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Entrepreneurs Define the Meaning of Business Success

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  • Business success is different for everyone.
  • Creating a strategy and outlining what success looks like for you gives you a way to measure your success.
  • The main keys to success are hard work and persistence, no matter what business you're in.

Entrepreneurship can feel like you're sailing a ship all by yourself; you're not entirely sure where you're going or how you're going to get there, and you're responsible for everything from steering to making sure the ship doesn't sink. And, during your voyage, you start to question if there even is a destination.

Many young business owners start with a goal of "being successful." But what does "being successful" really mean? The simplest (and accurate) answer is that success is different for everyone. Like everything else with your business, it's up to you to define what success is.

Hope Wilson, a senior marketing specialist at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, sees business success as something larger than herself and her company. "Success is running a profitable firm that conducts business with honesty and integrity, makes meaningful contributions to the communities it serves, and nurtures high-quality, balanced lives for its employees," she said. "As business owners, we must think outside our own doors. We must think about the potential impacts we have on those around us as well as future generations.

Brendan Lyle, CEO of Kayemcee Group, defines success as having a strong company culture with employees that stand behind the mission. "As an entrepreneur and business owner, my success is built around my staff," he said. "My company will only be successful if I have the right team with me, and to make sure that happens, I ensure that my staff is happy. My ultimate success is making sure I can pay my staff as much as I can, and making sure they love getting out of bed every morning and coming to work because they really enjoy what they do."

An effective, efficient way to define success for you and your business is to create a strategy for how you will achieve success and then outline the goals you need to accomplish along the way. "There is no business without a strategy to get there," said social media strategist Inge Hunter.

Setting long-term goals helps you lock in what success means for you. Sometimes putting your ideas on paper helps outline a vision for your business and shows you exactly what you need to do to get there.

To set these goals, sit down with your business plan and think about your one, five, and 10-year business goals. Where do you see your business at each stage? Is there a common theme between those goals? Write down your vision of success for each time period and revisit the plan each year to see how your vision has changed.

As you're setting goals, remain as objective and clear-headed as possible. Deryck Jordan, founder and managing attorney at Jordan Counsel said, "One thing that can make or break a business is the amount of preparation and planning that is done objectively. Passion is important, but don't let your passion blind your objectivity." 

Keep your purpose in mind as you create each goal, and think about how that goal can contribute to your idea of success. Consider using the SMART method – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-oriented – to establish your goals. [See related article: How to Develop SMART Goals for Your Business] 

In addition, thoroughly research your industry, competition and audience. This keeps your goals realistic and that they are "worthy" – that is, worth your time and effort in creating and seeing them through. 

"Success is the gradual realization of a worthy goal," said John Lee Dumas, founder and host of business podcast Entrepreneur on Fire. "To me, the key word here is worthy. Ask yourself this: 'If you reach your goal, will you look at it as a goal worth attaining?'" 

Once you set your goals, it's time to apply them to your business. The first step is to break them down; business goals are often long term in scope, and require significant time and effort from multiple people to achieve them. You can break goals down in whatever way makes the most sense for you and your business.

Next, put a process in place for tracking progress on your goals. Again, this will largely depend on your business's unique needs, but good goals are measurable, and you should be able to track what has been done and how long it has taken.

Remember that goals change, so you must remain flexible. Try to stick to the one, five, 10-year method, and revisit your goals annually to allow yourself the space to make adjustments. Also, keep in mind that sometimes failure is healthy and may be unavoidable as a business owner.

Failure can lead to business success, said Jack Petry, business coach and growth strategist. "The path to success is to fail as quickly as you possibly can because it creates a tremendous asset: results," he said. "If you do anything in life, you get a result. You'll grow wiser, and I've found [failure] is often a springboard to eventual success."

As you experience failures and setbacks, keep your vision and company's mission in mind. It's tough to go through these experiences, but staying focused on why you started your business in the first place is a great motivator.

Johannes Larsson, CEO and founder of financer.com, said that focusing on your vision and being passionate about what you do is key, as it is sometimes all you have to keep yourself going. "Only when we do what we love can we go through the long hours, the challenges, the problems and everything that comes with running a successful business," he said.

Finally, celebrate your accomplishments when you complete a goal. This allows you to recognize the hard work that you and your team put in, and it serves as a motivating factor in continuing your path to success. "Success is defined for me personally as accomplishing goals, not being motivated by a dollar, but by creating with creativity, passion, hard work – it often goes hand in hand with financial rewards as well," said Matt Levine, restaurateur and founder of Chlorophyll Water.

There is no one key to success in business. Like everything else in entrepreneurship, what works for you may not work for someone else, and it can take several rounds of trial and error before you find what works. 

Sarkis Hakopdjanian, director of strategy and principal for the Business Clinic, recommends starting with a clearly defined purpose that everyone involved in the business is on board with. "A business without a purpose is doomed to fail," he said. "If this purpose is not clearly understood by the shareholders, employees and clients, the business will struggle to resonate with others."

Once you have established your purpose, make sure your business plan denotes exactly how you plan to grow your business. Growth is not synonymous with success, but it is important. "To me, growth for growth's sake is meaningless," said Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls. "But profitable growth with interesting clients solving important problems is what keeps me engaged and excited."

Mike Falahee, owner and CEO of Marygrove Awning Co. says the key to his business success is going back to basics. "Treat your customers with respect, pay your employees what they're worth, and have a great product you can get behind."

Don't overlook careful planning and organization, said Sally Fox, copy and content writer. "The key is setting targets and planning ahead. When I began freelancing, I was throwing myself fully into each project as it came without a thought for what happened next." Fox said that she learned to set aside time every week to plan and project where she wanted her business to go to avoid productivity gaps, which increased her bottom line and helped her maintain a steady business.

There are many ways to know when your business has achieved success. It can be objective, like a number that shows you exactly how profitable your business has become, or a position as an industry leader, or subjective, like a personal achievement or feeling of security and accomplishment. 

"I believe a successful business is a buzzing business," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. "It's buzzing with employees who are happy to work there and be part of the team. There's great word of mouth online and [on] social media. Like-minded companies want to partner with you because they see what you're doing, they love it, and they want to be part of that conversation and 'buzz' together."

Holly Knoll, business coach and creator of the Consultant Code, sees her success as a blend of her personal and professional goals. She said, "I know my business is successful when I have clients who want to experience my coaching or consulting services [and when] helping my clients also balances with me achieving my personal goals."

Additional reporting by David Mielach. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.