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Starting Your Own Business: 50 Keys to Success

Updated on June 28, 2010

So, you have decided to start your own business. You have subsequently gone online, trying to research on the subject of entrepreneurship. And one disconcerting comment that keeps on coming up, wherever you look, is the one to the effect that ‘starting your own business is not as easy as it seems.’ You keep coming across resources quoting the commonly cited dismal piece of statistic: that well over 90% of all new business enterprises started don’t live past their infancy. And quite naturally, you don’t want the enterprise you are looking to start to be part of those bleak statistics. Rather, you want it to be one of the 10% that go past their infancy, and one of the less than 1% that actually flourish in the long run. And to help you in that regard, you are looking for advice on how you can make your new enterprise shine. …

While don’t pretend to have all the answers, we have compiled a list of 50 keys to success when starting your own business, which we will now go to present to you, in the hope that they will help you in your endeavor to be successful in your new enterprise. They are not in any particular order though. Each is just as important as the next or the previous.

  1. Structure your new business towards the fulfillment of a real societal need: Get into the research mode. Try brainstorming. Anything that can help you identify a real societal need upon which your need business enterprise is to be founded. Businesses that succeed are business whose operations are geared toward the fulfillment of a real societal need. Of course, the need that you identify need not be unique. You don’t have to be the first one to discover it (you can always compete with those who have already done so). But the need does have to be there. It has to be a real need. And its fulfillment has to make business sense (so that the people who have it, and the amounts of money they are willing to spend towards its fulfillment justifies your creation of a business venture towards its fulfillment). Take note that businesses which fail in their infancy tend to be businesses which were founded towards the fulfillment non-existent needs. Work on your description of a need too: it does have to be something that a person can spend their hard-earned cash on.
  2. Create an effective business plan around the need you identify as the foundation for your business. At this stage, we are not even talking about the business plan you use for sourcing capital – you know, the one with an executive summary, production plan, financing plan, marketing plan and so on. That too, will be essential at some later point. But at this early point, the focus is on a practical business plan. A relevant question would be, for instance: now that I have identified a real societal need, how can I make money fulfilling it? What products can I create towards the fulfillment of that societal need? How would I structure those products, taking into consideration the reality on the ground? How would I price those products, again, considering the reality on the ground? It is answers to questions like these that would give you the practical business plan that you really need at this point.
  3. Source for adequate business finance: remember, one of the leading causes of new business failure is lack of adequate capital. You can use your own resources, borrow or enlist the help of other financiers (with a promise of equity in the business) in order to get the financing for it. Of course, you needn’t be extravagant in your need for capital. What we are saying, when we talk of the need for adequate financing is not that you need all the money in the world. Rather the implication is that you should work out what the initial operations of your new business are likely to cost (making generous provisions for various unforeseeable contingencies), and then ensure that you have adequate money for that.
  4. Create effective business systems: without proper business systems, your new enterprise will have very slim chances for success. Incidentally, when we talk of systems in this context, we are simply referring to ‘standardized ways of doing things.’ What we are saying is that you need standardized ways of doing the various things that make up your business operations. Did you know why some people are prisoners to their businesses, so that the moment they go out for an hour, things have gone haywire by the time they come back? It is because they didn’t invest in the creation of effective business systems. Yet all the investment required here is that of analyzing your various business operations, and then standardizing them, making everyone in the business aware of the standardized ways of doing things so created and ensuring that nobody deviates from them.
  5. Try to get the best people possible: they may be a little expensive, but they are usually worth their value in gold. And then again, there are ways through which you can get good people cost-effectively – like, for instance, hiring highly talented and enthusiastic fresh graduates (who don’t usually ask for too much), employing untrained but enthusiastic people  (whom you go on to train on the job) and so on. Remember, the combination of good people and effective business systems is, more or less, all you really need to succeed in a business, as long as the business is geared towards the fulfillment of a real societal need.
  6. Make everything that is done in the business to be customer-satisfaction-focused: everything, from your human resource management policies, to your production systems, to your accounting and marketing systems should be geared towards improving your customer experience. Here, you would be looking to combat the apathetic feeling which exists in many poor businesses, to the effect that ‘customer care is the province of the marketing department alone.’
  7. Learn from your (business) mistakes: in spite of your best efforts, you will make mistakes. Don’t get bitter about them. Learn from them. Then ensure that you don’t repeat that. That is what will make you wise.
  8. Learn from your successes: the guiding question here should be: what did I do right the last time I succeed? Don’t just celebrate success. Even as you celebrate them, take a moment to learn from them, on what you did right to bring them about. Then do it again and again, and you will be successful in business.
  9. Have fun, every step of the way: this way, even if the business does not succeed, you will know that, at least, you had fun. But experience has shown that people who have fun in what they do tend to be the people who go on to be most successful. So have fun as you do the various things that make up your business, and you increase chances of success.
  10. Handle matters one day at a time: it is important to be forward looking, you know, to be future oriented in business. But after laying the plans for the future, focus on today’s tasks, because when all is said and done, the future you so much yearn for will be a ‘today’ one day. While still here, don’t carry over yesterday’s issues to today. Resolve issues and move on. Every day is a new beginning.
  11. Keep refining your systems: systems, as we said before, are standardized ways of doing things in the business. Now creating the business systems is one step to success. But the ultimate key to success, once the systems are in place, is to keep refining them – in line with emerging realities. You should dedicate some time, weekly or even daily (depending on the fluency of your business), to examine your systems and see if there might be something that needs to be changed.
  12. Learn from your competition: you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If there are some things that your competition seems to be getting right, don’t hesitate to copy them into your enterprise, and improve on them to be even better. You don’t have to be 100% original. You don’t even need to be.
  13. Distinguish yourself: the idea here is to make an impression in your potential customers’ minds. Your business, and especially your products, should be distinctive in some way (a positive way of course), so that your customer can have a reason to buy from you, and not from your competition.
  14. Be a leader: the accent here is that you should be a leader, and not a boss. A boss commands people to do things. They only do those things right when he is watching. They do the things with resentment burning deep in them. Then they let them go downhill when the boss is not watching. The leader is different. He influences people to do things - by showing them how they stand to benefit from them. He tries to get them to do the things out of their own will. He builds intrinsic motivation. The people eventually come to ‘own’ the tasks, and do them well even when they are not being watched. They do things out of personal initiative, with feelings of enthusiasm, rather than feelings of resentment.
  15. Learn conflict management: issues will always arise, as long as you are doing business. It could be issues with customers, or issues with employees or issues with suppliers or any other stakeholders. The key to effective conflict management is to show that, firstly, you respect the other party and secondly, that you are willing to ensure that fairness prevails at the end of it all (even where it is you who has been wronged). Sometimes, you are forced to be firm, so that your interests are not trampled upon, without being orally harsh. Without effective conflict management skills, you may find the entrepreneurial life too ‘stressing’ for you to continue taking.
  16. Get into the thick of things: you need, at least for some time, to get into the actual business operations, in order to experience business reality from the ground. Try not to be an office boss: the variety that sits in the office all day (unless, of course, your business happens to be completely office-bound). Rather, try to get into business operations – but go there as one of the actors, rather than as a master out to supervise his slaves (because once the staff get this feeling, they will inevitably develop feelings of resentment, you know, something to the effect that you are micro-managing them, and their morale will get a huge beating).
  17. Maintain work-life balance: chances are that you going into business so that you can earn more money and be in a position to enjoy life better. Don’t mess it up by getting so deep into business that you have no time for yourself or your family. If you invest in developing proper business systems and recruiting good workers, then chances are that you won’t need to be a prisoner to your business and you can then be in a position to ‘have a life’ while still building a successful business.
  18. Learn how to delegate: the earlier you get to terms with the facts that you can’t do everything, that you don’t actually need to, that others can do things just as well as you,  the better will business life be for you. It is true that when you delegate, things don’t necessarily get done your way. But the ‘other way’ they get done could actually prove to be the better way in the long run. Delegation becomes very easy when you have invested in the development of proper business systems, and recruitment of competent people.
  19. Communicate your vision to others: as the entrepreneur trying to start your own business, you carry the vision for the enterprise. Others won’t initially see things your way. It is up to you to sell your vision to them, and do it so persistently that they eventually buy it.
  20. Keep books (right from the first day): whatever the nature of your enterprise, don’t start out with the idea that you will start keeping books ‘when the business grows big.’ Many start that way, and before they know it, the enterprise has gone out of hand, and they don’t know whether they are making a profit, making a loss or doing what. True, at the beginning of it all, you may not have enough money to hire an accountant or even to set up an elaborate accounting system. But you need at least to have a book, with a backup somewhere, where you keep a record of all the money that goes in and all the money that comes into the business, so that you can know what you are doing.
  21. Be rational: this is another way to say that you need to use the so-called common sense in your business decisions. Entrepreneurs are often accused of being over-optimistic, and this is something you may be guilty of, as you go about starting your own business. The antidote for this is simply being rational – maintaining a proper sense of what is possible and what is impossible, but without putting undue limitations on yourself.
  22. Keep a sense of perspective (your business is not you): don’t pressure yourself too much in pursuit of your business objectives. Try to keep in memory the sense of the difference between you and your business. Remember, your business is not you. Even if your business comes to failure, it is not you, personally, who will have failed. Don’t push yourself too much. Incidentally, when you develop this kind of attitude, you gain the necessary detachment which can help you attain higher levels of success.
  23. Be reasonable (especially with others): in all undertakings, do unto others as you would want done to you if you were in their position – whether they happen to be employees, suppliers or customers.
  24. Develop empathy: this is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes. It is an elaboration on the earlier mentioned point of being reasonable with others, but it is worth of a mention in its own right. Inasmuch as your new business enterprise can help you develop and perfect empathy, it would be going a long way towards making you a better person. And when all is said and done, this may prove to be the greatest benefit you get out of the business: a greater benefit than even the money you make out of the venture. But to succeed in business in the first place, you certainly need to put yourself in the shoes a customer, an employee, a supplier (or any other stakeholder), try to visualize what you could expect from the business if were you in their position, and then ensure that those who happen to have such relationships to your business get those expectations met through the systems you create.
  25. Look for inspiration (to keep you running, after the initial adrenaline rush is over): after some point, the initial adrenaline rush that comes with the very thought of starting your own business (and being your own boss) runs out. But you need enthusiasm, if you are to succeed in the business; hence the need to look for inspiration, either inside or outside of yourself, for you to keep running.
  26. Don’t fear competition: in a free market economy, competition is a fact of life. Don’t fear it, or attempt to make moves aimed at maliciously driving them out of business. Such moves can, and often backfire badly. Rather, find ways of distinguishing your business and your products so that customers can flock to you, rather than to the competition.
  27. Develop intra-preneurship: this is about making every person in the business develop the business way of thinking. Let them see the connection between your business’ performance and what eventually gets into their own pockets. Everyone in the business should have the entrepreneurial mindset. Of course, it is up to you to cultivate that mindset in them. It will be difficult at first, but the benefits from it are well worth it. In fact, it is only inasmuch as you can develop this entrepreneurial mindset within the members of the organization that you can expect it to ‘run on auto.’
  28. Watch the law: you will succeed more in business if you remain on the right side of the law. Corner cutting moves often prove expensive in the long run. Following the right procedures might seem expensive and cumbersome at first, but it is often well worth it. If you decide to cut corners, you may feel that you are ‘doing it as part of your entrepreneurial work’ but when you are eventually caught, be assured that you will be treated in the same way as a common criminals and that can be rather demeaning for a self-respecting citizen.
  29. Keep your eye on the ball: what do you want out of the business? Is it, as is the case with most people, to make a profit? Then ensure that everything you do is ultimately geared towards this goal. In other words, be focused, every step of the way. Ensure that you avoid making moves that may be detrimental to your ultimate objective.
  30. Keep a diary: this way, you can keep track of your successes and failures, and learn from them. The events on the diary can also form the notes for developing or refining your business systems. And no, if you are not a good writer, your diary need not be in fine prose. You can keep it in notes form, perhaps even in a code language that only you can understand…just for a sense of continuity. It is important.
  31. Develop persistence: chances are that you will encounter difficulties in your business initially. Don’t let those put you down. Don’t give up on the first sign of trouble. Keep on trudging on. But do change tact, where the failure or resistance seems to be a result of wrong tactics. Of course, this does not mean being foolhardy. Sometimes, facts may indicate that it is time to let go, and when that happens, you should do so gracefully. What we are against is the idea of giving up on the first sign of trouble.
  32. Learn to respect your plans: you are told that only well managed businesses succeed. Different people have different definitions of management. But do you know what the most comprehensive definition of the word management is? Well, management, at its most fundamental level is simply about ‘the making and implementation of plans.’ We are not advocating for stubbornness: where you won’t change your plans no matter what. If anything, you need to keep refining your plans. But once you have sound plans, you need to respect them, and see to it that they are unfailingly implemented. This, by the way, is what proper management boils down to, at the actionable level. 
  33. Be financially prudent – but not stingy: financial prudence is the key to success in business, and indeed to success in life. Unfortunately, some people confuse it with stinginess, and end up making major blunders. In the business context, when you confuse financial prudence with stinginess, you almost inevitably end up compromising on the standards (as you find it hard to release the purse strings, even where it is really necessary). The end result is a situation where your business suffers irreparable damage. Financial prudence is not about being stingy, but rather about applying (the often limited amounts of) money where it will have the greatest and most positive impact.
  34. Be fair: this is a further elaboration on the points about developing empathy and doing unto others as you would want them to do to you. But it is worth of a mention in its own right. If you are to be successful in business, whatever the nature of it, you need to be fair: to your customers, to your employees, to your suppliers…even to yourself. It sounds moralistic, but the number of businesses that have been ruined because of a lack of fairness on the part of the entrepreneurs promoting them is simply too huge. Of course, lack of fairness as a reason for business failure tends to manifest as an underlying reason, so that on the surface, other issues appear to be causing the business failure, but when you dig deeper, you realize that it is a lack of fairness on the part of the people behind it that is actually eating the business.
  35. Respect your employees: when you do this, you change the dynamics of motivation. Employees, in this new dispensation, avoid messing up not because of a fear of losing their jobs, but rather because of a fear of messing up the respectful relationship they will have built with you. And incidentally, this fear of messing up the respectful relationship established proves to be a much stronger motivation than the fear of losing a job. Respect your employees, and they start respecting your business, hence increasing its chances of success. Forgetting about the administrative aspects, truly effective human resource management ultimately boils down to this.
  36. Keep the cash flowing: cash-flow problems kill many young businesses. Don’t let yours be a victim of it. Keeping the cash flowing properly is not so much an issue of raising a lot of money as it is an issue of managing the money that is raised effectively and trying to make accurate business projections. Establishing alternate sources of funding and various lines of credit (even if you don’t get to use them) are other things you can to ensure that the cash flow in the business won’t be seriously interrupted at any point, especially during its youngest days when cash is like breast milk for the young business.
  37. Cultivate loyalty: this is about the people management aspect of the business. And when we talk about loyalty here, we are talking about loyalty from all stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers and so on. The way to do this is by making the people feel that they own the business (or the product, in the case of customers), in some way. It can make a lot of difference. On the part of employees and suppliers, it is things like respect, fairness and empathy that will ultimately result in loyalty from them. On the part of customers, it is the development of a product (and a brand) that they feel to be speaking personally to them and their aspirations that will ultimately lead to loyalty.
  38. Make a good choice of a proprietorship system: you can choose to be a sole proprietor for your business. You can choose to go into a partnership. You can choose to get into a limited liability company. Let nobody cheat you that any of these options is 100% good, or 100% bad. The truth of the matter is that each of these has an upside and a downside to it. It is in your best interests to research on these, seek for knowledgeable counsel where necessary, and ultimately make a wise choice of a system. The choice you make will have a huge impact on how much capital you will be able to put together, the extent to which you will be responsible for the business’ liabilities, who (if anyone) you will share the profits with, who (if anyone) you will have to consult to make business decisions and so on. You are therefore best advised to make a very careful choice here, rather than one dictated by the little circumstances of the moment.
  39. Make wise financing decisions: every bit of money that you get to put into the business will come at a cost. If you borrow, you will have to pay with interest. If you accept contributions from shareholders, you will have to share profits with them. Consider the consequences of any business finance decision you make very carefully, and ensure that you are prudent in whatever you do. Sometimes, a loan may, for instance, look expensive (in that you have to pay interest on it). On the other hand, investor money would look cheap…until you become awake to the fact that once the loan is repaid, you have no further obligation to the lender, whereas investor money gives the investors a lifelong interest in the business – right to share in profits, right to partake of decisions and so on. You therefore need to put a lot of thought into these considerations.
  40. Be passionate: people who go on to succeed greatly in their businesses share one thing in common: great passions for their businesses (and whatever the businesses are all about). Take note that contrary to many people’s conception, the passion in question is not just a passion to make money, but rather a passion for the activities of the business which, when brought to perfection, often results in great business success.
  41. Keep evolving: whatever business niche you find yourself in, one thing you can be sure is that the business dynamics will always be in a state of flux. The surest way to business failure is to let yourself (and your enterprise) stagnate. Yet that temptation to stagnate tends to be very strong, when you suddenly find systems that have previously worked for you being challenged. Two steps can come in handy here. The first is that of keeping an eye on the business landscape, and taking note of the changes as they shape up (because at any given moment, a change is always shaping up). The second is that of actually being willing to change when objective analysis shows that it would be in your business’ best interests to do so.
  42. Develop effective succession systems: when most of us hear this, we tend to only think of succession at the top, you know, succession for the top management. But in this context, we are talking of succession at all levels. This is about, for instance, having staff gain a basic understanding of what others in their department do, so that in case of a sudden departure, the business doesn’t have to grind to a halt. This is about creating an environment where employees who are considering moving to ‘greener pastures’ don’t have to hide their intention – a fate that many businesses where employees feel insecure tend to suffer. It doesn’t seem like too much of a key to business success, until you get to see a whole factory production floor ground to a halt because the folk lift driver failed to turn up, and nobody seems to have an idea on how to operate the thing!
  43. Find a mentor: contrary to what many of us imagine, the main thing you stand to get from a mentor is not knowledge as such (there are many alternative places to get this, after all), but rather a person to whom to be accountable for your goals and actions towards them. Your having to be accountable to someone will make you more committed to the goals, and increase your chances of being successful at the end of it all.
  44. Leverage on technology (and technology does not mean computers only!): when you perceive technology as anything that can help you do things better and cheaply, you see the opportunity to use it to improve your business, whatever the niche, nature or scale of business you find yourself in. Don’t invest in technology just for the sake of it, though. Undertake proper analysis to establish the cost-benefit implications of employing technology in the business. But avoid the mistake many people make of only looking at the short term cost-benefit analysis of employment of technology. In the short term, technology tends to be expensive. But in the longer term, it can lead to substantial cost savings and revenue gains. Take note that if your competitors get substantially ahead of you in technology, then the very real chance of them pushing you out of business arises. However tenacious a person may be, it would be very hard to run against a motor vehicle. A business well leveraged on technology has a similarly insurmountable advantage on one that isn’t making use of any technology.
  45. Ask questions: and more importantly, listen and act on the answers. The people to be addressed in the questions would include the employees, the customers and the suppliers – as well as any other party whose assistance can aid you as you go about starting your own business. The objective behind these questions should be to establish ways in which the business can be improved. But since it is not their business, you have to frame the questions so that they appear to be geared towards the respondent’s self interest: like where you want to know how you can improve the customers’ experience, how you can improve the employee’s welfare, how you can improve the suppliers’ liaison…and so on.
  46. Re-invest in the business: this is the only way the business will sustainably grow. In most cases where businesses fail, you tend to have a situation where the promoters decide to pocket all the profits, leaving the business to starve. This is akin to a farmer milking a cow and deciding to take away all the milk, leaving none for the calf to drink. It is likely to lead to a situation where, soon or later, there is absolutely no milk to be taken away. That said, it is also important to take something out of the business, so that in case it fails midcourse, you can be sure that you go something out of it. Just remember that the businesses that go on to be great successes tend to be businesses that are built with proceeds emanating from therein. Any other sort of money finding its way into the business would come at a great cost to the business, which is why reinvestment is often the best way to grow a business.
  47. Perfect your time management skills: here, we are getting into the aspect of self management for the entrepreneur. As you will discover soon after making the decision to go into business, there are so many things that require your attention as you go about starting your own business (even before the enterprise is up and running). Poor time management could lead to a situation where you get totally overwhelmed, and give up on the whole idea of starting your own business (this has happened to many people before you). Alternatively, it could lead to a situation where you have so little time to do the various essential things that you are forced to lower your standards; to end up in a situation where you bungle everything. Now time management is a subject for study unto itself, whose comprehensive coverage would require a tome of considerable volume. But inasmuch as you can take proper care of your minutes, you will find the hours, days, weeks, months and years ‘taking care of themselves.’
  48. Be ready for and embrace change: failure to embrace change has seen the demise of many businesses. Don’t let yours be a victim. Be on the lookout for the subtle changes shaping up, take note of their trend, and ensure your business is ready for any eventualities arising from thence.
  49. Perfect your negotiation skills: your negotiation skills will often be put to test in the course of your business operations. You better perfect them. And incidentally, it will not always be monetary negotiations. Sometimes, it will be negotiation with an employee to do something. Sometimes, it will be a negotiation with an agent from one or another authority. In the final analysis, the strength of your negotiation skills could go a long way in determining the success or otherwise of your new business enterprise. The ultimate key to effective negotiation lies in showing the other party that you have their best interests at heart, and that you truly respect them as people. But there are many other nuances to the negotiation process which you should make an effort to learn.
50.  Keep the vision alive: this will help keep you going even after the initial enthusiasm wears out, in the face of the challenges your business will encounter. These are the times when recalling your initial vision – what you got into business in search of – will become important to you. Once you let that initial vision die, your business venture could be doomed, for the good book does say that ‘where there is no vision, the people perish.’


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