The Single, Most Important Secret to Success

iStock_000010304538XSmallAbout 6 weeks ago, I had dinner at a pizza place near Boston with some fellow developers. We were generally discussing various aspects of business, things to do, things not to do, etc. One of the guys asked me a question that I feel like I get quite frequently:

“What’s the most important thing you need to do to be successful as a single founder?”

I immediately came up with three different things, but settled on explaining the importance of setting goals and having a plan for meeting those goals. We talked about how to go about setting goals for a few minutes and then went on to discuss other things.

This isn’t a new question to me, but I was uncomfortable with the answer. I seem to answer it differently every time I’m asked and not usually the same way twice. This past Friday, as I sat white-knuckled in a small turbo-prop plane that was being buffeted violently by winds over the mountains of West Virginia, it dawned on me why I had been uncomfortable with my answer.

I was wrong.

If you ask 100 successful people what the secret of their success is, every last one of them is going to be more than happy to tell you because successful people like to tell you their story. In listening to 100 stories, you will probably end up with at least 50 different answers. You will also get a mix of things to do, and things not to do. This is a problem because after listening to all of the answers, you are still left wondering what the secret is because everything they said will make sense and for each of them, it was probably true.

As my plane was buffeted by high winds and we dropped another 20 meters in a very short timespan, it dawned on me that being successful with your business is a lot like flying a plane. There are a lot of things that have to be done right in order to keep it going. There’s no single factor that makes a business successful and in fact, most of the time it takes many things done right to be successful.

It also isn’t so much about being great at any of them as it is about being competent at most of them. I had an interesting conversation one day with a pilot who was on his way to an assignment and he explained that he flew the big jumbo jets out of Minneapolis to Shanghai. I explained that I had a great deal of difficulty driving a 26 foot truck with a car trailer hitched to the back through the Berkshire Mountains in the middle of the night through rain and fog. I couldn’t begin to imagine how hard it would be to land a Boeing 747.

Pilots in the cockpitHe explained: “Landing a jumbo jet really isn’t that difficult. It’s all about systems management. You are just making small adjustments based on what the instruments tell you is happening and where you need to be.” I’m certain that he was oversimplifying the issue, but I also realize that my answer of setting goals and having a plan for meeting those goals is an oversimplification as well.

Running a small business is like flying an airplane. There’s not a single thing that keeps you in the air. It’s doing a lot of things right. But the truth is that whether it’s landing a plane or running your business, you can screw some things up and still be successful. You can recover from most mistakes, while others are going to be catastrophic. Forgot to refuel the plane before heading overseas? Probably catastrophic. Didn’t do the best SEO for your website? It will probably cost you more to acquire customers by using AdWords, but ultimately is probably not going to kill your business unless you screw that up as well.

If you compound your mistakes, your chances of failure increase dramatically. But each success will reduce the consequences of the mistakes. This is why large companies can have such a shoddy product and still make money off of it. They have so many things going on that the law of averages ultimately weighs in their favor. Does the product manager suck? No big deal. The engineering team will probably pull his weight. The code is riddled with bugs? No problem. The support team is there to help with workarounds.

So the secret to success is to realize that there isn’t a secret. Everywhere you look, you will find something that needs to be done competently. For everything you do that doesn’t measure up, you will have to make up ground in other places, keeping in mind that one success is less than or equal to one failure and that the sum of your successes must be greater than or equal to the sum of your failures.

If it’s not, then you probably just crash landed.


  1. on March 16, 2010 at 7:45 am

    The Single, Most Important Secret to Success…

    Being successful isn’t so much about doing one thing right. It’s about doing more things right than you do wrong….

  2. Andrew J Scott on March 16, 2010 at 8:17 am

    The analogy is sound, especially in so far as mistakes which might cause a company to fail.

    One mistake rarely means a company will fail, but a number in a row may well do.

    This is, almost without exception, the same for plane accidents. One of the best known crashes in recent years was Concorde. Urban myth maintains that it was the metal from an American DC10 which was run over, jumped up and punctured an under wing fuel tank. That did happen, but what the official reports didn’t highlight were that also 1) the plane was carrying too much fuel (it was overweight, that means slower acceleration down the runway, harder to climb to a safe altitude) 2) it was overloaded with luggage (overweight again, see previous) 3) the maintenance team had left critical guide runners off the undercarriage so the plane skewed left down the runway on take off (lower speed, more dangerous, see previous) 4) Air France had not fitted the new improved tougher tyres to their Concorde’s that British Airways had.

    Only now do we see the real picture. Had one or all of these other errors not occurred, the Concorde might well have been able to climb clear and ultimately land, on 3 or even 2 engines of its 4.

    So very rarely is one error or even one human error the cause of a fatal accident. In nearly all cases it is a whole chain of problems or bad decisions, usually 4 or 5, which culminate in a crash.

    The same is true with business. So next time you make a mistake, don’t fret or self harm- just learn from it and try to prevent similar situations.

    In summary my belief is to capitalise on your mistakes; with every cloud there really is a silver lining- its just we cant always see it at the time.

  3. Dave Rodenbaugh on March 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Nice article Mike…and I totally agree. There is no spoon. 🙂

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  5. wanzo gonzales on March 16, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Andrew J Scott:

    Only the 4th option was the reason for the failure of Concorde.

    It was a design mistake, engines being placed behind the tires that caused that catastrophical accident. Peaces of flat-tire went into the air-inlet of the jet-engine and that was it.

    Because it was a basic design mistake, all the Concordes are taken out of operation.

  6. uberVU - social comments on March 16, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tech_Blend: The Single, Most Important Secret to Success

  7. […] things to get right but more importantly focusing on the most important things to get right. He explains in this post and sums it up nicely. The sum of your successes should be greater than the sum of your failures. […]

  8. James Voss on September 11, 2010 at 12:21 am

    Very good story!

  9. Ruben Berenguel on September 11, 2010 at 4:29 am

    I like this analogy. Most complex one-man (or woman, of course, and by one I mean a small set of people) can be reduced to this example: you need to “average good or better”, but can be just average in some aspects without too many consequences. Of course, in the long run these “average” or “below average” problems need to be solved, or you end out of business… Or end up being bought before the buyer realises them.


  10. Scott on September 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Creating a successful technology business from scratch is not as formulaic as flying a plane. You can’t send someone to flight school for business and guarantee they will be able to create a business that creates new products afterwards. Yes, you can train someone to operate a successful franchise restaurant. Running a McDonalds is comparable to flying a plane. Running a new technology business is not comparable to a franchise restaurant or plane at all.

    Tech businesses that fail, most often fail in predictable and common ways.

    Those that succeed do so in unique, unpredictable ways.

    To dramatically increase your chances for success, learn from the failures and avoid their mistakes.

    This alone does not guarantee success, but it removes the guarantee of failure.

  11. Brandon on September 11, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    1)Passion for the product/business
    1)Luck; Specifically, surviving long enough to get lucky
    3)Surround yourself with trusted people smarter then you
    5)Supportive parents/spouse…do not underestimate this

    Equally important but not as “romantic” to talk about:

    a) Strong IP to create sustainable barriers to entry
    b) Customer(s) willing to pay you out of the gate
    c) Good mentors, whose interest is aligned with yours to succeed

    These are the keys to success, or so I’ve heard…

    My $0.02

  12. Sandeep Shetty on September 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Would have agreed with this if you had left it at “there isn’t a secret”. The stuff about “one success is less than or equal to one failure and that the sum of your successes must be greater than or equal to the sum of your failures” is unsubstantiated.

  13. Mike Taber on September 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Sandeep, not all successes are equal and not all failures are equal so perhaps it could have been worded a bit differently, but I stand by that statement because on average, the things you do right count less towards the positive than the things you do wrong.

    For example, when you do something wrong involving a customer:
    – most will never return as a customer
    – many will tell their friends about the bad experience
    – some will blog about it
    – few will raise it to a legal level

    Regardless, it is documented that it takes a lot to overcome a single bad experience if you handle it poorly the first time. ie: you failed as a company. I couldn’t find it in 30 seconds, but I recall reading a study that discussed that it takes a multiple of something like 10 positive experiences with a customer to overcome a single negative experience.

    Also, the vast majority of things that you do right aren’t noticed by anyway. They are things that merely keep the ship afloat, so to speak. You can’t ignore the little things like paying bills on time, sending out invoices with the correct amounts, etc. Sure, they’re the normal, run of the mill stuff you need to do to build a business. But so is setting the airspeed in the correct range when you’re coming in for a landing. Nobody notices when you do it right, but everyone does when you don’t.

  14. […] technology convictions QoTD: The Single, Most Important Secret to Success September 13th, 2010 Running a small business is like flying an airplane. There’s not a single thing that keeps you in the air. It’s doing a lot of things right. But the truth is that whether it’s landing a plane or running your business, you can screw some things up and still be successful. -Mike Taber […]

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