I’ve had my own business since I was 9 years old. I’ve started, bought, sold and helped out in many different kinds of businesses over the thirty some odd years since then.
I’ve done everything I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve had a lot of fun. Some of the highlights: I worked on Wall Street, I helped take a company public and I threw one of the biggest VC names in the country out of my office. I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the online and offline space, and I’ve seen the insides of a lot of the biggest companies in the US.
I made my first million the old fashioned way — I worked my butt off. And I’ve got a lot to show for it, for which I am both humble and grateful. Understand this — I am a successful entrpreneur and I am proud of it.
Why am I sharing all of this with you? I’m getting there.
People always ask me if I have any advice for being successful. They ask if I could name the things I think have contributed the most to my success. I’d like to share my observations from thirty years of business experience. They are applicable both online and offline.
Here are my top ten tips for success:
1. Always make sure all of your emails and phone calls get returned. I make a lot of contacts and requests via email, phone or even in person. I am absolutely shocked at the number of people who don’t bother to return the request. It is classless and disrespectful to ignore someone’s request, and it makes them angry. Angry people tell other people how you have wronged them. The fewer people out there talking ill about you the better.
When I was at Modem Media I got between 1000 – 3000 emails a day. I was buried in emails. My assistant went in and cleared out emails when she could, forwarding the ones she knew she or one of my underlings could handle. But she left the rest for me. I would spend at least an hour a day returning them. Sometimes all I said was Call so-and-so or Thanks for the heads-up, but most of them got answered. The priority was clients, then managers then normal people. If you’re not going to answer correspondence from clients or peers, don’t give anyone your email address. Funny thing about most of us…if you have an email address and invite us to use it, we expect an answer. I’ve written three emails to Darren Rouse at ProBlogger.net. He has not answered a single one. While I think some of his stuff is pretty good, I find his unresponsiveness disappointing and I don’t find him as authoritative as I used to.
I sent an email to the President of Staples (the office supply chain) on a Saturday afternoon a few years ago. I got a personal response from him the next day (Sunday), and we resolved my problem with the help of one of his EVPs. If he can respond to one of my emails, so can Darren Rouse.
2. Help anyone who asks. It doesn’t matter what it is — if someone asks you to help them and you can do it, do it. Whether it entails rolling up your sleeves, writing a check, giving some valuable time or just answering a question from someone who doesn’t know as much as you, suck it up and do it.
3. Always know more than most people about your industry or business. I’ve always been a technologist, so this has been engrained in me since I was 16. Read about things in your field every day. Go to a seminar or trade show every now and then. Participate in discussions or forums, on or off-line. It will keep you connected to the people in your industry and make you a guru. The Internet is an amazing tool for getting this done.
4. Treat your employees like gold, because they are. In my own businesses my employees get away with a lot. They are well paid, get surprise perks all the time and can come and go as they please. Some take advantage, but they don’t last long. Being a jerk to your employees will always come back to bite you. It will also mean that you’ll get hosed a few times, but you probably would have anyway.
Make the workplace fun, comfortable and as casual as you can. Show your employees by example how you want them to treat customers and co-workers. They are going to follow your lead. If they hate coming to work it will show in what you produce.
At Modem Media I organized a yearly barbeque in the front parking lot. We had pork, BBQ sauce from Texas and lots of other stuff I’m not going to get into here. It was a small gesture but it went a long way.
5. Acknowledge everyone who helps you advance, especially those who did not gain from it. This is another thing that I am shocked more people haven’t caught on to. I said in an earlier post that I regularly comb my log files for people who have social bookmarks pointing to this blog site and send them a quick email thanking them. I stopped counting the number of people who email me back shocked that I would take the time to thank them. Why shouldn’t I? They took time out to help promote my blog, and got nothing in return. A thank you acknowledges their time and effort and solidifies them as an ally. Trust me…you need all the allies you can get.
6. Befriend your competitors. This is another one that should be second nature. Yes, you are all competing for customers, but you’re all frogs in the same pot of boiling water. I own the biggest wine shop in my hometown. If we don’t have something that a customer wants we will call another shop and see if the customer can get it there. It was a shock to both customers and competitors that I would send customers to another store. It say it’s good for the customer, so it’s good business.
7. Keep your sense of humor…it’s huge. My second day at Modem Media I was sent to John Hancock’s Boston HQ. Modem had been working on Hancock’s online/offline strategy for months. It wasn’t finished and there was a lot of tension. After two days me and the head marketing weenie were called on the carpet by a screaming middle manager.
She said You have been disappointing me for two months! and continued reaming us. I waited a few beats and said Excuse me…I have only been disappointng you for a couple of days. Color drained from the marketing weenie’s face, but I could tell the client was trying hard to keep from bursting out in laughter.
8. Overdeliver to your customers, let them know you are watching out for their business, and treat them like friends. I spent a lot of time on the Compaq campus in Houston. We were competing with Price Waterhouse for Compaq Direct’s technical business and PW had the ear of Compaq’s CTO or CFO or some such person.
But I had the trust of the person directly under that exec, and he was the one doing the work. My team was on top of everything, and we covered his back. He knew he could count on us, and he knew that we could help him navigate the jungle. We lost the account for a while, but we still had a retainer for me to fly in once a month to help out. I would fly out there, we would have lunch and I would fly back. Sometimes the conversation was technical, sometimes it was marketing-related and sometimes it was purely personal.
We eventually got the contract back because my guy knew we were part of his success, and he knew he could count on us.
9. Get a hobby, hot tub, motorcycle, drag race car, whatever. You need a transition away from business to something else. Make sure you have one. It will give your mind an opportunity to disengage and allow you to background process all of the stuff you are thinking about. Moving stuff from the conscious mind to the subconscious mind is like exercising using different muscles — it will help get results. I can’t tell you how many times I have resolved problems while riding on my motorcycle.
10. Be very careful who you choose to advise you, but have a go-to team, and always defer to someone smarter than you. People mean well, but it takes far less courage to poke holes in someone’s idea than it does to accentuate the positive. Keep some solid advisors around you. I have a team of all-stars that includes my wife (very practical), my attorney (one of the best business attorneys in the US), my other attorney (one of my good friends and another practical guy), and my accountant (very serious but very financially adept).
I think I know everything and I will defend my positions viciously. All of my advisors are smarter than me about something, and often they can convince me to go to their side because I remember that.
One last observation — don’t give up.
Regardless of the crap you read about getting rich quick, it doesn’t happen that way most of the time. Some of us make it look easy, but it isn’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it.