What was a successful business before it was, well, a successful business? Everything has to start somewhere, and the thriving companies of today are no different. While there are as many pathways to success as there are successful (and unsuccessful) businesses, there are a number of key pillars, mantras, and checkpoints that most (if not all) successful brands have in common.
Now, it’s been said time and again that there are no new ideas, perhaps most famously by Mark Twain:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
With that in mind, coming up with a “new and curious combination” that you believe a large number of people will buy into can seem near impossible.
But thanks to companies who are doing and have already done things right, we can start to pinpoint those “same old pieces of colored glass” and create a partially-drawn map of how to get to that coveted spot where profits continue to trend upwards and people naturally start talking about what you’re accomplishing — even if you’re working within a market that’s already being dominated by other big, loud players.
1) Solve a Problem With a Disruptive Idea
Disruptors and innovators (read: successful entrepreneurs) look for opportunities to expand, figure out how to make something that exists better, make a lot of noise, bring power to customers, and in today’s modern, digitized world, they add a human element to technology. These are all of the reasons why modern customers pay attention to certain brands and their products over others.
To answer our opening question, a successful business starts as a soundless idea in someone’s brain. But how do you know if it’s a good one that people will, as we mentioned, pay attention to?
Recognizing a Good Idea
One of the best places to start is to ask yourself if the core of your business idea does one or more of the following three things:
- Satisfies a need
- Solves a problem
- Appeals to a niche community
Think of these as the bones of a good idea’s anatomy. Making sure you check off one or all of these boxes is a way to get to a truly innovative idea that has the potential to disrupt an entire industry.
Following a Real Life Example
One company in particular that we can use as a learning tool is Tommy John, whose CEO Tom Patterson just received the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year Award for his company’s rapid growth and success in men’s underwear, a market that’s been around as long as men have and that includes big names like Hanes who hold the power of Michael Jordan.
“I wanted to find a better solution, so I created one,” says Patterson. “All of our products are designed to uniquely solve problems.”
So we’re not just talking about solving problems, we’re talking about solving problems in a unique way, and doing it over and over again. To illustrate: their underwear has what they call a no-wedgie guarantee, and their specific styles also come with their own unique selling points. Their boxer briefs, for example, are designed so they won’t ride up the way the boxer short style has been known to do. It may seem simple, but it’s effective and hits at something real and relatable.
These examples also hit on all three of the above bullet points, and does so within what many would consider to be a fairly challenging market. After all, how often do you find yourself reading, talking, or caring about men’s underwear?
The trick here was reminding a customer of a daily, common problem, and showing them that it wasn’t something they had to live with anymore.
2) Ignore The Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Do It
Now, you can’t solve problems, satisfy needs, or appeal to niche markets if you don’t act on your ideas, and there will always be a voice in your head that constantly lists out all the reasons why it’s a dumb idea or why you will certainly fail. The key? You must decide not to listen to this voice.
Despite what the numbers may say, this is arguably the biggest difference between successful businesses and the ones that fail: taking action in spite of your fears, again and again. In fact, let’s call listening to your doubts startup sin number 8.
Acting on something doesn’t mean you know for certain that it will be a worthwhile endeavor. Action is just that: doing the things. As Patterson points out, “There will always be a million reasons not to get started. Ignore them.”
These reasons are both endless and even realistic, and include things like:
- Infinite work hours / “always on”
- Lack of financial security
- Constant risk (read: stress)
- Competition is too far ahead
- There’s simply too much competition
- Funding obstacles
- No money
- Lack of experience
- You’ll probably fail
Turning Weaknesses into Strengths
One of Patterson’s biggest doubts / reasons to not start a business was his lack of experience. “I had no background or connections in clothing design nor manufacturing.” But this was arguably his biggest advantage. “I was able to find new, more efficient ways to get things done. I asked questions and challenged processes that most people in the industry follow on autopilot.”
Ultimately, what could’ve been seen as a huge disadvantage, was used to challenge the status quo and disrupt an entire industry. Lack of experience became fresh, desperately-needed perspective.
The lesson here is to see if you can turn your doubts and all the reasons why you know you shouldn’t start a business into reasons why you should. How can your perceived weaknesses become your strengths?
At the end of the day, if you’re not passionate about your idea and aren’t driven to change the world in some way, you’re going to have a rough time harnessing the motivation required to keep you going.
But asking yourself, “what am I passionate about?” is an outdated and short-sighted way of really getting at your purpose. If you don’t have an idea yet or you’re not sure the idea you have is the one to pursue, try asking yourself these kinds of questions instead (h/t to Mark Manson):
- How do I want to suffer?
- What sacrifice am I willing to make?
- What pain do I want in my life?
These may seem like morbid ways of thinking about your passion, but there will always be some form of a struggle when you have a worthwhile goal up for grabs. Spinning the thought in this way ensures that you aren’t caught up in a romanticized fantasy, but that you’re truly looking at the idea or goal through a realistic lens and deciding that yes, this would be worth that.
3) Stay True To Your Customers & Your Voice
If you’ve identified a problem that needs solving, then you’ve also identified the people with that problem. Once you really get to know your ideal customer, your questions about how to reach them and maintain their appeal will begin to answer themselves, so long as you’re paying attention.
Branding Yourself Right
Making your product or service accessible means knowing how to engage with your preferred customer via strategic branding they can relate to. Think about how they talk, where they hang out in their real and digital lives, what they respond positively to, what their interests are, and then figure out how best to communicate with them.
Here’s a quick, useful, and creative exercise for getting to know your customer: using the dull demographic information you’ve collected, write up a character sketch and story about them! Have fun with it.
If you’re struggling with how to approach this exercise, you could also imagine what a quick commercial for your product or service might look like in the future, starring your preferred customer.
Then decide: should you be their best friend they can joke around with? A mentor they look up to and respect? This will dictate what your brand voice and style guide becomes. Rule of thumb: modern consumers usually appreciate brands that are personable and relatable.
Answering these questions will help you decide the kind of voice you should inhabit and will become the guiding light for all of your communication, branding, and marketing decisions. In the case of Tommy John, humor and relatability is clearly their shtick.
Building Real Relationships
Many companies lose their way when they start seeing their customers solely as dollar signs. Remembering to think of your customers as people you’re in relationships with will go a long way towards helping you earn and keep their loyalty.
In other words, adopt customer-centric business philosophies to promote brand loyalty and create brand advocates.
The best way to go about this? Don’t lose sight of why you started the relationship in the first place, and don’t forget to keep listening to them. Here’s a great resource for learning more about why and how to go about staying in tune with your customer’s needs.
This brings us back to your product or service. Your customers give you their money because they believe in what you’re offering, and they’ll give you their money again if you keep offering something that meets their standards of quality and provides continued satisfaction.
Staying true to your customers means offering products or services with integrity. According to Patterson, they maintain consumer appeal by producing quality products. “As we grow, we are maniacally focused on maintaining that same level of quality in every product we produce.” Consistency is key.
Help yourself by paying close attention to your true target market, and don’t dilute your offering so much that you stop meeting your own standards, both in terms of product quality and how you service your customers.
Prioritizing these things will ensure that your business continues to move forward and that people keep expressing positive sentiments about your company, which is a great kind of cycle to get caught in. Like breeds like, after all.
4) Have a Mission & Stick To It...
The easiest way to threaten all of the above — to not stay true to your customers or to your brand voice — is losing sight of or not having an infallible, overarching “why.” What was your initial vision? Why did you want to do this in the first place? What did you hope to accomplish?
Writing a Mission Statement
Harness a tangible version of your why by writing your company’s mission statement, but don’t mistake this for a simple, mindless task meant to just make you sound good. It should be an effortful process, but successful entrepreneurs often agree that the process of writing a mission statement is as valuable as the final document itself.
Start writing your mission statement by answering the following questions:
- What sparked your business idea?
- Who is your ideal customer?
- How do you want your company to be perceived?
- Why are your products / services essential to your business?
- What role should you and your employees play?
- What kind of relationships do you want with suppliers?
- What makes you better than your competitors?
- How will you reach your goals?
- What philosophies and values guide your daily work and non-work life?
Click here for more help with drafting and finalizing a mission statement that will help your brand grow into itself.
Knowing When to Say No
Without a mission statement in place as a beacon to guide your every move, you will be more easily susceptible to making potentially destructive decisions you wouldn’t have otherwise made. Patterson, for instance, believes the biggest challenge for a startup is “to stay true to your vision despite the consistent pressure otherwise.”
If your business isn’t growing, then it’s dying. With growth comes more opportunities for things like partnerships, funding, expansion into other categories or industries, but saying yes to them all may not always be the right choice. Having an iron-clad mission statement will help you stay selective in what makes the most sense in the long-run for your business, which includes yourself, your customers, and your employees.
Maintaining your original vision can be difficult, but it promotes an unrivaled sense of integrity and purpose that your customer base and the public at large will be able to clearly see, solidifying and substantiating your brand’s presence in the market.
5) ...But Don’t Fear Change
At the same time, we know that no industry ever stays the same for long, so neither can your business. Making smart, strategic changes to your brand, product, or company as a whole can bring about positive growth, both externally for your customers and internally for your employees.
Staying Proactive and Reactive
Being competitive in any industry means adopting both proactive and reactive strategies. While you should always be able to forecast and stay ahead of what’s coming, no one can predict the future and you need to be nimble enough to respond to what’s happening now.
One clear, trusty example is the difference between businesses who’ve failed to adapt to the incredible boom of e-commerce and those who quickly rose to the occasion. You can’t ignore something that will have a profound effect on the way customers are actually able to purchase or interact with your products and services.
Not only do you have to embrace change, but you should think of how you can make the change in a more unique and effective way. Moving your business online? Great, now make your website’s user experience better than the rest.
Change is arguably the best way to grow, and growth — fast growth — is essential to having a chance at making it and standing out. If you’re growing rapidly, that probably means that you have a great idea that’s perfect for a specific market. Growth is also a big reason why you’ll get more funding, because if you’re not growing, then you’re likely running out of business.
Concepts like these (change, growth) are vague and obtuse on the surface, so to make them more concrete and tangible, you need to make sure you’re equipped to collect and gather insights from all kinds of data that you decide is relevant to your business.
Change and growth can and must happen at all levels of a business, including with your:
- Business structure
- Products or services
Monitoring the data within these kinds of categories will help you develop both your proactive and reactive business strategies. Some examples would be:
- Business structures — what do success rates look like for the different types?
- Employees — what do the statistics say is improving productivity?
- Products or services — what are your best-selling products and why?
- Suppliers — what’s their average return rate?
- Competition — how is their site performing?
Speaking of competition, staying on top of what they’re doing really is crucial to staying relevant and continued growth, so read more about ways to monitor them.
6) Find & Retain the Right Team
Think of your startup as your kid, which as you know, takes a village to raise. Every startup, then, needs a team — the right team. But what does the right team look like?
Getting Through It All, Together
Besides choosing people who believe in your mission, the two factors to use to guide your team-making decisions are:
It’s no secret that everyone working at a startup needs to be able to wear many hats...and shoes, and pants, and shirts, and so on. So versatility is non-negotiable.
It’s also no secret that startups are startups because of the endless obstacles they’ll face, and the endless big changes they’ll have to make, so teams that recover together, stay together.
It’s also been found that startups with two founders have higher success rates than those with just one. An analysis done by Josh Hannah, founder of Betfair, showed that the percentage of successful startups with two co-founders was 47.5%, while successful startups with just a single founder made up 20% of that pie. Why?
Being a co-founder means that you’re in a partnership, which means that there’s more accountability for each and every decision you make, allowing you to avoid easy-to-make mistakes. There’s likely a balancing act of skills and mentalities, so long as your partner isn’t afraid to disagree with you.
Fun fact: Tommy John was founded by both Patterson and his now-wife Erin.
The right team is also one that you care about — you care about their overall well-being and the part their work plays in that. And you’ve hired them because you know they are willing to invest a big part of themselves in what you’re trying to accomplish.
If you want them to keep investing in you with their time and skills, they need to feel like you’re investing in them, too, by treating them like more than cogs in your machine. This goes beyond whatever you can budget into their paychecks.
Keep up on what the research says creates a happy employee and productive work environment (Flexible work hours? Stock options? Bonus programs? Gym memberships? Office outings?), but don’t forget to simply listen to them. Give them appropriate outlets for giving you feedback about what’s good and what could be better, and stay transparent about what’s feasible.
7) Accept & Learn From Failure Again & Again
The same way cliches are often true, so is the fact that success is never guaranteed. But what can probably be guaranteed is that behind every success story is not just failure, but a laundry list of failures. In fact, according to Fortune, 90% of startups fail. But try not to let this number stop you in your tracks.
Turning Failures Into Lessons
Similar to the way we transformed weaknesses into strengths, you need to think of failures as challenges to either overcome or learn from. What kind of challenges should you expect?
The leading causes of startup death, which happen to reinforce all the steps above, are as follows:
- No market need — 42%
- Ran out of money — 29%
- Not the right team — 23%
- Get outcompeted — 19%
- Pricing / cost issues — 18%
- Poor product — 17%
- Need / lack business model — 17%
- Poor marketing — 14%
- Ignore customers — 14%
- Product mis-timed — 13%
- Lose focus — 13%
- Disharmony on team / investors — 13%
- Pivot gone bad — 10%
- Lack passion — 9%
- Bad location — 9%
- No financing / investor interest — 8%
- Legal challenges — 8%
- Don’t use network / advisors — 8%
- Burnout — 8%
- Failure to pivot — 7%
Use this list as a way to prepare and potentially avoid these failures. If they happen anyway, dust off and try again, which you will if you’ve truly found that passion we were talking about.
Remember, these are only the most common checkpoints that successful startups and entrepreneurs like Tom Patterson have encountered on their paths to success, which means there’s the rest of the map that’s left for you to draw.
Let these guide you, but be willing to revolutionize — pave roadways where none have existed before.
Meet The Author: This insightful guide on how to achieve success as a startup was a collective effort between individuals committed to sharing actionable insights for budding entrepreneurs. A special thanks to Steve James for diving in and gathering thoughts from industry leaders.