Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Secret of Success

So many books are written about how to be successful. There are plenty of webinars and seminars you can attend. Their pitch is that there's a "secret" to success and all you have to do is pay a few dollars to hear it. Trust me, the secret is not that mysterious. In fact, I'll give you the answer for free.

The secret of success is never failing.

Wow! Really Kev? Is that all there is to it? Man, I'm gonna get rich now with that fantastically sage advice!

But seriously, that is the key. Making mistakes isn't failing. Having to change directions isn't failing. Losing battles isn't failing. You only fail by coming to a complete stop.

No matter how bad it gets you can never, never, never stop pushing forward. There can be no option for failure. The problem is that people don't really understand the true meaning of failure. They think that success is getting rich in six months without any pain or problems. They think successful people have some magical skills that keep them from making big mistakes. They think admitting you did something wrong is the same as failing.

Pursuing perfection is great. Requiring perfection is crap. It's an excuse to quit. Successful people fail often, they just don't slow down long enough to let anyone know it. You could say that success is movement.

In a previous company of mine, I had to shut down an online service in which we had invested more than a million dollars of effort and equipment. It was painful and embarrassing but it was not failing. The service was flawed and was bleeding cash. The solution became very obvious to me one day: We had to kill it to keep the company going. In that case, failure would have been hanging on to that boat anchor and continuing to swim with it.

I had a sales trainer who made the analogy of success being similar to a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. In the beginning, the pilot and navigator chart a southwestern course to their destination but the runway used required a takeoff facing east. After the plane took off, they make a banking turn and head southwest towards Hawaii. During the flight, they run into wind shears that cause them to head due south for a while and then due west after that. Several more course corrections are made that take them off their exact planned flight path. Should the pilot have given up and shut off the engines because the plane wasn't always facing directly towards Hawaii? Certainly not. I believe stopping in mid flight would definitely qualify as failure.

The same goes for a business. There will always be something that makes you want to shut off the engines and walk out of the cockpit. Sales are lower than projections, milestones are missed, technology gets in the way—all these and more will make you feel like failure is giving you the stink eye. The trick is to flip each and every one of these around and use them to your advantage.

Low sales are a chance to reinvent your marketing or products. Missed milestones give you an opportunity to learn to set more realistic dates the next time. Technology glitches? Yeah, they just suck. But knowing that they happen and will continue to happen gives you an edge over those that will give up when they hit the same wall you did. Think about it. If you know that most people give up and let a business die when things get tough, you can zip past them just by not stopping. You can even crawl and win a race against a corpse.

We hit a small wall this week and it was not fun, but it has only hardened my resolve to charge forward. My first employee was hired away by a large corporation. This was our decision and not some corporate espionage. It takes a lot of cash flow to run our household of three older teens, and even with cost cutting we knew we couldn't continue this burn rate very much longer. Our compromise was to have Judy get a job closer to home with shorter hours so she could continue to help with No Thirst Software and also contribute to our financial needs.

The tough part is that this felt like a failure on my part. Things may have been different if I had stockpiled more cash in the last two years or cut expenses earlier or programmed faster so we were selling MoneyWell 1.4 and an iPhone version. These are all great ideas, but also all in the past. I can't change any of them now and lamenting about what didn't get done will not help us on our success path.

We are successful. We have a great product lineup that is only getting better with each release. We have thousands of customers praising our work and asking for more. And the greatest success: We had a chance to work together for weeks and strategize about how to improve operations and the company in general. What was done and learned in that short period of time has strengthened our microISV beyond any financial investment.

What's the secret to success? Stay positive. Learn from everything you do—and fail to do. And most of all, stay the course. You and your passengers are not going to be any happier if you shut down your engines at 20,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. Success is simply continuing forward. Never stop.