4 Incredibly Simple Questions To Make Any Company Successful

Derek Sivers of CD Baby. And life. Here's my favorite story from Derek Sivers's brilliant tiny book Anything You Want. Sivers was in Las Vegas talking to his cab driver. The cabbie told Sivers he misses the mob. Sivers asked why:

“When the mafia ran this town, it was fun. There were only two numbers that mattered: how much was coming in, and how much was going out. As long as there was more in than out, everyone was happy. But then the whole town was bought up by these damn corporations full of MBA weasels micro-managing, trying to maximize the profit from every square foot of floor space. Now the place that used to put ketchup on my hotdog tells me it'll be an extra twenty-five cents for ketchup! It sucked all the fun out of this town! Yeah... I miss the mob.”

(Sure, we could bring up other issues with the mob, but let's just leave it as a metaphor and a lesson.)

I told this story a lot at CD Baby.

Sometimes MBA types would ask me, “What's your growth rate? What's your retained earnings rate as a percentage of gross? What are your projections?”

I'd just say, “I have no idea. I don't even know what some of that means. I started this as a hobby to help my friends, and that's the only reason it exists. There's money in the bank and I'm doing fine, so no worries.”

They'd tell me that if I analyzed the business better, I could maximize profitability. Then I'd tell them about the taxi driver in Vegas.

Never forget why you're really doing what you're doing.

Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn't that enough?

Sivers, Derek (2011-06-29). Anything You Want (pp. 28-29). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

Four questions that define the only just reason for any business to exist. This should be a consultant's checklist:

  1. Are you helping people? If not, you should figure out a way to help or shut down the business. Companies that aren't helping are hurting, and that's evil.

  2. Are they happy? This goes beyond merely helping. Helping is the bare minimum. If they're not happy, you're doing it right.

  3. Are you happy? This might be the most important question of all. If making people happy by helping them doesn't delight you, find something that does.

  4. Are you profitable? Yes, you have a responsibility to make a profit, but only if you answered "yes" to the first three questions. If you're not helping, or if they're not happy, or if you're not happy, then you have no right making money doing what you're doing.

I read business journals and blogs every day that talk about companies squeezing another nickel out of unhappy customers they're killing before the CEO jumps off the roof of his 128-story tower.  What a waste of lives and money.

I know business schools don't teach helping, happy, happy, profit, but they should. And if they don't, why would anyone go?

Later, Sivers sums up the Tao of Business beautifully:

But even well-meaning companies accidentally get trapped in survival mode. A business is started to solve a problem. But if the problem was truly solved, that business would no longer be needed! So the business accidentally or unconsciously keeps the problem around so that they can keep solving it for a fee.

(I don't want to pick on anyone's favorite pharmaceutical company or online productivity subscription tools, so let's just say that any business that's in business to sell you a cure is motivated not to focus on prevention.)

It's kind of like the grand tales, in which the hero needs to be prepared to die to save the day. Your company should be willing to die for your customers.

That's the Tao of business: Care about your customers more than about yourself, and you'll do well.

 

Help people, make them happy, have fun, and make a profit. That's all it takes to run a successful business.