally.

I decided to employ the adage “He who makes the rules wins”. So I grabbed my iPhone back from the guard, showed him how I could delete pictures, made small talk with a few simple phrases I’d learned in Swahili, then made a bold move. After asking his name, “Jina lako ni nani?”, I told him mine and said, “Nafurahi kukufahamu” (pleased to meet you). Then with my iPhone in my hand, I turned around and started to walk away.

He let me go and I didn’t turn around to ask why. It could have cost me my iPhone, my computer (which I had in my bag) and a few thousand shillings in my wallet. I slept real good that night.

On Saturday, four days after I was supposed to leave, only one of the Chiefs arrived with our employee. The other one was still stuck in Kampala, Uganda. I changed my flight again at the last minute to leave Sunday. By this time I had frozen up two credit cards with what looked like suspicious activity in Tanzania (the card companies didn’t know I was there). The third and last card worked.

We spent the next 24 hours doing everything we could to get the Chief there. He needed money via Western Union. My third card was now locked up and so was my ATM debit card because I had hit the limit getting cash to buy them hotel rooms, dinner, etc. We had someone wire us money from the states, but when it came two hours before the Chief’s flight, they spelled Marian (our employee), as Marien, and Western Union wouldn’t give us the money. After all this it looked like an ‘e’ was going to wreck the whole five day ordeal. We headed back to the hotel wondering if it was all for nothing.

At the hotel, exhausted and out of options, I tried my ATM card one more time. It had come out of its 24 hour max, and the machine spit just enough money to buy the airline ticket. We raced back to Western Union but learned on the way there that the Chief was 10 kilometers from the airport and needed $6 to get a cab to get there. With only 45 minutes left before his flight, it wasn’t going to happen.

We went back to the hotel and Marian talked to the Chief. He decided we had been honorable in trying to get the other Chief here, so he would sign the papers for both of them. We signed, took pictures, and with 10 minutes before they closed the gate for my flight to the U.S., I walked on the plane. Had I missed it, I wouldn’t have had enough money to even get a hotel.

I got back in Denver at 1pm on Monday, changed in a hotel bathroom and facilitated a workshop from 4pm-6pm. That evening I took my first hot shower since the Monday before and had a great night’s sleep.

The point?
Honestly, this is how you grow a successful business. You have a clear goal in mind, you get moving, and then the world begins to interact with your plan. And from that point on it’s nothing like your fancy business plan said it would be.

It’s like a stream running downhill, winding all over the place to get where it needs to go. Those that get tired of hitting and overcoming beaver dams will quit. Those that are able to clearly keep the goal in mind will keep going, pay the price and push their business over the top to profitability. Those seven days were like a compressed microcosm of what it was like to build the seven businesses I’ve started over the last 25 years.

Want to be successful? It won’t happen because you have a great idea, big financing or slick marketing. It will happen because you know exactly what the goal is, you never lose sight of it, and you become a bulldog, doing whatever you have to in order get across the finish line, even if it means making your own rules.