The big reveal: here are the secrets of success
A question that keeps popping up: what are the secrets of success in business? Every new generation seems to ask it—these days on social media. I am asked the question often, and I wonder: why do people think it’s about “secrets” in the first place? I guess because true business success is rare rather than commonplace, and so folks seem to think those lucky ones who taste it have chanced upon some hidden formula or some esoteric knowledge divulged only to a few. If only we could all get hold of them secrets…
Let me divulge the secrets to all and sundry today. The main secret of business success is that there is no secret at all. Everything is right there in front of you, hidden in plain sight.
I am assuming, of course, that you wish to do business in a clean way—within the law, and within the confines of general morality. If that is indeed the case, then let’s proceed with spilling the beans once and for all.
The first secret is that of relevance. Whatever you wish to sell must be needed by a group of buyers. That sounds like a platitude, but it really isn’t. I’m always amazed by how many people go into business just to try to sell what they already have, or what they know how to make. I have these cooking skills, or a law degree, or a farm on which mangoes grow—so that’s my business.
The best businesses actually start from the demand side, not supply. They study customers and markets. They look at evolving lifestyles and pay keen interest to what matters to people. They peer into the future to discern where things are going and what people will want and need tomorrow. That’s the starting point. They only think of supplying the product or service once they have figured out the nuances of the need.
The next secret is that of uniqueness. Great businesses do not set out to be just like every other supplier; they set out to be different—pointedly different. They try to tell customers, convincingly: there is no else quite like us. Sure, we have competitors, but we are your best bet in a number of attributes. That might be price, or quality, or convenience, or reliability, or any number of other things. The point is, you can’t go elsewhere to get what you get from us.
Easier said than done, of course. But trust me, long-lived successful businesses all work really, really hard on their sources of distinction. That’s not for everyone, because forging distinction and then holding it is hard, hard work. Perhaps that’s why it looks like a secret, but it really isn’t.
The third secret? It’s the relationships. Good businesses have a powerful network of relationships: with customers and suppliers and shareholders, but most emphatically with their employees. They hire well, reward well, and hold on to their people for long periods. They connect people to the business in interesting ways. Good relationships lead to good outcomes. These businesses enjoy higher engagement, higher loyalty, and often higher returns. Simply because they bother to treat people well.
Number four: remarkable businesses demand remarkably hard work. As the old joke goes, when you start your own business you get to choose how you spend your time—you choose which eighteen hours you will work every day! I know this to be true. Successful entrepreneurs work really, really hard. You had better be up for that before getting started.
Fifthly, prolonged success does not come from complacency. Those who succeed through several economic cycles and even generations do not sit back resting on their laurels; they keep evolving. They refuse to become overconfident; they maintain a healthy disquiet that keeps them pushing innovation and freshness as they go.
And today’s last secret: good businesses that last maintain strong controls. How many do you know that have died from self-inflicted wounds? Lack of impulse control is a strong reason. From the kiosk owner using money from the takings to fuel their drink habit; to the hipster startup guy who can’t wait to buy that sleek BMW; to the director who diverts the bank’s deposits towards personal wealth—all blow their precious businesses sky-high. Strict control—of potential greed, larceny, carelessness—is a non-negotiable ingredient.
That’s it, then. Those are the secrets. Watch the world around you and figure out something it needs; supply it uniquely; treat everyone in your ecosystem well; work incredibly hard; be alert and ready to change; and keep a tight grip. Oh—and be lucky. From time to time, fortune will need to smile on you.
Use these secrets, and you may find yourself in a business that rewards you for life, in manifold ways.
Oh, you had something else in mind? Quick riches, short-cuts? Again there are no secrets. Be prepared to be a thief, be ready to deceive and exploit many, be shameless, be brutal. There are many role models. Look for them, and stop reading this column. It will only waste your time.
(Sunday Nation, 5 February 2023)