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Mind Your Business: Lessons from Oprah


Oprah’s wrapping things up next week after 25 years on the air. She’s folding up the chairs, taking down the tent and moving on to a new gig.

Before she goes, we should consider what small business owners, entrepreneurs and anyone with a product to sell can learn from the unprecedented success of a woman who has turned a simple startup into an enviable empire.

Go with it

Since the very beginning, Oprah has recognized the importance of being able to go with the flow. Over the years, she’s managed to ride out a career’s worth of rough surf – from bad hair-dos to the premature announcement that she’d conquered her weight problem. (In hindsight, maybe that red wagon full of fat wasn’t such a great idea, huh?)

From her anger at James Frey’s falsehoods to her revelation that she had a sister she didn’t know about, the talk show queen has learned to roll with the punches.

If she can do that (with millions of people watching her every misstep) surely your business can recover from a mistake now and then. Too often, business owners let one problem derail their dreams because they think it’s an indication that they are doomed for failure. Instead, view your mistakes like Oprah would…as part of your “journey.” Learn from them, don’t repeat them, and move on.

Give the people what they want

Over the years, Oprah’s show has evolved from a bare-your-soul tell-all for cheating husbands and drug addicted wives to a celebrity and brand driven dynamo.  Her down home style of interviewing A-list celebs drove ratings through the roof and she has continued to deliver. (What ever happened to that sofa Tom Cruise abused, anyway?)

Oprah’s a master at giving the audience what they want. When she finds something that works, she keeps using it again and again. When her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” segment proved popular, she made it an annual event and upped the ante every year -- (and you get a car, and you get a car, and…).

Small businesses often aren’t as willing to change to meet their customers’ demands. Those who do are the ones who, like Oprah, find the greatest success.

If you find a product your customers love, maybe you should consider expanding in that direction even if it’s not where you originally planned to go. If customers are asking for a service you don’t currently provide, maybe you should consider doing so, even if it means letting go of another part of your business that isn’t proving as profitable as you’d hoped.

Focus on the brand

For all of her popularity, Oprah has done an amazing job of staying focused on her brand. Rather than succumb to the temptation to host more than one show – or branch out into products or other entrepreneurial ventures, she kept her brand very tight: a show and a magazine to complement it. That’s all. Though she produces other shows, her role is kept behind the scenes.

A lack of focus on the brand is the downfall of many a small business. Over the years, Oprah has surely turned down more opportunities to pitch, promote, produce and present than I can even imagine. It takes guts to stay focused on your core brand, especially when you’re a startup that hasn’t yet gotten a firm footing. But continuing to hone the brand and keep it focused on its core message, even when that means switching gears, is essential.

Picking winners

There’s a chicken and egg conundrum when it comes to the success of Oprah’s progenies. Did Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz become huge hits because they were associated with Oprah or did she have the good sense to choose partners who had what it took to make it? 

I suspect it’s a little of both. Oprah knows who to partner with. She clearly didn’t get this far on her own. She picks strong team members and finds partners whose success and growth will benefit her own.

This tactic would work for your team, too. Finding employees and business partners – accountants, attorneys, consultants – who are committed to promoting your business is an important part of growing your business.

Know when to fold ‘em

Oprah has said she’s leaving because she’s ready to move on to other things. She also, I suspect, would like to exit gracefully. How often have you held onto something in your business too long – a bad idea, a low functioning employee, a difficult customer ? Sometimes, knowing when time is up is the most important thing a business owner can do.

Growing means changing and sometimes it means letting go. That, more than anything else, is Oprah’s biggest “aha moment.”

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  •  Jeanette Mulvey is the managing editor of BusinessNewsDaily. She has written about small business for more than 20 years and formerly owned her own e-commerce business. Her column, Mind Your Business, appears on Mondays only on BusinessNewsDaily. You can follow her on Twitter at @jeanettebnd or contact her via e-mail at



    Jeanette Mulvey

    Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.