The Number 1 Secret of Business Survival

In the course of day-to-day business operations, you’re dealing with things like keeping the cash flow coming in, keeping your employees and customers happy, running ads to bring in new customers and new business from your existing customers — things you do daily and in the moment. But your ultimate goal is survival; you want your business to last. And the odds are against you.

The percentage of businesses that fail within a short time is ridiculously high. Many don’t even make it through their first year, and if a business makes it to five years, that’s really something. It’s got a good chance of continuing indefinitely at that point. And a five-year business venture really isn’t that long, considering how time flies.

All the things you do, including good advertising, should work toward business survival. The #1 secret of achieving this is flexibility. Inflexibility — brittleness, if you will — is often our undoing. So while focusing on survival as your ultimate goal, be willing to adopt a flexible strategy and use tactics that come to hand. Try things out of the ordinary to avoid being shot out of the water by market forces. Adaptability to any environment will save you when things are looking bleak.

Businesses that can’t adapt just die. You could be outplayed in your marketplace by those who are hungrier or who adjust to marketplace changes better than you do. Maybe you’re using old methods, or you react to change like Henry Ford, who wasn’t willing to adjust to the fact that people wanted cars in other colors than black. (Obviously, he eventually changed his mind about that). You have to be flexible in your business, and you have to be willing to do things that move your business forward. That means being able to change, grow and adapt as you focus on your customers. When you focus on your customers, you’re able to more accurately give them what they want and provide better service.

That, in turn, helps you grow your business. When you get right down to it, flexibility is about finding out what the customers want and then discovering creative ways to give it to them. Rigidity will kill you in the end. You have to give them what they want, not what you want — and you have constantly keep yourself visible to them.

Here’s an example of how rigidity can kill a business. My mentor once tried to help an excellent printer attract more business, because he was moaning about not making enough money. When Russ gave him the solution — to market himself widely and effectively using some simple, cheap tactics — he looked at Russ and said, “I’ve got a sign out front. They know where I am. If they want printing, they can find me.” Russ argued that his sign was barely visible and his shop was tucked in the back of a strip mall, but the printer was too inflexible to change and soon went under.

I’ve met people all over the country with similar attitudes. What it really comes down to is this: are you willing to do what you need to do to get more business? Are you willing to do the one thing that many people in business don’t want to do? That one thing is thinking about their customers first. Not what they want, but what the customers want.

Many people get so entwined in operating their businesses that they never work on their business; they work in it. You have to be flexible. You can’t decide that people will come to you. Some people have been foolishly led to believe this by that old saying, “Build a better mousetrap and people will beat a path to your door.” Well, folks, people have to know about the mousetrap before they can beat that path to your door.

I believe Benjamin Franklin said that, and admittedly, he was a brilliant man. But he was living in small world where the word got out quickly about anything, and maybe people would beat a path to your door if you had a new product they wanted. But that doesn’t work anymore in today’s complex business world. We can’t expect people just to come to us; we have to go to them with our message.

Another of my business mentors once told me something that I believe in fully, and would now like to share with you: he said that you have to work on yourself harder than you work on your business. Running a business is a tough road, much more challenging than just punching a time clock, putting in your 40 or 50 hours, and going home. You have the weight of the world on your shoulders. There are great benefits to being in business, don’t get me wrong; I love it, and I’m willing to bet that you do too. But you do have all kinds of tremendous pressures, obligations, responsibilities, commitments, setbacks and adversities to deal with. Whenever you solve one problem, a new one pops up. It just never ends.

But it helps to constantly work on yourself at least as hard as you work on your business. Keep your attitude strong. Continue to face all the things that you have to face head-on, and keep grappling with them. Don’t let things wear you down; bend rather than break. That’s what flexibility is all about.

In the building where I do all my creative work, I have a big, thick piece of leather hanging on my wall. I keep that leather there to remind myself that you can take a sledgehammer to the hardest rock you can find, and it doesn’t take much to smash that rock into a million pieces. Even a diamond will break if treated that way. But you can take that piece of leather and beat the crap out of it with a sledgehammer, and barely even do any damage to it. You have to be more like the leather than the rock; flexible and pliable, willing to take a licking and keep on moving forward.