- 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.
- This article is for entrepreneurs who want to understand what success in business looks like so they can lead their team on the right path.
Many new business owners start with a goal of "being successful." But what does "being successful" really mean? The simplest (and most accurate) answer is that small business success is different for everyone. As with everything else for your business, it's up to you to define success.
What is business success?
The journey to greatness is a different experience for each business owner. Hope Wilson, a senior marketing specialist at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, said she views 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," Wilson told Business News Daily. "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."
"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.
Key takeaway: Because every business owner's journey is different, each business owner has his or her own definition of success. It's important to measure your success and understand how you will go about mapping and achieving your goals.
How to create a business success strategy
Taking the time to examine your industry and your short- and long-term goals is a great way to set yourself on a path to greatness. Keep these tips in mind when defining success for your business.
Write down your business goals.
Setting long-term goals helps you pinpoint what success means for you. Sometimes, putting your ideas on paper helps you 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 among those goals? Write down your vision of success for each time period, and revisit the plan every year to see how your vision has changed.
As you're setting goals, remain as realistic and clearheaded as possible. "One thing that can make or break a business is the amount of preparation and planning that is done objectively," said Deryck Jordan, founder and managing attorney at Jordan Counsel. "Passion is important, but don't let your passion blind your objectivity."
Use the SMART method.
To establish your goals, use the SMART method: Be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-oriented. Using this method will help you keep your purpose in mind as you create each business goal. Additionally, it will allow you to think about how that goal can contribute to your idea of success. [See related article: How to Develop SMART Goals for Your Business]
Study your field.
Thoroughly research your industry, competition and audience. By doing this, you keep your goals realistic and "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 keyword here is 'worthy.' Ask yourself this: 'If you reach your goal, will you look at it as a goal worth attaining?'"
Key takeaway: To create an effective and strategic plan for success, be sure to research your industry. You also need to develop realistic goals using the SMART method.
How to apply your goals to your business
Turning your goals into reality isn't easy, but thankfully, there are several ways to make them happen and check your boxes. Here are some of those methods:
Delegate the work.
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 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.
Measure your growth.
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.
Don't be afraid of failing or changing course.
Remember that goals change, so you must remain flexible. Try to stick to the one-, five- and 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 maybe 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."
Remember your mission.
As you experience failures and setbacks, keep your vision and company 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 it's important to focus on your vision and to be passionate about what you do. Sometimes, that may be 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," Larsson said.
Applaud yourself and your team.
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," said Matt Levine, restaurateur and founder of Chlorophyll Water. "It often goes hand in hand with financial rewards as well."
Key takeaway: When applying your goals, think about the actions needed to bring your plan to fruition. Track your progress, and be flexible with your plans, especially when facing challenges. Be sure to keep your mission in mind and to celebrate your accomplishments.
The keys to business success
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. Business owners shared these tips for what has worked for them.
Create a vision your team and clients understand.
Sarkis Hakopdjanian, director of strategy and principal for The Business Clinic, recommended 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."
Make sure your business plan is measurable.
Once you've established your purpose and core values, 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."
Give your customers and staff what they deserve.
Mike Falahee, owner and CEO of Marygrove Awning Co., said the key to his business success is going back to the basics. "Treat your customers with respect, pay your employees what they're worth and have a great product you can get behind."
Plan, plan and plan some more.
Don't overlook careful planning and organization, said Sally Fox, copy and content writer.
"The key is setting targets and planning ahead," Fox said. "When I began freelancing, I was throwing myself fully into each project as it came without a thought for what happened next."
Fox said she learned to set aside time every week to plan and project where she wanted her business to go, to avoid productivity gaps. That, in turn, increased her bottom line and helped her maintain a steady business, she said.
Key takeaway: The key to business success isn't just one thing. It's a process that requires a clear and measurable vision that your team and clients support. It's also helpful to create a respectful workplace and to always be prepared.
How to know when your business is successful
There are many ways to know when your business has achieved success. It can be objective, like a number that shows your cash flow or exactly how profitable your business has become, or a position as an industry leader. Or, it can be subjective, like a personal achievement or a 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.
"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," she said.
For some business leaders, a quality experience and happy customers are signs of business growth.
Key takeaway: The signs of a successful business are subjective, but some business owners base the definition of business success on status, customer satisfaction or popularity.
Additional reporting by Simone Johnson and David Mielach. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.