I don’t want to sound cynical, but I’ve been thinking a lot about “success” as a concept and I think — as a culture — we may have gotten it wrong. One of my favorite all time quotes is from Douglas Adams, and I use it frequently. Here, it makes a lot of sense as an analogy for our view of entrepreneurial success:
The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
We view business ownership the same way: a hero entrepreneur risks EVERYTHING and takes flight against all odds. We think of people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, and Richard Branson this way.
But here’s my question — it it helpful for someone starting a business to be holding these guys up as a template for success? These are all white male billionaires born within 8 years of each other (noting of course that Jobs died in 2011 at the age of 56) and all of them became billionaires by the time they were 40.
These are rare people. Exceptional people. We didn’t know them when they started their businesses, we only know the “made for TV stories” about how they took an idea and made it huge. But aside from being entrepreneurs (and ruggedly handsome) Richard Branson and I have absolutely nothing in common from a business perspective. I can’t be him as much as I may want to some days. I can appreciate what he’s accomplished and I can be inspired by his stories and enjoy reading about his experiences, but I will never be Richard Branson.
And if I run my businesses based on the notion that success looks like him, I will be a spectacular failure.
About eight out of every ten businesses fail. Which means, to continue playing on the flight analogy, that it’s not easy to throw yourself at the ground and miss. But even if I’m lucky to achieve some kind of lift, I’m still a massive disappointment next to the people our society is telling me to hold as barometers of success as a business owner.
Over the last 11 years, unfortunately, I’ve watched a lot of business people fail to miss the ground. I’ve met the ground myself on a few occasions. But it’s taught me to recognize — at least in others — when expectations and reality cross.
I spent a good bit of time speaking with a gentleman this year who was starting a company, it was a technology solution designed to enhance the experience of guests in a hospitality setting. But the project was going to require outside funding after the first year in operation and the owner had decided that not only would he not track the way guests used the platform, but that he would also openly refuse to log user activity, both things that would increase his value to an investor enormously, and help him prove to the venues purchasing his solution that they were earning a high return on their investment. He was under the impression that by then he would be big enough that it didn’t matter, but basing your business plan on being so immensely successful that you don’t have to prove the value of your product either to your customers or investors is an arrogant assumption to say the least. Steve Jobs famously strong-armed record execs into following his lead on his iTunes pay-per-song model, forcing them to play along or potentially be left behind, but regular folks should not ever assume that they are ever going to have that sort of clout.
So I guess I’m trying to understand how to really define success and what it means to me as a business owner. I am not Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, or Steve Jobs. Am I a failure? I manage to provide for my family and live a comfortable life, does that make me a success? How will I ever know if I have, in fact, missed the ground or if I just misjudged how far down the ground really was?
What does success really look like for someone like me and how will I know when I have achieved it?