Successful businesses are not a result of chance, but are the by-product of an effective and evolving strategic plan, complimented by an equally effective operating infrastructure, and supported by exceptional human talent. While there is more than one recipe for business success, I personally prescribe to the following four underlying foundational principles for continuity, guidance, and continuing prosperity;
- Commitment to business growth through organic innovation by funding research and development at investments of 10% or greater as a percentage of the company’s total revenues.
- Develop and evolve your company’s product brands through your customer’s eyes.
- Continuously improve your company’s products and technologies by focusing on the few truly strategic core platforms.
- Hire smart, ambitious, get-it-done employees and lead them with emotionally intelligent innovation leadership skills.
While it’s fair to say that the aforementioned cornerstones apply to more established companies and are intended to ensure for their continued well-being, early stage entrants can benefit from their guidance as well. Being part of a new and unestablished company brand results in even greater challenges and distractions as they attempt to move from angel or venture capital funding to self-sustainment. This financial reality screams for the completion of an ever growing list of all important tasks that seems to only expand. The days are long and the end game seems frequently out of sight. It’s for this very reason that emotionally intelligent and pragmatic leadership grounded in principle can be the difference between success and failure. In attempts to help ensure success is achieved for this next generation of potential house-hold names and industry trend setters, while at the same time showing the relevance and applicability to the spirit of these foundational principles. It requires that company size is factored into their understanding and that these guiding best practices can be appropriately scaled or right-sized to accommodate for start-ups and entrepreneurs.
In attempts of priority, I want to emphasize the importance of focusing on the few truly strategic initiatives to ensure early business success for young upstarts:
Focus on the strategically important.
The single biggest reason that the average company struggles or even fails is due to their lack of focus and dilution of their greatest resource, which are people. In order to be successful as an innovative company, never mind a start-up or small entrepreneurial company, it’s essential to be able to identify the few truly strategic initiatives that will most favorably impact the top revenue line. Thereafter identifying what’s truly strategic, it requires that any new start-up commits to it with laser focus until they cross the goal line with these most impactful needle moving initiatives. Here in lies the caution for small businesses with limited personnel, and small business leaders needs to engrave this mantra into their minds; if everything is important, then nothing is important! With limited personnel and so many things to accomplish such as developing your product or technology, getting approval to sell or promote your goods, developing your marketing plan, establishing your sales channel, building inventory along with executing the business plan can be outright over whelming to so few employees.
Right from the get-go, it’s important to think of this costly endeavor as a journey and not a sprint. A powerful best practice to help keep this reality in focus is to ask the following question each morning and each night and that is. What is the single most important task, or long-lead item I need to accomplish “today”, in order to make the day a success? I respect distractions are all too common place in small businesses from responding to emails, calling suppliers, updating specifications, establishing infrastructure procedures and processes, training personnel to of course paying the bills. Welcome to leadership 101, and be advised that effective leadership shares the overarching company vision, along with a realistic executable plan. In short, plan the work and work the plan.
Think 1 to 3.
Focus and accomplishment to essential tasks is elemental for success. In efforts to keep both leadership and staff focused, whether that means a workplace of one or more. I strongly recommend the concept of drafting a straw man of the few “must-have” critical goals which cannot exceed three. Physiologically, long lists are intimidating and demoralizing, whereas, challenges to accomplishment 1 to 3 goals at a time have high attainment results. More specifically, research suggests that 1 to 3 goals can be achieved with excellence, whereas when an individual is challenged with 4 or more, the result is the attainment of less than 3 goals with adequacy. The simple truth is that more is not better, and goal accomplishment with excellence comes from an absolute focus of one task at a time. Further, long lists and lack of accomplishment wears heavy at the end of a long day, and sends an unconstructive subliminal message that inadequate progress is being made.
Instead, focusing on 1 to 3 goals is not only palatable, but can also be spelled out on a white board and hung on the break room refrigerator. Additionally, as each goal is accomplished, the team should celebrate by ringing a bell or going out for happy-hour at the end of the day. Further, as the goals are updated, maintaining a running list of these accomplishments provides for a living history of the many growing accomplishments and meaningful milestones of success along the journey. Moreover, this running list of accomplishments when visibly displayed is in and by itself a powerful motivating reminder that success is achievable one win at a time.
Any start-up or entrepreneur has already made the single most important decision of their careers, and that is to step outside the norm and take a chance on something greater. Now that that decision has been made and committed too, don’t think too grandiose. Instead, think bare bones, and as narrowly as humanly possible. The fastest path between two points is a straight line. For a start-up, that line has three key points of intersection and they are; one – develop your product or technology, two – establish a stable manufacturing capacity and supply chain, and three – create a sales outlet to generate revenue. Is a marketing plan important? Yes. Is high yield important? Yes. Are promotional materials important? Yes. However, nothing is more important than having a product or service with the ability to make it and sell it. Larger portfolios and fancy promotions can follow, but get the basics in place at the very beginning or in other words, secure the foundation.
While this logic may seem naturally intuitive to most, it’s not. Leaders who start small companies have big visions and entrepreneurs can become too fixated on their invention and business essentials are often seemingly lost. By calibrating on the three most important legs of your company’s stool which are product, manufacture and sales, if further helps define those 1 to 3 goals and long lead critical items of concern.
Celebrate small wins.
It’s far too easy to think about the end game particularly when cash flow is necessary to ultimately keep the doors open and put food on the shelves. Yes, cash flow is king and every start-up wants to achieve greatness or hit a sizable IPO, initial public offering sooner than later. However, while being fixated on that big pay day is tantalizing, don’t forget about employee morale even if the company complement is one. When people feel valued, they will literally move mountains by working countless hours and making enormous personnel sacrifices. Therefore, don’t overlook or under estimate small wins. Employee morale is fragile, and it’s very easy to get down and second guess decisions such as signing on with a start-up. Matter of fact, it takes great perseverance and grit to create a business from nothing more than a concept. In addition to having perseverance, remember to celebrate every success and small win along the journey. I’m not talking about a significant investment, but something as simple as a Friday afternoon pizza party. With this emotionally intelligent mindset, you can collectively celebrate the milestone, take a simple, yet important moment to recognize the accomplishment, and it reinforces the essence of team and team success. Always remember, that businesses are only as great as their employees.
The critically of focus while important for any sized company is only exacerbated for early stage start-ups due to their lack of profitability. With that being said, it’s essential to remain committed to the original business charter and to remain steadfast in pursuit of your dream. However, a vision without a plan is nothing more than a dream. Therefore, in efforts to help ensure your dreams materialize, adhere to the strategically important few initiatives through narrow focus, bite-sized goals and celebrating the small wins along the path to success.
Author of “Mantra Design” Dana A. Oliver is the Senior Director of Research & Development at Medtronic. He has helped grow Medtronic’s Surgical Technologies ENT/NT division from $100 million to approximately $2 billion in annual revenues over fourteen years. With 30 years of experience and an impressive track record of revenue generation, he has applied for over 30 patent applications and has been granted over 20 US patents to date.