Definition of Success

Over the past 12 months I’ve worked with enough entrepreneurs, productivity coaches, best-selling authors and marketing experts to know why people do and do not succeed in the competitive world of business. What’s the number one reason? You can probably guess: fear of failure. Runners up include failing to fully understand their industry, absence of return or ideal clients, and lacking the key skills needed to succeed. However, we’ve seen passionate people, many lacking traditional business or customer service acumen, thrive and even transform their respective industries. Why is that? Is it all about hard work? Yes, but that’s just the starting point. I asked a handful of renowned business leaders and entrepreneurs to reflect on the the reasons for their success. The following three principles kept coming up over and over again:

Don’t Compromise Your Values for Money

I recently had a conversation about juicy prunes (yes, really) with one of the great minds behind Virgin America’s brilliant marketing – Virgin’s former VP of Marketing, Porter Gale.  In short, the airline was offered an enticing advertising revenue deal in exchange for sampling prunes on their flights.It was an amazing offer, but Gale and her team turned it down for one reason – it didn’t fit the vision of Virgin America’s brand. The takeaway: Don’t let money (in this case, revenue from prune sales) trump your business’s established branding and values. The most successful businesses sell customer experience first, then products. Compromises are inevitable, but they should be predicated on the needs of your ideal clientele. Duct Tape Marketing founder John Jantsch put it this way, “It’s essential that your values and beliefs align to a large degree with those of your ideal clients,” adding that those beliefs “need to come through in what you communicate.”

Sometimes these lessons are learned the hard way. In the early stages, Jantsch hustled to get any business he could from any clients who approached him. What happened? He ended up in front of a grand jury that was investigating one of his clients. Luckily, Jantsch didn’t have any connection to the alleged crime, and the experience illuminated the importance of working with the right clients. “That was the moment I vowed to never again work with clients that didn’t reflect my organization’s core beliefs,” Jantsch explains.

Take Calculated Risks

If every decision were easy to make in the lifecycle of a business, then everyone would succeed. When first starting out, it’s crucial to weigh, contemplate, and take risks. Time management expert and entrepreneur Mike Vardy says, “One of the most valuable and inspiring lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is the willingness to take risks… but the key is to mix both calculated risks with ones that you may not have time to do all the metrics for.” For example, a calculated risk might be if you find yourself with a great idea while still gainfully employed, you might not want to quit right away. Vardy found himself in this exact situation, and was able to keep a part-time role with his company before stepping down and taking the full leap to commit to his great idea and his dream of being self-employed. “I was taking a big risk by stepping down to a level that only allowed me to earn half of what I was making before, but I had also giving given myself the comfort of at least earning some form of income while I built up my side business.”

Be Eager to Learn — and Learn Fast

Before becoming a writer and editor, I worked at an advertising agency. While there, the creative director, a genius I jokingly call “the most interesting man in the world” told me that he “piggy-backed, copied, and learned the basics of all my best ideas from those that blazed trails before me, and from the mentors that were generous enough to help me out.” While it is important to forge your own path, gathering a solid foundation of knowledge about your industry from those that have weathered the storm and become successful before you is still one of the strongest investments you can make in your career. In a recent interview, productivity guru and entrepreneur Ari Meisel told me, “When I started my first real estate development project I was only 20 years old and I made everyone teach me their trade…You need to know every aspect of your business from top to bottom if you are going to succeed.” As Meisel highlights, you need a solid foundation of knowledge to start, but it’s equally important to continue learning on the fly to stay current in your industry and keep your foundation strong.

These are not the only principles one should keep in mind while starting a business, but if you are looking for a place to start, take the advice from the entrepreneurs mentioned above.