Define your own success Jason 22 Aug 2006

47 comments Latest by Blake

John Battelle makes a good point in Failure to Fail:

In short, we don’t have a company creation crisis. But we might have a company destruction crisis. Something is off in our ecosystem - there’s simply not enough failure out there right now. For an ecosystem to be truly healthy, bad ideas (or good ideas poorly executed) need to fail, so we can all learn from the failure, incorporate the lessons, and move on.

I fundamentally agree with this. Forest fires give way to new growth. However, there’s something missing. The definition of failure. And when you leave that out it’s hard to define the flip-side: Success.

Failure seems easier to define. When your business is out of money then you’re out of business. The business failed.

But what’s success? Do you need to make Google money? Do you need to have Microsoft market share? Do you need to have Apple’s brand loyalty? Nope.

So what do you need to be successful? Luckily that’s entirely up to you. Success is relative.

The best way to be successful is to define your own success. Success can be tiered too. If you want to eventually run a public company you can still be successful on your way there. If you want to stay small you can fight growth and remain successful too. It’s up to you, not up to someone else.

A small company with a few employees pulling in $25,000/month can be successful. Another company with a couple thousand paying customers can be successful. And another company that just breaks even but stays happily afloat can be successful. You don’t need to win every medal to be successful.

I tried to illustrate this point in the comments section of our Google does not render resistance futile post last week. Someone said…

Isn’t Google’s market share (or rather, user base, since its service is free) many times greater than 37signals? Maybe the 37s definition of “win” differs from the standard, but the sheer number of Google Calendar users and income that Google may generate from advertising therein is likely much greater than Backpack signups. Neither Google nor 37s publishes data on how much income various products generate, so this is just a guess, but I’m wondering in what way other than quality does Backpack Calendar “win” in regards to Google’s product?

And I replied…

Jough, Google doesn’t define our success. We do. “Winning” isn’t a zero sum game. This isn’t a 100 yard dash or a boxing match or a F1 race. It’s building a sustainable business. There’s lots of room for lots of those.
We don’t have to match Google’s userbase, or even have 1/10th of Google’s userbase to be nicely profitable and build a sustainable business.
That is success to us. Being able to provide a great service to our customers, follow our vision, generate enough revenue to build a sustainable long-term business, and enjoy doing the work we do everyday is a success to us.

And that, to me, at least, is the key point. When you define your own success you can achieve your own success. Don’t live by other people’s definitions of success. Hit your targets, not theirs.

Like Steve Jobs said in his commencement address at Stanford in June of 2005

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Your definition is the right one. That’s how you succeed. If you can do what you enjoy doing then that’s your success.

47 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Marc Hedlund 22 Aug 06

Great post.

Joe Ruby 23 Aug 06

Yep, good post.

Dave Astels 23 Aug 06

Nice! And very timely for me personally. Thanks.

Murali 23 Aug 06

Success is quite relative and subjective. And so a failure. Not only that you define your own success/failure, but also what you consider today a success/failure will not be a success/failure tomorrow.

When you startup, you are successful when the first customer signs up. Next few days, you want to reach a certain number of them. Next, break-even. And so on. And one day you want to beat Google or Microsoft.

If you achieve what you want to achieve, you are successful just at that moment. You can stay successful only as long as you are achieving your dreams. You are a failure, the moment you stop dreaming or not able to realize your dream.

Ben 23 Aug 06

Sometimes it’s tough to define your own success term. We always blind by other’s people success. Jealousy, by default.

That’s why…

Write your own success term on the office wall, on your wall paper, or something that you see everyday. This will help you focus more.

For me, I’ll just let everything flow. At least for now…

Ben 23 Aug 06

Sometimes it’s tough to define your own success term. We always blind by other’s people success. Jealousy, by default.

That’s why…

Write your own success term on the office wall, on your wall paper, or something that you see everyday. This will help you focus more.

For me, I’ll just let everything flow. At least for now…

Alex Mingoia 23 Aug 06

Great post! It was perfectly timed for me, and was exactly what I needed to hear.

I wish you all success in your endeavours!

Joe Ruby 23 Aug 06

Actually, isn’t comparing one’s success to the “success” of Google rather silly? Other than Google being plain ‘ol giganormous, I thought I read that every one of their products except Adsense is a “failure” in that it isn’t profitable, and I think every one of their products except their search and Adsense has fewer users than their competitors.

Ryan Carson 23 Aug 06

Bravo! Brilliant post.

Jason Liebe 23 Aug 06

Success to me is positive cash flow and no debt!

Regarding “Failure” in business, I believe it is by far the most valuable learning experience to be had. I had a spectacular business failure that completely consumed two years of my life. After a 6 month sabbatical I started another company and it literally took 2 months to achieve the same level of sales and visibility my last company had but without hiring employees, having an office, or shelling out tons of cash for marketing as I had in my past endeavor.

You can be told what to do and what not to do. But the experience of getting kicked in the proverbial balls by real life experience will either make you bitter and get a job, or affect your business philosophies and practices for the rest of your life.

Anonymous Coward 23 Aug 06

great post!

Anonymous Coward 23 Aug 06

b

Michael 23 Aug 06

I’ve been struggling with having “success” for a long time. I was always comparing my way and what I achieve with somebody else.

Jason, thanks for this post. It’s really about your own expectations and not somebody elses. I’m sure you can work a lot more relaxed with that in mind.

Also, good quote from Steve Jobs. However, you have to have a lot of courage and energy to stay to yourself. I hope in the long run it pays off. Sometimes I doubt that.

aj 23 Aug 06

Great post, and also timely for many of us, I think, who are always weighing the what-do-we-do-and-why? question.

Growth for growth’s sake is the logic of cancer. It’s what gives us suburban sprawl and monoculture crops instead of a healthy, diverse ecosystem, and it applies to businesses as well.

Though I do agree with Joe Ruby is that Microsoft, Apple and Google are going to be straw men in this kind of argument. 37signals *does* have competition:

* other commercial web-based team mgmt software
* homemade systems based on open source tools like Drupal
* paper and pencil, cork boards, photocopies, and post-it notes
* human fulltime administrative assistants
* the instinct to avoid organizing things altogether
* etc.

However, it’s hit a pretty big sweet spot and, despite initial resistance to adding things like time tracking, has adapted to the requests of its userbase pretty well. so that’s success, surely!

Michael 23 Aug 06

I’ve been struggling with having “success” for a long time. I was always comparing my way and what I achieve with somebody else.

Jason, thanks for this post. It’s really about your own expectations and not somebody elses. I’m sure you can work a lot more relaxed with that in mind.

Also, good quote from Steve Jobs. However, you have to have a lot of courage and energy to stay to yourself. I hope in the long run it pays off. Sometimes I doubt that.

losamorales 23 Aug 06

I think success is a just no-failure.
It is the same like an equity - equity came only when there already is some kind of iniquity. same with freedom. success, i think, is a negation.

Mike Rundle 23 Aug 06

Great post man, one of the best I’ve read here in awhile.

The funny thing about this “Web 2.0” industry is that there really isn’t any definable model of a failure. A company might have some money still (or a lot of money) but be dead on all fronts like 1) new user registration, 2) buzz in the blog world, 3) traffic, or 4) new features but isn’t technically “out of business.” These types of companies launch, get a lot of hype at first, and then are never heard from again.

A good example is Michael Arrington’s company Edgeio — it launched to a lot of hype but was never heard from again. Check their Alexaholic chart, it speaks for itself. But Edgeio is still around and Michael may be planning new things for it, but for all intents and purposes it’s not “going anywhere” and that could be what is the “Web 2.0” definition of failure. In this buzz-filled echo chamber of Web 2.0, could failure just be the deafening sound of no voices at all?

Stuart Whitman 23 Aug 06

Defining your own success and failure has a lot to do with your personal life. I think as this changes so does your perspective on waht you want.

When I started my business 18 months ago I deemed success as growing fast, employing lots of people and making lots of money. Now with the benefit of hindsight, changes in my personal life (birth of my first daughter) and going down some dead-ends I think differently.

Success to me now is being happy in my work, having the freedom to make my own choices and try new ideas and having a positive cash flow.

Marcelo Ruiz 23 Aug 06

Success for me is avoid my business interfere with my life. Keep my business working and sustaintable. That’s a challenge when you are a freelancer working from home all day. Great post!

Vladimir Nikolic 23 Aug 06

Excellent text.

It shows the right system how to be succesful.

Rob 23 Aug 06

Great post. Makes me want to go to work today!

Scott Teger 23 Aug 06

Success is one of those vague tags people like to put on people and business that is truly subjective. What does it even mean? Only its counterpart, failure, is meaningful, because that marks the end of the venture. To me, Success is something that you are constantly striving for, and when you reach it, you instantly create a new set of goals that will define your next level of success.

Success is a momentary result of ambition.

cygnvs 23 Aug 06

Kottke has posted a good related quote (http://www.kottke.org/06/08/five-quotes):


Your best shot at happiness, self-worth and personal satisfaction - the things that constitute real success - is not in earning as much as you can but in performing as well as you can something that you consider worthwhile. (William Raspberry)

Jough Dempsey 23 Aug 06

I made it into the body of a post. I’m touched.

I never suggested that 37Signals was not successful, by any measure. I was just hoping for clarification on how Backpack Calendar was winning against Google, and the answer was: it isn’t, but there’s plenty of room for everyone in the pool.

This latest post reminded me of one of my favourite passages from Joyce’s Ulysses

“We were always loyal to lost causes, the professor said. Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination. We were never loyal to the successful. We serve them. I teach the blatant Latin language. I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. DOMINUS! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus? Lord Salisbury? A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek!”

Great post.

MikeInAZ 23 Aug 06

Success is not being afraid.

You are not afraid of what your competitors will do.

You are not afraid to try something new.

You are not afraid to fail.

Peter White 23 Aug 06

“Failure” (bit emotive that) is not just good practice for starting a web company: in our biotech incubator in Yorkshire in the UK, we get worried if more than 50% of the start-ups survive after a year. It’s not like we’re clubbing seals: everyone should strive to build world-class businesses, not ‘good enough’ enterprises. Stopping, and starting over - maybe with a bunch more IP, and certainly with a lot more understanding, isn’t failure, it’s evolution.

Andres 23 Aug 06

Without wanting to oversimplify this, to me success is satisfying a goal you set out to accomplish.

Now, success has nothing to do with the quality of your goals or if they are the right goals. If you met your goals, you succeded. The problem is when people try to measure your success by their goals they have for you, that’s when people may have the perception that you didn’t succeed.

Rob H 23 Aug 06

Success should be based on your own terms and not that of others. You should never base success on what you and have and don’t have..That’s a very superficial definition. It really should be based on your terms of what success means to you. To some people, success is doing what you love and getting paid to do it. To others is having the courage to stand up for what you believe in. It’s all about what it means to you.

-R

Dustin Boston 23 Aug 06

This is a great post. It was really motivating.

Aaron Dragushan 23 Aug 06

What a great and motivating post. Thanks!

Prashant 23 Aug 06

This is a great Post Jason . Thanks

i think success is ability to chart your own course in life with out any fear of failiure or guilt of not fulfilling your responsibilities (which are endless ) . i was struggeling with this confusion & pain sometime back when it was a time for me to make soem taugh choices in life . i blogged about it here

http://knowprashant.blogspot.com/2005/12/lost-in-transition.html

your thhoughts are resonants with mine . again thanks for this post it was very reassuring .
good luck

Gary R Boodhoo 23 Aug 06

Brilliant & simple & timely post. Well played!

Scott Meade 23 Aug 06

Right on !

JB 23 Aug 06

Great post and comments…

I’m about halfway through a book by Bo Burlingham called Small Giants that looks at 14 (relatively)small companies that have chosen ways to define success outside of the traditional “growth at all costs” model…

Chris D 23 Aug 06

Full of wisdom, very nicely written and very timely for me too. Thanks.

Peter Kaizer 23 Aug 06

Jason~

Great post, I actually emailed it to my daughter who just began her college experience at Bucknell. Thanks!

John Howes 23 Aug 06

Here’s to your continued success!

Serge Lescouarnec 24 Aug 06

Jason

Good thinking as usual

I think your perspective on success and failure changes also depending on what stage of your life you are.

I remember being in my late 20’s and having a store and being consumed by the business.

Right now, I entered my 50’s recently and success for me would be to have decent client base for my concierge business.
My blog ‘Serge the Concierge’ was started as a way to help promote my business but has now taken a life of its own.
I actually enjoy the writing part and what I learn from doing it on a daily basis.

To conclude success for me would be to do things that I enjoy doing and am reasonably good at and make enough money to live decently and have time to travel and enjoy life.

Have a good day

Serge
Biz:
http://www.njconcierges.com
Blog:
http://www.sergetheconcierge.com

Michael Martine 24 Aug 06

Excellent post. Timely, too, as my wife and I have just begun trying to define for ourselves what it means to be financially independant so we can aim towards that. The key thing that so many people fail to do is define exactly (and I do mean exactly) what success means to them. You can’t hit and undefined target. The old trick of writing it down and being exact is the best old trick in the book. It works.

EX Voto 26 Aug 06

A wonderful web site, filled with lots of remarkably gifted people. But ..

This sort of article is little more than relativistic secularist happy talk run amok.

I presume this article was written with sincere and good intentions. However, the logic is contradictory: Success is relative. It’s whatever you define it as. But failure is necessary. Well, if you can’t define success then how is it possible to define failure? And if failure can’t be defined then how can one say it’s a necessary component to success?

Success can take many forms, to be sure. But in the end success simply cannot be relative, open to six billion personal definitions, because truth itself is not relative.

And success, real success, can’t contradict truth. Who among you would argue with a straight face that something untrue could also be genuinely described as successful?

Truth, and therefore success, is a someone, not a something. His name is Jesus. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” He did not say, “I am a way, a truth, and a light.” Even if you don’t believe in God, ask with your heart and will to be led to the Truth. Your answer will come. And then you’ll find True Success.


EX Voto 26 Aug 06

Begging your indulgence and pardon, In sleep-deprived zealousness I carelessly misquoted the Lord as saying He was the way, the truth and “the light”. Sorry. While Jesus described himself as the light, he did not do so in this context. The correct quote is: “I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE.”

Secularitsts always fenjoy seeing one of us religious nutties get stuff wrong, so perhaps I’ve at least provided a grin or two for some of the readers.

God Bless you all.

PS - Thanks for sharing your talents with the rest of us.

EX Voto 26 Aug 06

Begging your indulgence and pardon, In sleep-deprived zealousness I carelessly misquoted the Lord as saying He was the way, the truth and “the light”. Sorry. While Jesus described himself as the light, he did not do so in this context. The correct quote is: “I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE.”

Secularists always enjoy seeing one of us “religious nutties” get stuff wrong, so perhaps I’ve at least provided a grin or two for some of the readers.

God Bless you all.

PS - Thanks for sharing your talents with the rest of us.

Javier Cabrera 27 Aug 06

Failure is when you stop trying, success, is whatever you want it to be.
It can be having always a couple of $ to get a beer, a medium company, or a big nice family, everything you want it to be.

Just don’t stop trying until you get there, damn it ;)

Take care
Javier Cabrera

Andy White 27 Aug 06

I like Churchill’s definition of success:

“Success is going from failure to failure without loosing enthusiam”

Andy White 27 Aug 06

…look, I failed to spell “enthusiasm” correctly - HURAH!

C.C. Chapman 28 Aug 06

AMEN!!! You hit it perfectly. Important that each and every person know how they define success personally and professionally.

Blake 29 Aug 06

We can say that this is our version of success, hard as it may seem:

Huckabuck.com is for sale. After nearly a year of development and marketing, were moving on and setting up an auction to find Huckabuck a new home.

What is Huckabuck?

Huckabuck is a search engine of search engines. A search in Huckabuck searches Google, Yahoo, MSN, Technorati, Digg and Del.icio.us, and combines all the results into a single list ranked according to your preferences. You can tell Huckabuck which engines you prefer with the Search Tuner, a proprietary search management tool exclusive to Huckabuck that enables searchers to easily tune each engine.

Why are we selling Huckabuck?

We started Huckabuck.com in an effort to give users the ability to have greater control over their search results. We feel that some of our unique technological advancements, specifically our Search Tuner, are original creations that add a lot of value to a search engine. We have taken Huckabuck a long way over the last year, from conception to launch and through our initial growth stage. 

We have several projects that we are currently working on that are demanding more of our time, and we want to find Huckabuck a new home with owners who can take it to the next level. We are excited about the growth we see ahead for Huckabuck and hope to place it in the hands of a team that is ready to take it and run with it.

Check out the eBay auction to learn more about whats included in the deal (which is a ton of powerful development work, a beautiful interface, a blog and more).

Wed love your help in finding Huckabuck a new home. If you know someone who may be interested, point them in our direction, or in the direction of the eBay listing.

If you have any questions, e-mail me back and Ill answer them as soon as I can.

Thanks for all your support,

Chris Schultz and Blake Killian

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