How Do You Define Business Success?

Business success doesn't look the same across the board, and nor should it.

Defining business success
Apple and oranges: What constitutes success for one business may be a trifle to another.

Business success doesn’t look the same across the board, and nor should it.

When my business partner and I wrote our book, The Boss of You, we avoided characterizing and generalizing the idea of success for business owners. It seemed every business book we picked up wanted to dictate what our lives would look like once we had scaled the peak of success: franchising; rapid, perpetual growth; maximum profit; four-hour workweeks; and, if you were reading “women’s” business books, an endless stream of mani-pedis.

But that wasn’t our picture of success.

Every entrepreneur shapes her business in her own image, and we are no exception. We wanted what has been snidely labeled a “lifestyle business” – a term I would love to wipe out of the lexicon. Good clients, interesting work, comfortable profits, and a strong sense of purpose are the elements that define success in our eyes. And we’ve built up a highly successful business by those standards.

But of course, the dominant paradigm comes crashing in fairly regularly, and I confess to having my moments of self-doubt. This is despite having written a book that assures readers their versions of success are every bit as valid as the ones they see trotted out in the business section.

After catching up with an old friend who runs his own business, I came into the office green with envy. I began telling Emira about all the successes this fellow has had in recent months: Huge profits; fascinating new technology in development; new geographical markets; and, most jealousy-inducing of all, a forthcoming month-long vacation. Why, I whined, can’t we have all of these things?

Emira, doll that she is, reminded me ever so gently that maybe I needed to revisit my definition of success.

It’s insidious, the habit of comparing ourselves to others – particularly in the business world. We want to know that our revenues aren’t just sufficient for us, but impressive to others (especially if we have investors). We designer-types compete with each other on the basis of our portfolios: Who has the most impressive client roster, and who’s done the most cutting-edge work? In technology, it’s all about building the newest, shiniest tool that everyone wants to use. And among the “lifestyle” entrepreneurs, there’s an undercurrent of competitiveness about who’s happiest, most relaxed, travelling the most, and achieving the much sought-after work-life balance.

So do you know what your bottom lines are? What are your priorities, and how are you defining success? If you check in on them from time to time, you might be surprised how little it starts to matter what the Joneses are up to.