Find Your Story
Almost everyone has a passion for something, but sometimes we have trouble saying what it is. It’s surprisingly easy to lose touch with our true passions—sometimes because we get distracted with everyday living; sometimes simply because in the usual stream of small talk or transactable business, no one ever asks us about our dreams. That’s why it’s so important that you first find a way to articulate your passion to yourself. When you discover what your passion is, you will have found your story as well.
If you’re not sure about your passion, here are three questions:
- If you did not have to worry about money, what would you do with your time?
- What kind of work would you want to do?
- What cause would you serve?
Once you answer these questions, you’ll have a good idea of what your passion is. Take your time—you might need to let the questions sit with you for just a moment before you reconnect to your truest answers. But once you figure out what your passion is, you have the core of your story and the beginning of your project.
The more strongly you feel about what you do, the more likely you are to push yourself to be good at it and find a way to make a success of it. If you organize your life around your passion, you can turn your passion into your story and then turn your story into something bigger—something that matters.
Once you figure out your story and begin your project—be it a business, a philanthropic organization, or even a job search—how do you spread it? The most important thing is that you commit to telling that story at every opportunity. It’s not an incidental part of your business; it has to be a major area of focus—otherwise, you won’t spend the time you need to promote and share it.
Face Your Fears
Fear stays with us throughout our lives. When we’re unemployed, we fear that we’ll never get another job. When we do get a job, we fear being fired. When we invest our earnings, we fear losing our savings. And when we start our own company, throwing in our own savings and efforts and faith, we fear losing everything.
Since fear is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, we must learn to face it, and the first step is understanding what fear is.
Fear happens when we feel anxious or apprehensive about a possible situation or event—in other words, something that hasn’t even happened yet. It’s our brain’s way of telling us to pay attention and to alert us to dangers or risks. Without fear, our ancestors would have walked right up to a saber-toothed tiger or woolly mammoth and become that night’s dinner. We no longer face prehistoric predators, but we still need to listen to fear when it warns us not to jump out of an airplane without a parachute, pick a fight with someone twice our size, or walk into a busy street without looking.
The fear generated by walking into the path of a ferocious saber-toothed tiger is very different from the fear of taking an intelligent business risk, but the tricky thing is that it might feel the same physiologically, and our reaction—to find some safe haven that spares us the horrible feeling of fear—might be the same. But we have to remember that the unsettling initial feeling of fear is not something we can control; it’s completely natural. Everyone feels fear in business at some point, but the important thing to remember is that what you fear won’t kill you, in business at least. Those who are successful face up to their fears and create a plan to overcome them.
In fact, the more you read about successful enterprises, the more you’ll discover how many successful people, faced with rejection, bankruptcy, loss of support, or outright failure had every opportunity to shut down what they were doing and simply fold. Instead, they faced their fears, managed to get past them, and ultimately triumphed.
Be Resourceful Without Resources
A lack of resources is no reason to avoid starting a company. If anything, it often inspires creativity and a competitive edge. Even though they may have excellent ideas, many people still believe that they can’t start a business because they don’t have enough of everything else.
Being comfortable can hurt your creative entrepreneurial spirit. An early and unearned sense of security can be the worst thing that can happen to a business. If you have little money and have to bootstrap and improvise to pull things together, that becomes embedded in your company’s DNA forever—so as you scale up, you maintain the frugality and efficiency that helped you survive your earliest days.
According to renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mike Maples, companies that start off overfunded actually are in more danger of faltering than those that are underfunded; too much money, he says, is not only unnecessary, but also toxic. Maples points out the inverse relationship between the amount of money an entrepreneur spends at start-up and the business’s ultimate success. It’s no coincidence that blue-chip companies like Cisco, Google, Facebook, Digg, and even Microsoft began as hyperfrugal start-ups.
Yes, it’s hard to turn down money. But if you raise more than you really need, you’ll probably end up with a three-bin copy machine when one bin would do, or a fancy telephone system when cellphones would do just as well. Or you might create fancy positions, hire extraneous personnel, like vice presidents who don’t do anything except hand out business cards that say they’re a vice president. Worst of all, that money comes with strings attached: You’ll have to answer to investors who tell you how to run your business but might not share your core values.
Some of the most interesting business failures in the last decade were companies that simply had too much cash. Who knows what might have happened to Pets.com, for instance, if it had had limited resources?
Keep It Simple
In design, simplicity rules. Look at the world around you—many of the most successful design concepts are also the simplest. The most obvious and ubiquitous examples can be found in Apple’s product line, and specifically the iPod. When it was introduced, the small music player wasn’t the first of its kind, and it lacked some of the features offered by its competition, like a radio receiver. It’s also comparatively expensive, and its battery system is harder to replace than that of its rivals.
But the iPod has something the others don’t have: simplicity of design and ease of use. No product looks cleaner and is less complicated to operate. This has always been Apple’s forte: creating straightforward designs that even people who are timid with technology can embrace. By 2010, nine years after the iPod was launched, Apple had sold 250 million units—many to people who never dreamed they could so easily master the art of storing and listening to all their music in such a minimal device.
Simplicity can apply to an idea, a goal, or a mission. Simplicity of mission helps your customers focus on the true value you provide. Take the case of In-N-Out Burger. This privately held hamburger chain, founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder, now has almost 250 stores across the western United States. The Snyders’ plan was always simple: “Give customers the freshest, highest-quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” That’s all they’ve done for more than six decades.
There aren’t many choices at In-N-Out: Basically, you order a burger and fries and a beverage. There’s nothing complicated, including the décor, as every store is colored in basic red, white, and yellow. And yet In-N-Out was one of only a few restaurant chains mentioned positively by author Eric Schlosser in his bestselling exposé of fast-food chains, Fast Food Nation; Schlosser praised In-N-Out for using natural, fresh ingredients, as well as for treating its employees well.
Keep it real simple. Do one thing and do it the best you can.
Because a major part of leadership takes place outside your organization, you must be sure that you have the trust of your customers, your vendors, and your donors—or whomever you depend upon for your survival. Everything you do in your organization should focus on growing, building, and protecting the trust of these people. If you lose that trust, you lose everything.
The history of American business is filled with examples of companies that destroyed trust with their consumers, from the late telephone giant WorldCom to the retailer Kmart to the oil company BP, which ran ads touting its environmental bona fides but then ended up flooding the Gulf of Mexico with crude oil.
Some of the most successful business leaders of the century succeeded precisely because of the trust they created with their customers. Carl Sewell is another of my mentors and is among the most successful entrepreneurs of his era; his book, Customers for Life, is still a bestselling classic. In it, and in his life, Carl preaches that trust is one of the most important parts of a business, rather than, say, making money: “For our way of doing business to work, we have to convince you that there is something more valuable than money.”
Stores such as Nordstrom are well known for their service, which places customers first. Stories abound at the company of employees who went far out of their way to help customers in ways that no other store would do. As told in The Nordstrom Way, by Robert Spector and Patrick McCarthy, a Nordstrom employee once noticed that a customer had left her airline ticket on the counter while shopping at the store; after calling the airline and discovering they wouldn’t reissue it, the salesperson left her job for an hour and a half and rushed to the airport, where she had the customer paged and gave her back the ticket. This salesperson was able to decide for herself the best course of action and leave her place at the store—and this is because Nordstrom trusts its workers enough to give them the freedom to make entrepreneurial decisions.
Giving is Good Business
Giving doesn’t just make it easy to attract great employees; it also means you can attract great partners as well. After all, it’s hard to start any business alone; you will always benefit from finding other people to lend you their name, their expertise, and even their company’s resources. You’ll quickly find that businesses want to partner with other businesses that are doing something good—and they root for you to succeed, because they admire your giving goals.
Most large corporations, from Prudential to IBM, from 3M to Sears, have programs that give back to the community, many for obvious reasons: Apple donates hundreds of computers to schools, which helps education as well as creating a market for Apple products. American Express funds Travel and Tourism Academies in secondary schools—the more people there are trained to help those who travel, the more people will travel using American Express cards. Home-improvement retailer Home Depot has partnered with the child-oriented nonprofit KaBOOM! to build 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days, putting $25 million into the initiative and getting almost 100,000 Home Depot employees to volunteer in some way. Kroger supermarkets give local nonprofits cards that allow users to buy groceries at 5 percent off the retail price. The nonprofits then sell these cards and retain the difference.
Other companies have created programs that are less obviously connected to their brand but are instead based on a sense of doing what is right—and that helps to create a strong sense of customer loyalty. For example, shoe company Timberland allows full-time employees to take a week off from the office to work with its own service initiative called Path of Service. Each employee can pick whichever project he or she wishes and is paid a regular weekly salary. As a result, Timberland has a very high employee retention rate.