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.

Happiness Equilibrium

Which would make you happier:  winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed? way-to-happiness-01-af 

Stupid question, right?

In a two-part study published in 1978, Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman compared lottery winners’  levels of happiness to a control group. They did the same for a group of paraplegics. 

One year after the event—either winning a lottery or becoming paralyzed—all three groups reported the same degree of happiness.

How Can This Be?

Happiness seeks equilibrium.  When you’re poor, you find happiness in little things: a sunset, a child’s report card, catching a fish, watching puppies play. Win a million dollars a year for life, though, and those little things seem mundane. A new BMW, which was once a pipe dream, is now six-months old and feeling . . . well, old.  Expensive clothes and exotic vacations become the norm. Quit your job and you also lose a sense of accomplishment.

Contrast that with the paraplegic.  Reduced mobility eventually breeds appreciation for what’s here right now. The paraplegic becomes grateful what wasn’t lost—memories, family, friends, the way the cat moves across the deck when he thinks no one’s watching.

The Pursuit of Happiness Drives Progress

So why do we strive for happiness? Because “we are wired to pursue happiness,” according to Nancy Etcoff, a positive psychology researcher at Harvard. This pursuit provides little, temporary bits of happiness. That drives us to work harder.  In the process, we learn that by making others happier, we tend to earn more happiness ourselves. This social aspect to happiness drive community building. 


And by “work harder,” I don’t necessarily mean at the office.  Mother Teresa worked harder at her pursuit of happiness.  Parents learn that spending more time with their children enriches both lives.  Writers write; readers read. Both get bits of happiness from the book.

Why Is This Important?

I can think of two reasons why it’s important to understand that happiness naturally tends toward an equilibrium. 

First, this knowledge teaches us that it’s good to pursue happiness. It makes nihilism infeasible and unjustifiable.The fact that we can earn bits of happiness by pursuing happiness is fantastic news. In short it means that living works.  Keep doing it.

Second, it allows us to take risks.  If happiness were an absolute, then we’d be foolish to gamble whatever happiness we now have.  One mistake would mean a permanent loss of happiness.  But that’s not the case. Even if we suffer huge setbacks like paralysis, we can still achieve happiness—the same degree as if we’d won the lottery.  This news allows us to live more robust lives.

What are you doing to pursue happiness? How will this news help you overcome some fear and try something new?

How to Be Happier

Happiness is a choice; anger is a tactic. Anger will have to wait for a future post.  This one is about happiness.

So let me ask: would you do something that took less than a minute if that something would make you happier?

Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania’s school of Positive Psychology has broken down happiness in more scientifically measurable components:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Purpose

Other research has shown how to increase your happiness score.  Before we discuss that, though, let’s dispel some notions.

When we talk about increasing your happiness, we don’t mean eliminating the bad or troubled things in your life. What we mean is increasing the happiness.  You can be happy despite your troubles—look at Job and Mother Teresa.

Nor do we mean that you will rate yourself as “Hap- Hap- Happy!” if someone asks, “How you doin’?”

Before you wander away, though, consider this: if you do this thing for 30 seconds to a minute every day, you'll be happier than if you don't.

Even better, if you do this for 21 days in a row, the effects will last for six months.

Now, are you ready to be happier? Then here’s how.

Every morning, write down three things you're thankful for.

That’s it.  If you want to get a reminder, register here and they’ll send you a reminder if you go twenty-four hours without recording things you’re thankful for. (Whether or not you make your little gratitude notes public or private is up to you.)

This works by instructing your subconscious mind to notice and note things that are positive.  These could be very little things, like a little boy trying to close the tailgate of a very large SUV, or very big things, like winning the lottery.

As you catalog more and more positive things in your life, you’ll arm yourself with more and more solutions.  On the other hand, if you only recognize problems, then you’re armed with more and more problems.

Try this for twenty-one days.  If you’re not satisfied, post comment.  If you are satisfied post a comment.

BONUS:  If you really want to make a difference, consider sharing the things you’re grateful for.  Tweet them or post them on facebook.  ThankfulFor.com makes this easy.