5 Secrets to Making it in Business

Teapot Out of Focus

Over the past few months, I've been thinking more than ever about what it takes to make it in business.

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs—my father's grandfather was a watchmaker, my grandmother owned a salon and later a yarn shop and a framing business, my father was partner in a chemical company, and my uncles have had their share of boat businesses.

In Rumors of Water, I recall, fondly, my own forays into the agriculture business (a road stand at the end of my grandmother's driveway, where my sister and I would sit in the shade and eat more berries and cherries than we ever sold; needless to say, I have never lived into my Ten Acre Dream).

There is so much to learn from reading about other people's business dreams, and I've been doing that. A few books on my recent shelf are:

Stall Points: Most Companies Stop Growing—Yours Doesn't Have To

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... And Others Don't

Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose

The lessons in these books are many, but when I consider the central messages, I come up with these five secrets:

1. sell what you love or believe in. Tony Hsieh of Zappos didn't believe in shoes so much as he believed in Customer Service (though I'm guessing he enjoys a good pair of shoes.) He built Zappos to be, more than anything, an experience in great Customer Service, and it's not surprising that today his interest has begun to shift into the idea of "delivering happiness," a movement of sorts.

Is it possible to sell something you don't love? Maybe. There are always exceptions to every rule. But since these are *my* secrets, we'll have to stick with love. (I was the only person to sell one dismal stuffed animal in a high school fundraising campaign. I didn't believe in stuffed animals, especially those cheap and unattractive ones, and therefore I couldn't market them beyond Mom—sorry Mom, you shouldn't have bought one either... forgive me?).

2. give everything you have to make it work. Across the board, whether we're talking George Cadbury, Eric Ries, Tony Hsieh, or my dad, we can note a terrific dedication that extends to both time and money. It's as if the business is our life itself. We feed it, clothe it, give it our choice moments. If we can't do this, maybe we don't really love or believe in the business. Maybe it's time to eat the cherries, cut our losses, and close up the stand.

3. Stay humble. In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... And Others Don't, one of the outstanding qualities of the Great companies was a humility in top leaders.

Now this is a tricky one, because we don't necessarily think of a Steve Jobs as being humble. We think *bold.* But humility comes in different flavors. A bold leader might actually be humble when it comes to listening to customers or understanding that a company's, or an industry's, position is never a foregone conclusion.

In Stall Points: Most Companies Stop Growing—Yours Doesn't Have To, one of the prime reasons for downturn was this very issue: neglecting to humbly understand that a position can be wrested from us by a "lesser" company that *is* paying attention to customers, price points, or new technologies.

4. Know who you are, and who you aren't. Also in Stall Points, a major factor pinpointed in downturn was overreaching and diversifying too much. These days, I am watching Amazon with fascination, because it actually seems to be engaged in excessive diversification. (And yes, the bookseller did acquire the shoeseller Zappos). Yet perhaps Amazon is about something other than books. Maybe it is about E-commerce, the way Zappos was about Customer Service. So it will all work out in the end.

For my own part, I recently decided I'm chocolate (not peppermints), tea (not coffee), hot pink or red (not maroon). Around early June, I hope to be able to show you what I mean. In any case, it has helped me focus, to know who I am and who I am not.

5. Make the hard calls, without burning bridges. Not long ago, I heard from a guy whose business was going down the drain. And he was still trying to be all things to all employees, hold on to the past of what the company had been. The result was that he was losing everything. This is such a delicate matter. We need to maintain our compassion and good-dealings, but if something is "failing," we need to be realistic too, and save the ship by necessary means.

For me, this is one of the biggest challenges, as I never want to hurt people. It takes a lot of vision to see beyond the current circumstances, to understand what is ultimately at stake, and to make the necessary hard calls. This is where *loving* the business will ultimately serve us. And if we find we can't love the business that much, we should probably close the stand, after all.

How about you? Have you tried making your way in business? What are your favorite secrets?

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