The Basic Formula for Business Success

what makes a business successful

What drives business success? What is the one thing any business can do to increase its chances of surviving, thriving and growing?

We are always looking for a single thing that can give us success, the ephemeral silver bullet. It’s called the delusion of the single explanation (read more about this one and 8 other delusions here). In business, like in most cases, it is always a combination of factors that results in success. Strategy is probably at the top of the list. Other factors include execution, passion, culture, and some may even say luck (timing is usually a better description).

While I believe Strategy is the #1 factor, I was looking for a formula to create a strategy that could be applied broadly, to almost every business, of any size and industry, to increase its chances of success. I think I found it.

The Formula for Business Success

Long time ago, probably in the early 90s I saw a magazine ad for Lotus (I believe) which had a central message designed to make small business owners feel empowered. The headline read:

Give Customers What they Want, Make Money, Repeat

Since, it stuck in my mind because of its simplicity and power. I am sure most people read it and thought “d’uh! – of course!’. Some of the most powerful concepts in business and in life are hidden behind simple phrases like this one. Often we fail at the basics. Often we get distracted by complex stuff and ignore the basics. My college professor used to say “Marketing is common sense, which is the least common of all senses. Never underestimate the Power of Simplicity.

Why is this simple customer so powerful? Let’s break it apart:

  • Give Customers what They want – offers four insights:
    • Giving customers what they want is very different than giving customers what you sell. This means you must change your marketing and your entire organization around customer needs, not around your products.
    • Second, it means you must first find out what customers want. really listen about what they want and make fundamental changes to deliver it. Like Domino’s when they changed the recipe for their pizza based on customer feedback.
    • Third, it means you need to decide who is your customer. It is very hard for a business to try to satisfy every kind of imaginable customer. You need to understand market segment,s buying behaviors and the type of customer you are better suited to serve. You can start with  simple terms – do you want to serve a quality oriented customer, a price conscious customer or one that values full service?
    • Fourth, the ‘Give’ talks about the delivery model. I think about it as understanding how your customer wants to consume your product. What format, what pricing model, what packaging, what place, etc.
  • Make Money – This is about having a fundamental understanding of your business metric. Understanding your cost to acquire a customer, your fixed and variable costs, cash flow, profitability, margin, cost of capital – start with the basics. If you talk to owners of small businesses, you may be surprised how many have no clue about many of these metrics. The same can be said of product managers, marketers, and even large companies. Remember the dot com bust? The focus on making money also means your business must be market driven, not technology or buzzword driven. Another no-brainer that is often the cause of business failure.
  • Repeat – This is a key part. It talks about building the culture, the processes and the company around these basic principles. Listening to customers once is not good. Looking at your balance sheet every now and then is not good management. These need to be habits. Even more than that, they need to be made core of the way you think about your business – as an entrepreneur, as a CEO or as a product marketer in a large company.

I hope this formula can help you and your business, or at least re-think your overall strategy.

What drives business success? What is the one thing any business can do to increase its chances of surviving, thriving and growing?

We are always looking for a single thing that can give us success, the ephemeral silver bullet. It’s called the delusion of the single explanation (read more about this one and 8 other delusions here). In business, like in most cases, it is always a combination of factors that results in success. Strategy is probably at the top of the list. Other factors include execution, passion, culture, and some may even say luck (timing is usually a better description).

While I believe Strategy is the #1 factor, I was looking for a formula to create a strategy that could be applied broadly, to almost every business, of any size and industry, to increase its chances of success. I think I found it.

The Formula for Business Success

Long time ago, probably in the early 90s I saw a magazine ad for Lotus (I believe) which had a central message designed to make small business owners feel empowered. The headline read:

Give Customers What they Want, Make Money, Repeat

Since, it stuck in my mind because of its simplicity and power. I am sure most people read it and thought “d’uh! – of course!’. Some of the most powerful concepts in business and in life are hidden behind simple phrases like this one. Often we fail at the basics. Often we get distracted by complex stuff and ignore the basics. My college professor used to say “Marketing is common sense, which is the least common of all senses. Never underestimate the Power of Simplicity.

Why is this simple customer so powerful? Let’s break it apart:

  • Give Customers what They want – offers four insights:
    • Giving customers what they want is very different than giving customers what you sell. This means you must change your marketing and your entire organization around customer needs, not around your products.
    • Second, it means you must first find out what customers want. really listen about what they want and make fundamental changes to deliver it. Like Domino’s when they changed the recipe for their pizza based on customer feedback.
    • Third, it means you need to decide who is your customer. It is very hard for a business to try to satisfy every kind of imaginable customer. You need to understand market segment,s buying behaviors and the type of customer you are better suited to serve. You can start with  simple terms – do you want to serve a quality oriented customer, a price conscious customer or one that values full service?
    • Fourth, the ‘Give’ talks about the delivery model. I think about it as understanding how your customer wants to consume your product. What format, what pricing model, what packaging, what place, etc.
  • Make Money – This is about having a fundamental understanding of your business metric. Understanding your cost to acquire a customer, your fixed and variable costs, cash flow, profitability, margin, cost of capital – start with the basics. If you talk to owners of small businesses, you may be surprised how many have no clue about many of these metrics. The same can be said of product managers, marketers, and even large companies. Remember the dot com bust? The focus on making money also means your business must be market driven, not technology or buzzword driven. Another no-brainer that is often the cause of business failure.
  • Repeat – This is a key part. It talks about building the culture, the processes and the company around these basic principles. Listening to customers once is not good. Looking at your balance sheet every now and then is not good management. These need to be habits. Even more than that, they need to be made core of the way you think about your business – as an entrepreneur, as a CEO or as a product marketer in a large company.

I hope this formula can help you and your business, or at least re-think your overall strategy.

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  • I like how you read this slogan so carefully, Gerardo, and teased out it’s many meanings. I think many marketers confuse “what customers want” with “what we sell” and I also believe that they often overlook the importance of “giving.”

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