What is success?

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I recently worked on a project in which one of the warm-up questions we asked was for people to tell us their definition of success. Consumers were asked about personal success. The segment of business owners were asked about their definition of business success.

It’s one of those questions that makes you think about how you’d answer it for yourself (personal success).  But even the business success answers were interesting. People don’t necessarily measure how successful their business is, in the ways you think they will.

OK, granted, all the businesses we asked were within a profit range that “survival to next week” was not the driver. For a much smaller business, for a much newer business, for a company that’s struggling, just being able to cover the bills becomes success… especially in this economy.

And none of the businesses were Fortune 500, publicly traded companies where the marketplace and the stockholders have a huge role in deciding what success is.

I won’t tell you what kinds of answers we got, for a number of reasons. But I will tell you that not all of them… not even most of them… were strictly financial. And that when I mentioned some of them to one person who hadn’t heard the interviews, they reacted really negatively. Disbelievingly.  (OK, my bad. I hadn’t prefaced the conversation to say that they were privately-held companies, which was part of the problem. Or that they all met some minimum income and number-of-employee guidelines.)

Still, the person I was talking to felt certain that there was only one way to measure success of a company. It was, of course, the way that HE would measure success.

But I used to work for a tech company a lifetime or two ago, and our resellers were all privately held firms, and even without being privy to the internal workings of their companies, I can look back and tell you that they quite obviously had different measures of success.

  • One of them was always trying to break into and get the corner on new markets. They were trying to build an empire.
  • One was all about becoming the guru of the technology category. Whether you needed a consultant to tell you which product in the category was right for you, or if you needed someone to speak at your conference, or if you wanted to submit a new product for review against us and other competitors, that was where to go.
  • One was fixed on a sharp vertical niche. They weren’t selling every product in the category… they mostly sold ours. And they didn’t sell to every company in the world. But if you were a Fortune 50 company in the financial industry, and you needed a solution that met the exacting standards of reporting amid the complexity of your data, they were your guys.
  • One was happy to be the expert on one very focused, very complex, very advanced part of the product. Such an expert on it that even we would go to him if there was a question. It was a narrow area of expertise, but it kept him steadily busy, and he had no interest in going broader or trying to chase down new accounts. He just wanted to run his business, provide for his family, do what he loved and eventually retire.

And that’s just a small subset of the businesses. And NONE of them were women-owned (at the time), and only one was minority- or multiculturally-owned… so who knows but that there might have been even more variation had those factors been in the mix.

A business, especially a small business, is still a personal thing to its owner. So I ask, if any of my readers own their own business… how do you define success for your business? By that measure, how successful is your business today?

(Oh, and if you can say a little something – very broadly – about you and your business type, that would be great!)

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