What is Business Success?

What does it mean to succeed in life and business? Is the most successful person, the richest person? Is the happiest person, the most successful person? Is the person that leaves the biggest legacy, the most successful person? What about the person who has the most control of their time?

I initially started thinking about this question in regard to business. When I worked for a big consulting firm, I really knew my subject area, but we worked crazy hours and would travel for extended periods without seeing friends or family. I remember working late many nights and watching the client go home at five (we had a policy to always work later than the clients). I wondered who was winning in this equation?

I was probably making more money and definitely knew the technology better, but they had a lot more control over their time. And, in the end, isn’t time our most valuable commodity? To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you can always make more money, but time once spent is always lost. So one of the driving factors behind starting my own business was that I could still do the work I loved (building IT systems), but I could focus on more local projects and have better control of my time.

When I first started out running my own consulting business, I felt successful because I was doing just that. Even though I was probably working more, I was doing it on my own time (usually after the kids were in bed). For a while, that made me feel successful.

Then, I felt like to really be successful, I needed to build a company that could run without me. This would allow me to do things like actually take a vacation. So I moved forward in securing client contracts, getting office space and hiring employees. So am I successful now? Would I be more successful if the business were ten times its size and had locations throughout the US? Is bigger always better?

McDonald’s has an interesting history that is relevant to this discussion. They started out as a small hamburger chain with a couple stores run by the McDonald brothers. Ray Croc was a milkshake salesmen who came along and was impressed with their business. He felt like he could really take their formula and grow the business dramatically. He offered the McDonald brothers a deal to work with him in growing the business.

But they felt successful exactly as the business was and saw no need to grow it. Ray Croc finally raised enough money to buy the business from them outright and the rest is history. There is a similar story regarding Starbucks which, for many years, was a local Seattle coffee company with a couple shops until Howard Schultz bought out the original owners and rolled out a nationwide growth plan. Are these bigger businesses more successful than the local ones?

And, if the bigger businesses are more successful, is the biggest business the most successful one. I guess that would be one of the oil companies or possibly WalMart. Should the goal of every business owner be to build one of these monoliths of commerce?

In my opinion, it really depends on the vision of the business and its owner. If I set up a business whose main vision is to serve the people of Aurora, IL and their specific IT needs, then I could be small and successful. Or what if the vision of my business is to create the next #1 PC game. Id software created the bestselling game Doom when they only had 10 employees. Also, businesses do not need to be big to be highly profitable. Most of the “millionaires next door” own and run small local businesses like garbage collection.

So I think business success like life success can be defined in many different ways.  In my opinion, the most important thing is to add value to the world in whatever you do. This usually involves exploiting your talents and skills.  I also think that success is more of a journey than a destination. The most successful people and businesses tend to be those that are continually striving and re-defining success. They never rest on previous successes or as Andy Grove (former CEO of Intel) puts it “Only the Paranoid Survive”

You need to define what success means for you and then focus on making it happen. Then once you’ve achieved one level of success, re-define the goal a little higher and keep pushing.

Stay hungry Arnold Schwarzenegger