I just revisited David Lester’s highly informative How They Started: How 30 Good Ideas Became Great Businesses (UK published 2008). In his introduction, Lester notes that almost everyone on the planet has an idea or two for a business; it’s just that most people don’t pursue the idea and fewer still succeed. Here’s what else I took away:
1. They all BEHAVED in similar ways
While those he interviewed came from a wide range of backgrounds, creeds and colors AND did not all have significant experience in that field, it was how they went about growing their business that made the difference. They did not need family connections or a specific education.
2. At first there was little monetary reward
For many months and even years, very little of the money made was spent on themselves. Quite a few of the 30 worked part-time on their business until they thought they could take the leap.
3. They all focused on one idea
“This is a huge advantage” because the idea they picked was one they were passionate about. This leads to being highly motivated and helps to quickly set you apart from competition. “Focus seems to matter massively.”
4. They kept it simple
Established companies often feel the need to make changes to their product or service seemingly “for the sake of it”. Doing this can distract a company away from making sure that it is meeting the needs of its customers. The 30 businesses featured in the book kept things very simple.
5. Eighteen hour days were pretty common
To start momentum takes a great deal of effort and commitment. “None of the founders started out as workaholics – they all began as normal people just like you.” Fortunately once the businesses were moving forward, it wasn’t quite so hard to sustain them.
6. Keep trying and believing
About half of the businesses in the book had weak sales early on and had to wait much longer than they expected for business to pick up. Every business in the book “had to overcome significant issues to keep trading, let alone succeed; along the way, each founder faced doubt, anxiety, stress and pressure level way beyond what most employees face; their ability to cope with this, almost always deeply rooted in strong self belief, was an important factor in why they succeeded where so many businesses haven’t.”
7. Half the businesses managed to start without outside funding
Some founders got angel investors to help finance their business, another quarter got funding from a bank. The other managed to start without the financial help of others.
8. Motivation: passion and commitment
NONE of the business owners interviewed set out to become wealthy. None of them! Their motives ranged from wanting a livelihood after being laid off, to wanting to create a higher quality product or service not then available, to wanting to see if they could make it in a new market. “To work the hours, take the risks, make the personal life sacrifices all the founders have done, takes very, very strong motivation; very few people who say they want to build a business in order to get rich have anything like that degree of motivation.”
Lester concludes that it wasn’t about being from the right stock or money that drove these businesses to succeed. They had a focused idea for a product or service that some part of the world needed. “And they needed literally extra-ordinary levels of passion, energy, self-belief and stamina, the ability and desire to focus, and a good measure of judgment.”