First: Define Entrepreneurial Success

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How do I know when I’m successful as an entrepreneur? Do you ever realize, when you finally have a moment to catch your breath, that you’ve been so busy running your company that you haven’t had time to think strategically about where your company is really headed?  There’s a critically important, but sadly, rarely asked question that hopeful entrepreneurs should be asking themselves before they take the plunge into launching a new company:  How do I know when I’m successful?

Why is it important to ask this question up front?  It’s like a mission statement for an entrepreneur.  The answer to it will define what the objectives of starting the company are, so that the business model and strategic decisions are aligned with the ultimate objective the entrepreneur seeks to fulfill.  Without an end objective in mind, it’s like the Cheshire cat says in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

What defines success for an entrepreneur?

Success means different things to different people, and this carries over to defining business success.  Start by making a list of what in your life you have been most proud of.  Then develop a list of the top five things that are most important for you in your work.  These could be things like achievement, autonomy, solving problems, having fun, good people, learning or growth, motivating others, recognition, or any number of things you come up with on your own[1].

After you have both of these lists, look for the underlying themes.  Are you motivated by extrinsic factors, intrinsic factors, relationships, or achievement?  It typically boils down to either a business-orientation or a people-orientation[2].  Business-oriented people tend to prioritize power and achievement and are more focused on business growth, profitability, and innovativeness.  Softer success criteria like relationships and motivating others fall under the value orientations of the people-oriented entrepreneurs, who prioritize things like having satisfied stakeholders and a good work-life balance.

What does that mean for the road ahead?  This will help let you know what “enough” is.  Your objective as an entrepreneur will dictate how your business should be run, what type of company culture you should cultivate, and what your position should be in the firm.  Let’s look at a few key business decisions and how they would differ depending on which type of entrepreneur you are.

Business decisions:  As any successful business person knows, strategy is as much about what you don’t do as what you do.  Having a clear definition of what matters most to you and your organization will allow you to also say what will not be prioritized.  Create clear metrics around these top things, be they innovation, profitability, or satisfied customers.  Be the best at the things that matter the most to you, your organization, and your customers, and actively recognize that you will not be doing the rest.  And don’t feel bad about it – you can’t be all things to all people.

Company culture:  Ensure any incentive structures are aligned with and encourage your personal and company priorities.  If your personal objectives are to have achievement, recognition, and the business-orientation objectives, cultivating a culture of competition and merit based recognition would best suit you.  On the other hand, if you are a people-oriented entrepreneur, promoting collaboration, affiliation, and empowerment will be a more fulfilling culture.

Your role:  In addition to what activities you make a strategic priority, your objectives can guide what activities you personally take on.  Keeping in mind that you can’t do everything, recognize what you enjoy and excel at the most, and find additional resources to complement you in the other necessary areas.  For example, business-oriented entrepreneurs may outsource human resources work, while people-oriented entrepreneurs may need to be in a collaborative role, either internally or externally, versus one that would require them to work solo.

You are already well on your way to achieving success as long as you recognize the importance of defining your personal success, and can determine up front what success means to you.  No matter your definition of success, though, it is not something you find; it is something you make.  Luckily, the entrepreneur is no stranger to making something.  Good luck!

[1] Peak Learning, REAL Deal Exercise
[2] as found by a study of 150 Dutch small business owners investigating the ranking of ten success criteria

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