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Try this for your business – no goals, no comparisons

Feb 16, 2020 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Let me tell you about a company that does not set any goals or targets. None.

Don’t rub your eyes; you read that right. No customer-count goals. No revenue goals. No retention goals. No profit goals.

You don’t believe me, do you?

Oh wait, this company also doesn’t analyse its competitors. It has no market-share targets. It doesn’t even know what its market share is. It doesn’t track which company is first, second or third in its market. It doesn’t care who is raising more money, winning more awards or getting great media mentions.

The company is called Basecamp. It creates software that helps companies organise themselves. It does very well – it has over 100,000 customers paying on a monthly basis. It makes tens of millions of dollars in annual profit. 

Here is its philosophy. To have enough customers paying enough money to cover costs and generate a profit. To have costs under control, and profitable sales. To increase the profit number every year if possible. To have a healthy business with sound economics, no fluff. 

All of this is outlined in a great book called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, written by Basecamp’s founders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

This book rang so many bells for me I thought I might go deaf.

That’s because I also coincidentally started my business, a professional practice, in the same year they did. And I also have no financial goals, no stretch targets, no competitor assessments. I don’t know if I have competitors, and I don’t care. I don’t want to be the biggest or the richest in the market. I don’t even know what the market is.

What I do know is this: whatever work I am involved in must be great work, the best it can possibly be. It must help my clients to know more, understand better, and think more deeply. It must create bigger deals – bigger for the spirit, not just the balance sheet. And it must make try to make a dent in the universe. 

In Basecamp’s case, they just want the deep satisfaction of doing their very best work – as measured by their own happiness and their customers’ purchases.

The Basecamp founders remind us that Mark Twain nailed it: “Comparison is the death of joy.” Joy comes from not comparing. “What others do has no bearing on what we’re able to do, what we want to do, or what we choose to do. There’s no chase at Basecamp, no rabbit to pursue.”

The goals that matter are these ones. Delivering great customer experience. Creating products that are actually good for customers. Having a great work environment and a happy team. Getting better and raising the bar every year. Enjoying the work that we do.

If all those things are done well, the numbers will look after themselves. You don’t need a fake stretch target for the numbers; do great work, and let the number land where it does.  If you fixate on quarterly numbers, you will go insane trying to beat your own past every time. It will also lead to a tempting compromise in product quality, ethics and decency. Your people, under great pressure to up-sell and cross-sell and out-sell, will ultimately sell themselves.

I have observed this repeatedly. Severe burnout from the relentless pressure of the chase; and severe moral compromise from trying to bring in the numbers at any cost.

To not have targets is not to embrace timidity or laziness. It’s actually very hard to stay in business profitably, for decades on end. To serve customers well all the time is a very demanding thing. To build a workplace that people take delight in being part of is no walk in the park.

It’s not easier to eschew goals and comparisons. It’s the way business should be. And yet it’s really not, for pretty much everyone out there. I don’t recommend that you rock up for your next meeting with your CEO or board saying you have forsaken targets and you don’t care about competitors. The world is not ready for you to say that, and it will view you as a crazy or incompetent person. And yet.

I also lived in the world of number-chasing, once upon a time. When I left to do my own thing, I swore I would do my thing my way. Do I often leave money on the table? Indeed. Do I spend more than I need to? Also yes. Is it a happy way to run a business and live a life of meaning? Absolutely.

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