Living well in the strategic zone Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002

From the center of the learning curve of Northeast Ohio’s most successful entrepreneurs, here are the most important lessons I’ve learned about business.

Debt drives growth

A fear of debt essentially translates into a fear of not being able to repay it. While I know people who could stand to be a bit more conscientious in that department, it points to a more serious problem: inability to achieve a return on investment.

An entrepreneur who can’t lead his or her team to an acceptable ROI on any well-conceived project is like a NASCAR driver who has trouble with left-hand turns. Money is the fuel of growth, and if you refuse to borrow, the real issue isn’t financial — it’s personal.

You can’t avoid The Wall

At some point, frenetic start-up energy and charismatic leadership must give way to repeatable processes and sustainable results.

Consider the wall of an obstacle course at those outdoorsy corporate retreats. Some people run up to it at full tilt and scramble right over. Most slow down, size it up, then start climbing — and if they don’t make it by the second or third try, each effort gets a little bit weaker. (In business, others never see the wall until they run into it, and some companies die from exhaustion while hanging onto the top by their fingernails — though I’ve never heard of either actually happening at a corporate retreat).

Climbing the wall demands different skills than running the sprint of a start-up. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can avoid the climb.

The big boss only has one job: communication

If you don’t make your ideas and visions clear, nothing else matters. You need to do it every minute of every day — not just through memos and meetings, but through actions, questions and simple walks to the water cooler. If leading communications is the only thing you do, your business will be better off than if it’s the only thing you don’t do.

Everybody needs a manager — even you

You wouldn’t hire a salesman or engineer without assigning someone to help assure that he or she is doing the right work at the right time.

Even CEOs can lose focus and perspective from time to time. But there’s one critical difference: As the owner, you can choose not to be managed and nobody can do anything about it.

Even if you have an outside board of advisers or an internal executive committee, don’t assume you’re allowing yourself to be managed. If you win every argument, make every ruling and agree with every expenditure, odds are you’re really running the show alone — and making some costly mistakes.

Success is in the details

How many businesses really have a product or process that nobody else can duplicate? What makes one restaurant — or insurance company or ad agency — better than another?

It’s the decisions they make, the priorities they set, the details they consider.

Success doesn’t come from having one big idea that nobody else thought of. It comes from doing the same 100 things as everybody else — but better.

Four years ago this month, I wrote my first editor’s column for SBN. This one is my last. I don’t expect anyone to understand how I have personified and become friends with a collection of 30,000 readers; it’s the metaphysical part of being an editor. But I have enjoyed the experience and hope I have been of service.