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Management / Business Planning
January 2014

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

How success can become a slow slide to business failure.

January 06, 2014
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It’s unfortunate that it often takes someone’s passing for us to truly appreciate how the contributions they made influenced our lives.

I think that’s the case with the passing a couple years ago of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers.

I’m not a “Mac guy;” I do my work on a trusty PC. But one cannot ignore the profound impact Steve had on the daily lives of all of us. In my opinion, his genius touched the lives of people the world over every bit as much as business titans like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and Ford.

In 2005, Steve gave the commencement address to the graduating class of Stanford University. He concluded his comments by quoting from the back page of the final issue of the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication many of my baby boomer readers will remember. The quote from the back cover, and the advice he was giving the graduates in attendance, was to “stay hungry, stay foolish.”

I’m not sure there’s a better piece of advice I could offer small business owners — Stanford graduates or not.

When we first launch our business, or when our business is young, it’s easy to stay hungry. After all, we’re starving.

First, we’re starving for our share of attention in the market. Once we have that, we’re starving for business from prospective customers. When we turn prospects into clients, we’re starving to find good employees to serve them. And the entire time all this is going on, our business is typically starving for cash.

Stay hungry…

So it’s safe to say entrepreneurs have the “stay hungry” thing down pat. Interestingly enough, it’s when we’re no longer starving, or simply when we stop being as hungry, that our companies get into trouble. It’s the old “nothing recedes like success” thing.

This lesson was brought home to me many years ago in a previous business I owned.

I lost a large and highly prized customer, one with whom I’d worked for years, because I had stopped being hungry. Although shocked when he fired me and replaced me with another company who “seemed hungrier,” upon reflection I realized I had indeed become complacent.

It can happen to the best of us. Our company moves beyond survival mode and starts to succeed. We have a loyal customer following, we’re delivering reasonably consistent quality and we might even have a few extra bucks in the bank. We no longer hear the wolf tapping on our door, so we become comfortable, complacent or worse yet — arrogant about our success.

Rather than working to become even better, or building more capacity to serve more customers, we unintentionally reduce customer demand by becoming less hungry. We don’t show the same enthusiasm for keeping our customers’ business as we did when we were trying to gain it.

Most businesses are started by people who can’t afford to fail. As a result, we work endless hours, pinch countless pennies and perform whatever distasteful task needs doing in order to succeed. In other words, we’re hungry.

And the hungrier we stay, the more uncomfortable we will be with being comfortable.

… and stay foolish

As business owners, we work hard to hang on to the success we’ve worked our entire careers to achieve.

But sometimes hanging on too tightly causes us to lose our grip on the very things that, if we loosened up a bit, we might actually be able to hold onto a little longer... and maybe enjoy a little more.

When Steve Jobs and the Whole Earth Catalog advised us to “stay foolish,” they weren’t suggesting we become reckless. They were suggesting we keep alive the inquisitive child that resides within each of us.

Unfortunately, as we get older and start wearing our grownup clothes, the voice of the child within often grows weak.

IBM, one of the biggest and most successful businesses in the history of enterprise, nearly went out of business after years of astonishing success and market dominance. According to Harvard Business School professor and author Richard Tedlow, in 1984 IBM had “the most profitable year for any company in any industry in any country anywhere in the whole world.”

Yet six years later, they teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Why? Naturally, there are a multitude of reasons, but one is that they started believing their own press and began taking themselves too seriously. They lost their “foolishness” and replaced it with a rule-bound culture that became overly focused on maintaining IBM norms, like making sure real “IBM’ers” wore blue suits and garters to keep their socks pulled tight. Seriously.

A slow slide

No company loses their sense of exploration and foolishness overnight.

The chief executive officer (CEO) doesn’t arrive to work one morning and announce that beginning that day the staff will stop having fun and start taking themselves seriously. Or at least he shouldn’t.

Instead, it creeps into the business slowly; sometimes almost imperceptibly. It happens a little every time we’re called upon to make an uncomfortably tough business decision; or every gut-wrenching time we have to replace a valued employee; or every time we narrowly dodge one more financial bullet.

It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily press of doing what needs done just to keep the doors open that we stop taking time to enjoy our businesses.

Even when our companies are hugely successful, it’s easy to start taking ourselves too seriously. We might even start to think we actually had control over the factors that led to our success in the first place. When I see a company falling into this trap, I know it’s time for them to lighten up.

When we started our businesses, nobody had to remind us to be foolish. We were like little kids at Chuck E. Cheese’s — everything new and exciting; every experience a wide-eyed opportunity to learn and play and grow.

Staying foolish was second nature. We hadn’t yet learned what we couldn’t do or didn’t know, so we explored.

Sometimes we need to stop taking ourselves so seriously and wake up that sense of foolishness that may have grown tired.

We don’t need to dance down Wall Street wearing a hula skirt (Sam Walton, Wal-Mart CEO), or hide in an overhead luggage bin on an airplane or settle a legal dispute with a public arm wrestling contest (Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines CEO).

But we’d all find it helpful to heed Steve Job’s advice to “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

Chuck Violand understands the unique challenges of small businesses, having owned a commercial cleaning and water damage mitigation company for 26 years. He founded Violand Management Associates (VMA) in 1988 as a consulting, teaching and training resource for owners of small businesses. To learn more about VMA's services and programs, visit www.Violand.com or call (330) 966-0700.

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