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Word to the Wise

What's the key to entrepreneurial success? That is probably the question I am most often asked. I don't believe there is only one answer to that question, but here are a few factors to consider:

  • Treat your people well. Your business is only as good as the people who work for you. Treat them with respect and dignity, and chances are, that's how they'll handle your clients and customers. Employees want more than a paycheck from you. Give them a forum to make suggestions, allow them to make decisions and let them feel they truly make a difference to your company.
  • Listen to your customers. Sounds so basic, I know, but you'd be surprised how many businesses don't. Talk to your customers (e-mail is a great way to do this, but don't spam them). Ask for their suggestions. Pay attention to their feedback. They know what they want and what you are and are not giving them.
  • Sell, sell, sell. Marketing and sales are the keys to any business' survival. Even the best products or services will go unbought if no one knows they exist. Clever marketing can turn OK products into sales phenomena. Take Domino's Pizza. They took two ordinary concepts (pizza and food delivery), added a marketing promise (getting you your pizza in a half an hour or your money back) and made billions of dollars.
  • Be flexible. One of the factors that sets you apart from your corporate brethren is your ability to turn on a dime. As your company grows, it's easy for you to get bogged down with what you're doing and lose this trait. Make sure as you grow, you don't become so myopically focused on what you're doing that you can't quickly change direction.
  • Admit your weaknesses. Don't try to do it all yourself. Many entrepreneurs tend to define themselves as Superman or Wonder Woman, thinking no one can do as good a job as they can when it comes to their businesses. And so many of you are blind to your own faults. None of us is perfect. Understand what your weaknesses are, and make sure you're not gumming up the works by micromanaging or doing tasks you're just not well-suited for.
  • Check your ego. Entrepreneurial companies are more dependent than larger enterprises on teamwork. And just because you're the boss doesn't mean you're not a part of the team. "Because I said so" may work when you're talking to a toddler, but it won't motivate your staff.
  • Embrace change. Change is scary for most of us. But you didn't let fear interfere with you becoming an entrepreneur, so don't let it stop you now. I've said it before, but I truly believe this is key to your success: If it ain't broke, go ahead and break it.
  • Stay on the sunny side of the street. As you well know, being an entrepreneur can be tough. There's a lot of rejection, a lot of mistakes, a lot of challenges. But you're only going to succeed if you know you're going to. So while you can allow yourself an occasional wallow, make sure you get out of the negative mud quickly and, as the old ditty goes, accentuate the positive.
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Executive editor Maria Anton's 1-year old daughter, Alexandra, knows four words. She is only one short of the lexicon of a successful entrepreneur. Her first word was "uh-oh." When you make a mistake, admit it. This clears the air and allows you and your staff to take corrective action. Next came "thank you." This one's obvious: Always acknowledge a gift, a kindness or a good deed. Her third word was "hi," which she says with a six-toothed grin. If you're in retail, it's especially important to greet all customers with a smile and a warm "hello." And finally there's "no." Saying "no" is an important component of managing time and projects. And even though I told you earlier to keep your ego in check, there will be times you need to say "no" to clients, customers and staff.

Maria thinks Alexandra said "yes" last night. And that would round out all the words you really need to succeed. "Yes" is an extraordinarily powerful word. Make sure you use it wisely.

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Word to the Wise.

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