About 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.
He 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.