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Are Bad Business Expectations Killing Your Progress?

  • Danny InyDanny Iny

“Well, what did you expect?”

It’s usually a rhetorical question, asked after you do something stupid, without foreseeing the obvious consequences.

Like developing a new product that you like instead of a product that other people need, and being surprised when it doesn’t sell. Or calling your three Twitter followers a “social media strategy” and being surprised when it doesn’t work.

Or building a website and just expecting people to show up. 😉

What it usually means is that “you really should have seen this coming.”

But sometimes, it’s the expectations themselves that doom you to failure…

Are You Blinded By Expectations?

Human beings are a rarity in the animal world, in that we can think about the future, and plan for it.

This helped us back when we were all living in caves, and it helps us today.

We renovate in summer so that our homes will keep us warm in the winter. We pursue education today to increase our opportunities tomorrow. And we save money for rainy days.

We also use our expectations to mitigate risks; we install alarm systems to prevent burglars from stealing our things, we buy insurance to protect against the damage of fire and disease, and when we hear that our employer lost a big client, we don’t wait for an announcement to update our resumes.

We expect that bad things might happen, and we take steps to either prevent them, or make sure that their impact isn’t as bad as it otherwise would be.

But sometimes, expectations come back to bite us.

Expecting to fail a test makes it a lot more likely that you actually will, the “beware of pickpockets” sign actually telegraphs to pickpockets which pockets they should pick, and expecting your customers will try to rip you off will change the dynamics of your interaction, before anyone says a word.

Expectations like these can be disastrous for a business.

A Case Study of Bad Business Expectations

I recently worked with a client who was the perfect case study of what bad business expectations will do to that business.

He worked in a niche that had enormous and growing demand, and limited supply. He caught the internet wave ahead of his competitors, and his business had grown his small business to the point of making millions in annual revenues.

It sounds like a huge success story, but the truth is that his business was a mess; morale was in the pits, new initiatives took forever to get off the ground (if they didn’t die in his organization’s grid-lock), and he admitted to me in so many words that the reason they’re successful is not that they’re good, as much as it is that their competitors are so bad.

Of course, competitors won’t stay bad forever, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

And why was his company such a mess? Well, there were a lot of reasons, but a big part of it was his expectations:

  • He expected his ground-level employees to leave, so he never invested in employee training or benefits. What do you think that did to employee turn-over?
  • He expected his senior employees to defect, so he never gave them a real path for advancement. What do you think that did to retention of talent?
  • He expected that new projects would fail, so he never properly funded them. What do you think that did to the success rates of new projects?

So what did he get? What did people give him?

Exactly what he expected.

Now, admittedly, this client’s situation was extreme, and your expectations might not be quite as cynical and destructive.

But most of us have bad expectations, and they’re holding us back…

Do you have bad business expectations, without even realizing it?

Bad expectations are everywhere.

Sometimes they protect you – like the expectation that if you leave your shiny new convertible unattended in a bad neighborhood with the key in the ignition, it might not be there when you come back.

But other times, they just get in the way of your ability to create real value and engagement.

Here are a few of the bad business expectations that you may have acquired as an entrepreneur, marketer, and blogger:

  • People don’t want to spend money, and you need to be the cheapest solution around. This is nonsense, and the most profitable companies are the ones that charge premium prices (think Apple).
  • Trading time for money is a sucker’s game. Nonsense – for most people, the best way to create freedom and wealth isn’t to stop trading time for money, it’s to trade time for more money.
  • People have short attention spans, and the best blog posts are 300 words long. Again, nonsense – my average post is about 1,400 words long, and some are much longer – and my experience shows that the longer the post, the better it performs.
  • People want instant gratification and bombastic promises. Once again, nonsense. Sure, some people fall for the lines about making $4,973.19/hour while they sleep on a beach, but that isn’t a sustainable way to build a business.

Here’s an idea – why not ditch the bad business expectations, and expect more from people?

The Goethe Model for Setting Expectations

More than 200 years ago, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said something very smart:

“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”

That’s my model for setting expectations, and it leads me to expect a lot of good things:

  • I expect that people are smart, and curious.
  • I expect that people are basically good, friendly, and helpful.
  • I expect that people have the decency to give credit where credit is due.
  • I expect that people are willing to work hard to achieve their good goals.
  • I expect that people have the good sense to invest in things that are good for them.
  • I expect that people are capable of being better tomorrow than they are today.

Are my expectations always met?

No, they aren’t.

Sometimes I’m disappointed, and it sucks when that happens. But I’d rather have high expectations and be frequently disappointed, than have low expectations, and always be right.

What about you? What do you expect? How do your expectations affect your business?

@DannyIny) is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark and Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on how to build an engaged audience from scratch.

31 thoughts on Are Bad Business Expectations Killing Your Progress?

Peggy Baron

I like this, Danny. You get just what you think you’re going to get – so why not make your thoughts and expectations positive?

Another thing that came to mind when noticing your bullet points all started with “I expect that people…” is to remind myself that I can’t control others, only myself.


Danny Iny

Not only do you get what you’re going to get, but I think that your expectations actually do shape what you are going to get, at least to a certain extent.

I agree that you can’t control others, only yourself, but your expectations do affect your behavior, and that behavior does affect other people – hopefully positively. 🙂


When I first saw the title of this post, I didn’t think I needed to read it. But, I read it anyway, and yes, I DID need to read it! Thanks for a different perspective…


And I’m glad you did, Lisa. You’re very welcome, and thanks for stopping by! 🙂

Tom Ewer

Hey Danny,

First of all, any article that manages to use the word “bombastic” has my approval 🙂

On a more serious note, I have two points:

– Post length. I know you didn’t intend to go into detail on this topic, but I don’t think the fact that your posts are long make them successful. I think there are two things at play. One, you’re targeting business owners, who have more of an attention span than your typical MMO newbie. Two, your posts are long, but they are also of a good quality. The argument for good quality is far greater than the argument for post length.

2. I’m all for expecting the best in people, but you do have to temper that with realism. If you go too far, you may end up in some bad situations. Example: “I don’t need to sign a contract with that client – I can trust them”. Now I know you are not suggesting that we should do such a thing – I’m just using that example to make my point.

Great post!




Haha, thanks, Tom!

Yes, for sure, if the posts were long and crappy, they wouldn’t fly well. But I don’t think it’s possible to write stuff that is as “meaty” without having this kind of word count… all to say that the “rule” of short posts isn’t really a rule (but I’m not arguing for a “rule” of long posts, either). 🙂

And yes, of course, you’re right – we should have faith in people, but not to the extent of putting ourselves at significant risk. Thanks for weighing in on that, it’s a really important point!


Goethe said a lot of insightful things, much of which can be applied to social media. Expectations are always something business people battle with. Set them too low and you can’t perform. Stet them too high and you might not be able to achieve them.



Yup, it’s all about finding that golden balance. 🙂


That short post issue gets to me! I hate reading an amazing headline only to find out that the author didn’t bother to write more than a couple of paragraphs about it. Provided there are more paragraphs worth of things to say about it, of course…


Yeah, that’s exactly what I mean – you just can’t cram that much substance into 300 words…

Jason Fonceca

Yes, yes, and MORE YES.

Positive expectation, is a stronger version of ‘faith’ and it certainly moves mountains.

I love this, and I really love the powerful example. Millions does not = sustainable joy/career.

I will note something interesting that in regards to this:
“Like building a product that you like instead of a product that other people need”
Kind of a touchy subject. Most of the world’s pioneering brands created something they like, and then Created The Demand for it. (see: iPod, initially no one, especially the money-holding record industries, “wanted” this product.) – Google went a similar route.


Hey Jason,

I agree with you about expectations, but I don’t really agree with you about creating what you want instead of what people need; I’d say rather that companies like Apple and Google were *very* well attuned to what people want/need (as opposed to what they just wanted to create); they knew what would be valuable to their audience.

Just my opinion, though. 🙂

Jason Fonceca

This is a fantastic discussion, I’m really glad you wrote this, it gives me a chance to clarify.

This is something I study deeply, I deal with artists + and upcoming celebrities all the time, and discussion of creating for self, or for others, is extremely common. In my experience, creators usually go through 3 phases.

1. Creating stuff Just For Themselves, with no knowledge of the market. (young artists)
2. Creating stuff Just For The Market, and putting their passions in a back seat. (commercially successful)
3. Creating stuff Just For Themselves Again, but with a habitual knowledge of the market which influences their creations. (tired of focusing on commercial success and looking to get back to their own roots and growth, but intending to profit as well, as they’re used to)

Stage 3 involves high-level concepts such as Creating Demand, Manufacturing Desire, The Power Of Influence, Trendspotting, etc.

If you listen to the world’s most successful creators, and I’m talking in interviews, biographies, and quotes upon quotes, and not just speculation, you’ll notice a trend.

“I made it for love.”
“I did it for me and it just caught and spread.”
“I made it, I believed in it, and it was a long journey to get others to understand how important it was.”
“I was tooling around with a fun idea, and the company just ran with it!”
“The music just seemed to flow out of me, and now it’s on the charts.”
“It was something I made for me, years ago, and now it’s finally seeing the light of day. People are really appreciating it.”
“We had a passionate group of early adopters, but eventually it ballooned and everyone realized the value.”

Of course it could all be argued as semantics, because these are two sides of the same coin.

True success is win-win for all involved.


Hey Jason, I really like the way you articulated that, and I think you’re right on the money. I would never advocate for someone to create products or offer services that they don’t love or aren’t passionate about, because they aren’t going to care enough to carry the ball all the way, so to speak.

They have to be passionate about what they’re doing, but as you said, it has to be with a “habitual knowledge of the market which influences their creations” – otherwise nobody else is going to care.

I think you’re right about the love that successful people have for their work, but I think there’s a selection bias there; I’m sure you could find a huge group of people who love what they do without being very successful at it (particularly in the art world)… though probably not too many people who don’t care about what they do but are still good at it. 🙂

As a final note, I think this could be developed into a really solid post – have you considered writing such a one?

Jason Fonceca

Yeah man! I knew we had a similar viewpoint in there somewhere, and it showed up 🙂

I totally agree man, it’s a subject I’m super-passionate about, and I’ll tell you what I tell all my artist-peeps:

Everyone is successful, and the one’s who FEEL unsuccessful, are usually stuck in one of the first 2 phases, because the 3rd one is… heaven 😀

We don’t hear much from or about people stuck in the first 2 phases, but that doesn’t mean they are not on their way


Great post and thoughts.
I enjoyed it,


Unfortunately, we usually get what we expect not what we want.

You would think they would be the same same thing but, as you pointed out sometimes these things are diametrically opposed. Another thing that is suprising is that not only are they different, most of the time we do not even know that they are different.


They aren’t always diametrically opposed, but yes, they certainly can be. That’s why a little bit of introspection can go a long way! 😉

Belinda Weaver

Hey Danny, I love this and it reflects a personal little mantra of mine: Think Big. Be Big.

I carry the idea of expectations through to customer engagement as I believe almost every instance of customer dissatisfaction can be linked back to misguided expectations. I mean we’ve all faced the instance of being on hold, getting more and more frustrated because we don’t how long we’re going to be waiting for. The moment the hold message can tells us we have just 2 more minutes to wait, all is well because we’ve adjusted our expectations.

From the moment I start chatting to my clients I like to explain the next few steps in the process so they always know which direction I’m heading. I explain what input I need from them in order to make their project a success, what they can expect from me and when they can expect it.

As a result, my customers are comfortable because they know what’s happening and when, and I’ve never had a bad rap as result. Setting expectations are good for every part of your business!


I think you’re absolutely right, Belinda, and in a lot of ways that’s what separates the amateurs from the pros; the experience at managing customer expectations. If they know what to expect and they know what’s coming, they don’t need to get busy imagining what they think it should be, and then end up disappointed when reality doesn’t fit with their imagination. So much easier to just tell them what’s going to happen, right? 🙂

Belinda Weaver

Absolutely! I always think of service delivery and customer satisfaction in terms of queueing theory (stay with me on this…)

if you are waiting in a queue and:
> You know how long you are going to be waiting – you remain reasonably satisfied because your expectations are set
> You are giving something to do (like filling out forms and whatnot) – you remain reasonably satisfied because you are also engaged in the process
> You’re just left waiting with no idea of what’s happening or how long you will be waiting – satisfaction nosedive and frustration overload!

I also love the idea that things like queueing and traffic management is backed by mathematics [nerd alert].


I love it – have you considered writing a post about this?

Belinda Weaver

Just so everyone else has some closure (and doesn’t think I’m ignoring you Danny) – great idea! I’d love to write a post about it 🙂 Watch this space Firepole readers….

Matt Tanguay

Hey Danny,

I think this ties in with the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and Earl Nightingale’s “You become what you think about most of the time”. Expectations are thoughts, and if our thoughts are negative, we attract negative things. If they’re positive, we manifest positive things.

It’s interesting also how there are two types of expectations – our own, and other people’s. I wonder if one is a stronger force than the other?

Great post, and it was interesting to read 🙂



Jay Sallas

Hi Danny,
Good post – I do think you should except a certain degree of success from whatever you are doing. Like believing in your product. But as you mentioned, you need ot be realistic at the same time. That’s the point I don’t think a few people take in from I’ve seen and read.


You’re right, Jay, a balance of realism and optimism is probably best. 🙂


This was an excellent post Danny! In my day job, my boss has very high expectations on everyone and at first it got on my nerves, but what was always the end result was that it pushed my co-workers to work harder and find resources within themselves to push through plateaus from a crappy sales month.
I agree that if you expect less, then you will get less. I went through that in the beginning of trying to find what worked best for me with my blog and now I continually challenge myself to ask for more and give 100%. Why do something half-a– and not think you can succeed just like anyone else. Know your limitations and think outside the box. Anything is possible.


Thanks for sharing your story, Sonia – I think that’s the perfect example of what I’m talking about. People will stretch to meet the expectations that others have of the – or shrink, if they have to. They might not appreciate it at first, but if the change is for the better, they usually appreciate it later on. 🙂

Like you said, anything is possible. We just need a bit of a push to get there. 😀

Guadalupe Mathis

Just my opinion, though. This is something I study deeply, I deal with artists + and upcoming celebrities all the time, and discussion of creating for self, or for others, is extremely common. Yeah man!


I really appreciate reading positive posts like this. And yours is realistic as well. Not everyone is the same, our expectations don’t always have to turn out to be true. Especially the negative ones. I like how you made it obvious that we shouldn’t expect the worst when we start a business because we have proof from our own experience that being negative actually enhances the possibility for the bad things to happen. If we expect, want, envision things to go in a positive directions and expect people to be better that we are told they are, it will push events in that direction as well. Thanks for pointing this out! It is really inspiring!
Best wishes, Leonard


Unfortunately having a scarcity mindset will seed the expectation of failure. Managing expectations is a key to success that starts with the leadership vision that’s share all the way down to every employee. Thanks!

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