I recently asked several friends what it means to be successful in their careers. More specifically, how they knew they were successful.
Many mentioned their monthly salary, promotions and positive feedback from their colleagues and managers as indicators that they must be doing something right.
For start-uppers, these indicators often don’t apply. Here is why:
- You pay yourself, often less than you would earn working as an employee.
- You are already the top decision-maker, on top of doing everything else. From HR to accounting and marketing… anything goes when you’re starting out and trying to save costs where you can.
- Many will say how proud they are that you started your own thing, and how well you are doing. While this is very endearing (and helps keep you going), it is not a true reflection of your professional success.
So, how does one gauge their success in a start-up? Obviously, the revenue your start-up generates, and your customers’ feedback should tell you that you’re still on the right path. But what if you’re in the – often psychologically debilitating – pre-revenue generating stage? And what if you’re still trying to pin down the right target market?
How do you know whether you will continue having success as an individual in your start-up?
Below some of my own indicators of success. They might surprise you:
#1: You keep making mistakes
Failures are only failures if you don’t learn from them. If you don’t pick yourself up and dust yourself off.
In fact, success comes from failing again and again. Consider Steve Jobs. He was fired from Apple and failed with two projects before returning to achieve amazing things at Apple.
Or AirBnB. Before getting their target market right, the company and its owners were in so much debt that they had to sell cereal boxes! Being in so much debt forced them to become creative and more money-savvy. I doubt they would have become so successful if they hadn’t been in such a pickle.
These people achieved success because they failed. The difference between them and everyone else is that they kept going.
Personal experience: I’ve made several mistakes: Working with the “wrong” people, getting involved with the “wrong” companies and spending money on the “wrong” things. “Wrong” is in quotation marks, because “wrong” often turns into a “right” if you see it for what it is. These were all lessons I had to learn, so that I could set myself up for success in the long-run. These were all opportunities that built my confidence and shaped me into a better entrepreneur. I failed successfully.
So, if you keep butting your head against a wall, don’t despair. The fact that you even found that wall means you’re moving forward. Keep making the right mistakes that stretch you as an entrepreneur and allow you to learn valuable lessons.
#2: You work and connect with the right people
This is a big one. Working with the right people who are competent, self-motivated and who “get” your vision is already a fantastic indicator and factor of your success. Hiring the right team members and/or consultants means that you are identifying like-minded individuals who can help achieve your goals. And it shows that you know who you need on your team to give your start-up the best possible chance.
The same applies to other organisations that your start-up becomes involved with, whether through outsourcing or as a strategic partner.
Personal experience: I founded The Happiness Network and Brownie Points with one of my best friends. This was a natural progression from spending so much time dreaming and fine-tuning our vision for many years. I had never worked with him before, but thought that there were enough commonalities and intrinsic trust for us to make a great team. At first, it all seemed to go well. However, eventually it turned out that we often butted heads and were almost competitive in “having it our way”. He also seemed to thrive more in a more structured and established organisation that provided more security and certainty. Ending our partnership was the hardest thing I’ve ever done since working in a start-up.
I also almost signed a yearly contract with a start-up coaching company that would cost us thousands. There were no indicators that this was a mistake: Our coach checked in with us regularly over 3 months, and gave us the right nudges to keep on moving forward. We seemed to have a lot of rapport and he assured me that his main concern was to help us achieve our goals and make our start-up a success. When he sent me the contract, I had to swallow hard and really consider whether spending this money would really contribute significantly to achieving our goals. I had to turn him down, but told him that we would review our relationship once we had more funding. He never replied to my email.
On a more positive note, I’ve also experienced what it means to work with the right people and companies. Every single person I work with now is pushing me and our start-up to be the best it can be. Our tech consulting partner, Unboxed Consulting, continues to delight me. Not just because of the outstanding work they do, but also because they show how much they truly care about our success. When your outsourcer is giving you advice that saves your start-up thousands, at their own expense, then you know you’re working with the right team.
#3: You focus on your vision
I’ve read stories about entrepreneurs starting with a grand vision and ending with selling the start-up for millions, without having made their vision a reality.
While this might be an indicator that buyers bought into their idea and were willing to pay a fair buck for it, would this mean that you were successful? Even if having millions in your bank account meant you never brought your vision to its full potential?
This is just one example of differences between financial success and actually making your start-up a success.
Personal experience: We were approached to sell Brownie Points. While this would have been “the easy way out” and filled up our pockets, the buyer had little knowledge of the nonprofit and impact sector. We had to ask ourselves: Is it worth selling out, even though our vision for Brownie Points would never come to fruition? It wasn’t.
Another indicating factor for me, is whether every decision I make contributes or aligns to our vision. We recently had to decide on the message we’d like to convey through our marketing channels to show how we are different to our competitors. Instead of using some exaggerated statements to help us stand out, we simply referred directly to our vision of “building impact success stories”. Easy peasy.
If your pending decision does not in some or other way relate to your vision, don’t do it. Prioritising your resources and activities to steer your start-up towards your vision one tiny step at a time reflects your success as much as increasing revenues and happy customers. If not more than.
#4: You enjoy what you do
This for me is the best indicator of success as a start-up professional. Especially when you first start out and it’s tough to keep going.
So many working professionals, including start-uppers, experience a decrease in the joy they derive from the work they do. How can you deem yourself successful if you spend most of your day, week, month and life just going through the motions? Being successful means feeling successful. You can only feel successful if you’re enthusiastic about what you do.
Personal experience: Every day, I check in with my tasks and with myself. Do I find joy in what I do? And does it give me meaning and purpose? If the answer is no, I stop immediately and focus on something else, before getting back to it, or changing it in such a way that I do enjoy it. That makes me feel successful.
#5: You impact others positively
Impacting others’ lives positively is not only a fantastic philosophy, but also a brilliant business model. If your product can solve a problem for others, help them better themselves and/or their surroundings or impact them – even in the slightest way – you already have a head start into creating a successful start-up and being a successful person.
When all is said and done, how you influenced others and made them feel, is all that matters. This pertains to everyone you come into contact with, including the ones benefitting from your product.
Personal experience: If I deal with anyone and I cannot leave them feeling even slightly better than before, I don’t do it. This comes across everything I say and do, from emails to meetings and the products I come up with.
And that’s why The Happiness Network and Brownie Points are not only a service and a philanthropy platform, but are embodiments of everything I base my life on.
We all need feedback on whether we are achieving something, on whether we’re successful and how our work impacts others. For start-ups, it can take years before seeing tangible results and revenues of your efforts.
Until that time comes, keep learning, connecting, visualising, enjoying and impacting.