Know Your Why
Often lost amid the minutiae of how to build a business is why you want to build a business. What are the reasons behind your actions? Are you just doing it for the money? The notoriety? Or are you genuinely attempting to add value to people’s lives? The reason you’re doing something can mean the difference between being happy and fulfilled throughout the process or totally miserable. Eventually, it will also mean the difference between success and failure.
People often chase making it big in business—and seeing their names on placards, products, and billboards—because they are looking for external validation. They think that if they collect enough stuff “out there,” it can assuage all doubts and fears that live within the mind. Even if you forget for a moment that nothing external can ever truly satisfy you, the fact remains that work done for cynical and greedy reasons is usually destined to fail.
Starting a business requires time, energy, and expertise, but the driver behind all those factors is passion. You need to step back and ask yourself some serious questions and give yourself the space to answer honestly. Ask yourself if this is something you truly believe in. Then ask whether this a project you would still want to pursue if money and fame were not motivating factors.
Last and most important: What benefit can I give to the world by making this successful? Am I providing something that people truly want and need? Does it give back to my community, my country, my world in a meaningful way? An element of service above self can go a long way in keeping you engaged with your work on a deeper level and making you want to see it succeed beyond reasons of your own bottom line. When you have that final element behind your product, you create loyalty, and a legion of customers who will want it to succeed as badly as you do, people who give you the most coveted form of marketing that can’t be bought: positive word of mouth.
Whatever your field, commit to being an expert in it and staying on the bleeding edge of the latest research and techniques. Don’t be happy with having done something really well in the past and think that entitles you to future success. The ideal businessperson is one with a strong base in classic, established knowledge and a firm handle on what’s new. The former actually helps inform the latter; the more you know about what has worked in the past, the better you’ll be at deciphering which of the latest trends is bound to be a flash in the pan that won’t hold up in the long run.
The most successful people never viewed their education as a thing that ended upon graduation. They are all students for life, voraciously studious in their fields, yet, even with years of success under their belts, humble enough to learn new things and accept that even though they’ve been getting along just fine, there might be a better way.
It sounds simple but having great talent and a commitment to learning is an uncommon combination of traits because ego grows with success and tends to get in the way of staying humble. I don’t laud humility merely as an altruistic value, but as a good business practice. If your lack of humility stops you from learning and improving, it’s not just an unpleasant character trait—it’s a liability.
Win the Day
When we first get an idea, it’s perfect. All the possibilities are before us: we can see people lined up around the block for it, happy customers praising its life-changing impact, news stories about how it swept the nation or the world, checks with a bunch of zeros on the end. It’s a lovely moment when our brains are awash in dopamine and it seems like nothing can go wrong. Call this phase infatuation. It might pass, right?
Well, a few days have gone by and you still can’t stop thinking about your idea. You start thinking this idea might really be “the one” and it’s time to get a move on and make a commitment to this thing. Boom. You take the plunge. You dive into researching your idea and start mapping out your plans for global domination. It’s just you and a pad of paper right now. Such humble beginnings! Won’t this be such a neat little moment to tell everyone about when you’re a guest on The Tonight Show?
Then a few weeks go by. You’re into the nitty-gritty. Honeymoon’s over now. All that’s left: the seriously hard work of bringing this idea from a daydream into solid reality. The initial infatuation is a distant memory. Oh man, what you wouldn’t give for a hit of that dopamine right now to propel you through this new drudgery.
Problem is, the more work you do, the more problems come to the fore. You soon realize your original business plan isn’t feasible. The materials you wanted to use are too expensive. The market for your grand design is perhaps smaller than originally estimated. Then, a real kick in the teeth: You discover that someone else tried something just like this a few years ago and lost their shirt on the endeavor. The whole thing crashed and burned within a few months.
Maybe this idea wasn’t “the one” after all. Maybe it’s time you and this idea went your separate ways. Hey. It happens every day. No big deal. Really. What’s important right now is the story you tell yourself about this experience. This little exercise didn’t fall apart because you’re not smart enough or skilled enough. It wasn’t even a bad idea. Just maybe not the right idea for this particular moment and this particular place. You will live to fight another day. You may even live to revive this idea in the right moment.
The notion of “having it all” was never meant to be insidious, yet we feel that’s exactly what it’s become. Americans are taught—through all forms of media—from a very young age that they have a right to it “all” and that getting it all is the clearest signal you can send to others that you are successful. Vital. That your life has meaning and importance.
Having it all has extended beyond the traditional hallmarks of keeping up with the Joneses. To wit, having the big house, fancy car, and fine clothes are now only one part of a psychological epidemic in which our eyes are bigger than our proverbial stomachs. Measures of success in American life have evolved. You can’t just project that you’re well-off or wealthy. You’ve got to simultaneously project that you’re smart, popular, interesting, creative, and unique. Wouldn’t hurt to have a ton of social media followers. A good-looking spouse and a few kids, too. Oh, and you should own the hot start-up and also have “work-life balance.”
It’s good to want things and to strive for a better life. But don’t think this kind of endless, spiraling desire that we are collectively experiencing leads anywhere good. Just see it leading to stress and anxiety and to an atomized attention span where everyone starts a dozen projects simultaneously and never finishes any of them. It leads to physical exhaustion and mental fatigue.
Because while we’re climbing this gigantic, unwieldy mountain and collecting all this shit, we’re also supposed to want work-life balance, which, when you’re starting a business of your own, becomes a joke. Your business becomes your life.