I’m often asked, ‘What’s the most important piece of advice you can give new business owners?’ I could say that the most important lesson in business is to never stop learning. And I’d be telling the truth.
However, these otherwise sage words are not particularly practical. And they are about as satisfying to most entrepreneurial minds as a McDonald’s cheeseburger is to a Sumo Wrestler’s appetite.
After much thought, factoring in seven years of interviews and coffee meetings with hundreds of entrepreneurs, from single person operations to international masters of the game, such as Bill Gates and James Dyson, and having built my own business over this time, there is one piece of advice that trumps all others.
And it can’t be captured in a simple truism or cliche.
Rather, it requires an anecdote.
James and the Football Fan
Throughout the history of Anthill, I’ve sought advice from a variety of mentors and peers. (And I’d recommend all new and established business builders to do the same, although that’s not the piece of advice I’m building to.)
Some of the relationships have been fleeting. Some have guided me in ways that are impossible to articulate and quantify.
One of these lasting and (hopefully) mutually beneficial relationships is with a person who became an adviser and confidante to Anthill in late 2004, in Anthill’s second year. This mentor prefers to keep a discreet profile but, for the purposes of this story, it’s important that I mention that he, whom I’ll now refer to as ‘Malcolm’ (Malcom the Mentor), is a particularly passionate AFL supporter and is involved with one of the clubs in a professional capacity.
It’s also worth mentioning that on all the important fronts (although Malcolm might disagree), this mentor has proven himself to a be a person worth learning from — highly successful in business, with a wonderful loving family and a strong respect for work-life balance.
Aside from all that, all Anthill readers really need to know is that he doesn’t mind sharing what he thinks in direct tones (if he needs to). But he prefers not to. Indeed, he’s more likely to offer guidance in more measured ways, as the following tale demonstrates.
In other words, I’ve rarely taken his words lightly and the following anecdote was, indeed, a game-changer for Anthill.
How to win a Grand Final
In late 2005, Malcolm asked me a rhetorical question.
“James,” he said. “How do you think a football team wins a Grand Final?”
He posed this question during casual conversation, with a telling glint of enthusiasm in his eye. This could have been mistaken as a sign of his passion ‘for the game’. But, to those who have worked with Malcolm, it could equally be interpreted as a hint that an indirect offer of guidance is on the way, likely to hit with the of force a Sherrin delivered from the boot of Barry Hall.
Naturally, I replied, “I don’t know. How does a football team win a Grand Final?” (despite a personal lack of interest in all sports… beyond the entrepreneurial sphere, of course).
Here is the detailed reply I received.
A winning team is like a pyramid
A winning team is like a pyramid.
Successful team presidents, company boards and coaches know this intuitively, even if they never put it on paper. And every pyramid requires a foundation of fundamentals.
Fundamentals represent the bottom third of the pyramid.
Players must be fit. They must be able to run for kilometres, without tiring, kick-straight, handball accurately, tackle within the rules and do all those things expected of elite athletes.
Strategy and Talent
The second layer of the pyramid is all about ‘Strategy’ and ‘Talent’.
It’s about getting the best players, the best team captains, the best coaching staff and then putting a clear strategy in place to guide the talent and exploit the fundamentals.
The tip of this hypothetical pyramid is ‘Flair’.
A winning team needs a special type of magic that only a few people possess; the ability to lift a human body to heights otherwise inhumanely possible to mark a ball, before kicking a goal, perhaps over a shoulder or through the opponent’s legs, just as the siren blares to win the game.
We all know flair when we see it. It’s what we remember. It’s what makes something remarkable. It’s exciting. When we employ flair, we often feel great about ourselves. Many entrepreneurs have this is spades.
What’s the moral of the story?
Malcolm’s story about football teams and pyramids had seemingly reached its conclusion. But a meaningful pause accompanying those final words about flair hinted at a lesson in the offing.
“James,” Malcolm finally continued. “Do you know what I see when I look at your business?”
The question wasn’t posed to solicit a reply, so I simply shook my head and stayed silent.
With more than a hint of good humour in his voice, he concluded the lesson.
“I see an upside pyramid — all flair, no fundamentals. You have an upside-down pyramid.”
Never stop learning
Of course, this was true. And the advice was said with affection, not malice.
Inevitably, the following diagram formed in my mind.
Like any typical entrepreneur, I had built my business using ‘big picture’ thinking.
I had wanted to build a business magazine that would be remarkable, that people would talk about, that would challenge publishing conventions, that would attract like-minded people like a magnet, that would change things and be memorable.
I had achieved these things, built a brand without a marketing budget, won awards, had been recognised by the Australian Business Publisher’s Association for, in their words ‘creating a new market segment’. Yet, I still found myself spending most my time darting from one cashflow issue to the next, missing editorial deadlines and spending weekends ‘catching up’.
In my mind, I was a success because Anthill was meeting my ‘big picture’ goals.
But with one light push, my precarious upside-down pyramid could have easily toppled, because it lacked The Fundamentals.
What’s the most important entrepreneurship lesson from your experience?
Four years after this eye-opening analogy, we are still getting the fundamentals right.
In fact, managing the bottom layer of the pyramid is an ongoing process that requires ongoing improvement. And I don’t mind admitting that this period of imbalanced priorities and lack of processes put pressures on the business that continue to complicate our lives today.
For that reason, I have decided to create a short article series on The Fundamentals – The Five Things Every Entrepreneur Must Do When Starting Out (or a slightly more retweetable headline when I can think of it).
If you are about to kick-off a new venture, hopefully this series will help you avoid making the same mistakes that we did. If your business is already established, perhaps this series will offer a ‘refresher’ (rather than a frightening wake-up call).
But before I get started (and put fingers to keyboard once again), I’d like to ask you, dear readers, to share the most important business lesson that you learnt when starting out.
Or, what was the lesson you wish you knew, in hindsight, that you later discovered the hard way. (My favourite comment will win its author a copy of award winning documentary ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room, as a lesson in what not to do.)
So, what’s the number one lesson you wish you knew back then?