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What Churchill can teach about running a business

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

I was sitting in church when a visiting preacher brought to mind my favorite Winston Churchill quote: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Although the former British prime minister probably wasn’t doling out business advice when he spoke those words, he managed to outline three essential principles that must certainly guide every person who has ever tried to launch and grow a small business.

1. Success is not final

Ever notice how some professional athletes and musicians work so hard for so many years to reach the top but are quickly toppled once they get there?

Like Sisyphus of Greek mythology (he was compelled to roll a stone up a hill each day only to see it roll back down) smart business owners know that success can be fleeting and that today’s gains are easily erased.

A much-needed contract is not renewed.

A manager you groomed suddenly quits.

The market share you fought to win is snatched away.

The fleeting nature of business success is perhaps the most heartbreaking lesson I’ve learned.

I recall the first time I saw a significant year-over-year revenue gain. It was late December and I was sitting at my computer, feeling good about the numbers. And then it hit me – what I had accomplished that year would mean nothing come Jan. 1. All the work I had done over the previous 12 months would have to be done again, and even better if I expected to see further growth.

Aside from competitors looking to eat my lunch, I worry that current gains are being eroded by new technology, to say nothing of economic and demographic shifts.

2. Failure is not fatal

Anyone who dares go into business must go in expecting a certain degree of failure.

Some of my brightest ideas have fallen inexplicably flat – often after considerable investments of time and money. But every so-called failure has made me a smarter and more thoughtful business owner (and, I would dare say, a more compassionate person).

And failure, I have learned, is not the boogeyman we sometimes make it out to be. In reality, no one else cares about our “embarrassing” failures nearly as much as we do.

During a recent fellowship at Columbia University, our coaches and mentors talked much about failure in business. They emphasized the principle of “fail fast, fail cheap” and how smart business owners look for ways to minimize the risks associated with launching new ventures. Basically, it involves investing a bare minimum to test a new idea before going in whole hog. It also means learning to pull the plug on that brilliant idea you felt certain would work.

Equally important, they emphasized a principle they called “design-do,” which involves making continuous but small adjustments to flagging ideas that show potential for success.

3. It is the courage to continue that counts

Everybody, it seems, wants to be self-employed. But how many are willing to pay the price – not just initially, but over the long haul?

An instructor at Central Piedmont Community College once told our class that no one would ever go into business if they truly understood what it takes to succeed. Indeed, what starts out so optimistically with the acquisition of a simple business license can soon give way to endless days and sleepless nights. It is then that determination becomes vital.

So what keeps me going?

Perhaps I’m simply too stubborn to quit. It also helps that I continue to believe in the vision that led me to this unexpected place in my life.

For a lucky few, success seems almost fortuitous, something they find while walking a country road. For most of us, however, success comes grudgingly, and only after years of hard work and determination.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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