Trying to build a great small business can sometimes feel like searching for water in a desert. You see water in the distance but no matter how far or fast you walk towards it, it never gets any closer. Yet you keep trying. Such is the power of a realistic illusion (the mirage in this case).

In business, that mirage is the promise that this book/advice/so-called expert has some techniques or expertise that will turn your business into something less demanding, less daunting, or more manageable or successful. And you believe in the mirage because you believe that ‘fixing’ your business isn’t any different from challenging tasks you may have completed at work or home in the past.

The problem with the one right answer

Just like chasing that mirage in the desert, searching for that one right answer to fix your business is futile because:

  • It’s common for advice to contradict other advice, and sometimes even itself, which is frustrating and confusing. Which one is right?
  • Most business advice is based on the assumption that whatever worked for one business will work for everyone. This is not true! Successful businesses don’t follow one precise plan because each business and its owner are unique, which means different plans are needed for different businesses.
  • If there was a secret to starting and building a successful business, businesses whose owners didn’t know ‘the secret’ wouldn’t end up succeeding. Yet many businesses have been built without the insights of all the business management books and advice ever published.
  • Chasing the one right answer to building a successful business will only suck you into an endless whirlpool where you attempt to follow whatever advice you end up selecting, only to find it doesn’t work, leaving you looking for further advice to deal with that.
  • The more such advice you follow, the less confident and more despondent you’re likely to become. This is because whatever advice you do follow brings with it expectations of success, which you will invariably not reach, which in turn will trigger stress. Also, the more you focus on whatever rules you’re required to follow, the less you’re focused on getting to know your business and its people (including customers).

So why do we do it? Why do we chase the mirage? And yes, I said we because I have been guilty of chasing the mirage too!

I believe we chase the mirage not because we want a great business, but more because we believe that if you can find that correct piece of information or advice and apply the best approaches to your business, it might be possible to gain some sense of control to one piece of your life in a world that is far from predictable. That has strong appeal when you’re constantly running around meeting the demands your small business brings.

What are we doing wrong?

I believe the mistake we’re making isn’t in selecting and applying the wrong advice about what we should be doing, but of thinking about business in terms of what we should be doing at all. Starting and running a business that involves multiple relationships between human beings is complicated and cannot simply be reduced to variables we think we can control.

If you want a successful business, you have to stop believing that doing so requires you do the right things and find the right people. To be sure, that helps. But in itself, that’s not enough. Because you can do the right things and have the right people, but if you’re not the right person to own/run a great business, your business will still fail.

Focussing on what you do IN your business will get you so far. Focussing ON your business (the why and how of what you do) will get you much further.

A business will never grow if it doesn’t have the right environment in which to grow. Your job as a business owner is to understand the things needed to assist with, and/or remove the things hindering the growth of your business. Doing so will provide the best environment in which your business can prosper.

This means you have to start doing the things that a successful business owner would do, which is tricky when you may not know what you need to be doing to be a successful business owner.

The good news is you can learn to be the right person to have a great business.

How do you become a successful business owner?

I believe being a great small business owner doesn’t come from what you do, but instead comes from the following:

  • Get clear about what a business is. These are the basics of your business: what services/products you offer; who your customers are; what problems you help your customers solve; what benefits your customers receive; how much your customer is willing to pay; how much it costs you to do what you do.
  • Learn the rules that apply to your business. You wouldn’t drive a car without knowing the rode code, so why would you start and run a business without knowing the rules of business? Rules to business include: knowing how to reduce your chances of being forced to leave the game of business; staying on the right side of the laws that apply to you and your business; and making sure your business meets the three fundamental principles of business.
  • Know YOUR rules. Given the same business, you would run it differently than someone else. It’s important to understand what’s important to you; the why and how of what you do; and how you and your business fit together. Your business is an extension of you and it’s not going to work if you’re going one way and your business is going another.
  • Learn how to play with rather than within the rules. Sometimes it’s not about the rules that apply to you and your business, it’s about what you can change in your business to get inside or outside of certain rules that might work better for you.
  • Know where you are and where you want to go. You need to build strong foundations and resilience before taking bonuses out of your business. Make sure you know where your business sits in terms of foundations, resilience and bonuses and don’t run if you’re still learning to walk.
  • When you do everything yourself, it’s important to you do the small things right, consistently. Making small steps or changes over a longer period ensures you get where you’re going, even if things are changing around you. Making larger less frequent changes is riskier and more demanding.

If you know what a business is, the rules that apply to your business, your rules and what’s important to you, how you can play with the rules when need be, where you are and where you want to be, and you do the small things right consistently, you’ll be well on your way to having a successful business (and whatever success means to you).

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