The Real Secret To Business Success

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It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

You should never judge a book by its cover. But clothes make the man (or woman)?

Winners never quit. But you should also quit while you’re ahead.

The English language is peppered with contradictory idioms. Almost every go-to adage has a rational, sensible comeback. I read a fair amount of business books, many of which tout the very latest in ground-breaking business thinking based on a block of research, insight or even an idea in a blog post, much of which is very valuable. Then, a month or two later I read another very well-researched, well-written body of work that completely debunks that thinking. What gives?

PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel recently published Zero To One (a book I really enjoyed and regularly recommend to others) in which he debunked Eric Ries’s equally popular Lean Startup. Both make great cases. I’d argue both are right. The truth is, despite what publishers and bloggers want you to believe, there is no secret to business success. There is no one book, one talk, one slideshow or one strategic model that guarantees success. The sad thing is many of the aspirational young entrepreneurs and start-ups I meet with are looking for that one secret – that magical shortcut.

The only thing I know for sure is that most businesses are primarily about people. The people you work with and the customers you sell to. It’s a scientific fact that no two people are alike. It follows that if business is about people, and no two people are alike, that it’s highly unlikely that any two businesses will experience identical paths to success (or failure, as it were).

So what is the real secret to business success? I think it’s realising there is no secret. It’s realising that you have to find your own path and own way. That the likelihood of you duplicating someone else’s success by replicating their leadership or innovation style is highly unlikely.

How do you find your own way? I have three thoughts:

1. A variety of input

While I am instantly skeptical of anything that claims to be the single answer or solution to business success, I do think a variety of inputs, reflections and insights into business is always useful. I try to surround myself with books, podcasts, and most importantly people, that know a lot about industries and business models I know nothing about. Their perspective is invaluable.

2. Knowing why you’re in it

Business ownership and leadership can be tough, and it almost always lonely. The perks are incredible, but the risks are gut-wrenching. Some business books will tell you to drive for profit and perfect execution. Others, culture and good vibes. I don’t care what you’re doing it for (that’s your indaba), but I see a remarkably high proportion of business owners having no clue themselves. They are driven by circumstances instead of values. If you are in it for money, no problem, just know that. If you’re in it for legacy and hugs, no problem, know that too. Just don’t flit between three different reasons in three months – you’ll exhaust yourself.

3. Consistency in execution

Regardless of whether you’re running a drug cartel or a cancer research project, consistency is imperative. Consistency doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over again. It means that your approach to execution, as a leader and founder, is relatively consistent. You can change your entire business model, but the way you deploy the change and move people to action must be consistent. You can’t be the dictator one day and the servant the next.

Or am I wrong? Do you believe there is a universal secret to business success? If so, what is it?

  • I agree with all you say, one thing though in my opinion that should come into play is risk and the management thereof. Whether it’s surrounding yourself by people who can manage the risk, or executing continually to mitigate risk, risk is hugely important. And I think risk only becomes more manageable with time and experience. Just my 2c

  • The search for “THE secret” is elusive. On that I agree. I would add an appreciation / understanding of context. Context is one of the things that is overlooked.

    Context is one of the reasons some strategies and models work or fail.

    Otherwise you’re spot on Mike…

  • Dave Stopforth

    I spent much time on those very contradictory idioms myself, embracing one or though other at different times, spending a whole lot of time confused as to what might be the right direction. “The Secret” so often sought to launch/maintain “The Big Idea” has been spun around the block so much that it is hard for aspiring entrepreneurs to maintain an out set outlook whilst trying to execute their initial business model, thereby varying consistency.

    In my brief spell trying to build an idea, I made almost all of these mistakes, and a lot more besides that. I think at the end of the day, business success is like cooking, if you don’t have the right ingredients, or at least some of them, it is going to be crap.

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