5 Success Tips You Never Learn in School

5 Success Tips You Never Learn in School

I’d like to share 5 lessons I’ve learned, that I wish I’d learned in college — or much earlier on in my business career. These five things have had the biggest impact on my success so far in my small business:

1. Stop Being a Control Freak

Learning the fine line between giving direction and delegating is one of the toughest things for me. My natural tendency is to want to do it all myself. Of course, I can’t.

I have to keep checking myself. I’m far from perfect. But I’ve found that it helps to visualize the power of leverage. Getting 5 sets of hands working on your business means greater success than one set of hands — even if those hands are part-time or just a few hours a month from a service provider.

Try visualizing this incredibly simple graphic if you, too, need help checking your tendencies to be a control freak:

More hands means bigger success

2. Build Incrementally

There are different schools of thought about growth. Some are of the “go big or go home” approach. Been there, done that.

The approach that I feel most comfortable with is one of developing products and services gradually, making incremental enhancements.

Start small, spend as little as you can, and build on early successes. Quickly dump the stuff that doesn’t work out.

If you take this approach, your risks of going down the wrong path and spending lots of development time and money on offerings that fail, will be minimal.

It’s also a way to gather market research along the way. You learn what customers want and you’re early enough you can build that feedback into your offering.

3. Think About a Business Problem the Last Thing at Night

Often you hear advice that suggests you should compartmentalize and put your problems out of your mind, especially late at night when you want to get some sleep. But for solving business problems, I’ve found the opposite works. I will sit down at my computer for 15 minutes right before going to bed. I’ll look at an email message that outlines a troubling problem or I will just jot down a problem and study it. I say to myself, “I’ll think about this overnight.” Then I go to bed.

You see, your subconscious mind works while you sleep. Thinking about a business problem the last thing at night is how you harness your subconscious to work on that problem.

Sometimes I literally will wake up with the solution — or easily think of several potential solutions the next day.

4. Treat Your Computer Systems Like a Factory Production Line

For millions of business owners like me, our computers are the biggest set of business equipment we have — and they’re crucial. Without a computer system, I cannot operate my business.

Yet, why do so many of us still treat our computer systems as if they’re discretionary gadgets? That’s one of the mysteries of the universe.

It’s the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome — they “get no respect.” We don’t back up our data regularly. We don’t do maintenance (such as de-fragging or critical updates) the way we should. Our electronic files are a disorganized mess. We practically ignore our computer systems until a problem happens. Then the problem turns into a full-blown crisis.

When I worked in the corporate world, the division I worked in had a factory. The division was in the electronic publishing industry, and the factory involved scanning of documents, manual data entry, and the output of CDs and microfiche at the other end. Knowledge-work, but still a factory. Business was booming and that factory operated 3 shifts, 24 hours a day.

Often when I would visit the factory, I would see a part of one operation or another shut down for a few hours, while the employees worked on maintaining the equipment (including computer equipment).

The plant manager never said to himself, “we’re so busy we can’t afford to stop and do a few hours maintenance.” No, he knew that regular maintenance would keep the production lines running and yield the highest throughput each month.

5. Pretend you Have an Accounting Department

Everybody in business hears the standard advice about the need to track and understand your financial numbers. Unfortunately, that kind of advice is easy to give, but hard to follow. 🙂

Part of the reason startup entrepreneurs avoid bookkeeping in the early years is that the numbers can be flat-out dismal. I hate to look at bad numbers.

I like to work on things that make me feel good. Paltry numbers or negative bottom lines do not make me feel good.

But you know what? Those numbers are unlikely to get better unless we as business owners find the courage to face them.

The biggest challenge for me was getting past my emotional block. To overcome that block, I would pretend I had an accounting department. I scheduled a few hours every weekend to “be the accounting department.”

It wasn’t ME personally looking at the numbers, something that would have made me feel like I personally was failing. Rather, it was the accounting department looking at the numbers — in a detached manner.

Looking at your financial numbers is one of the most clarifying of activities. I was able to “see” things in my business I never saw before, weed out the low value activities, and focus on profitability.

Image: Depositphotos.com


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

30 Reactions
  1. #3 is a gold mine. It’s good to know I’m not the only person who dreams solutions to problems 🙂

  2. Very good advice for people like me just starting out. It’s good to know that you recommend the incremental approach, as I blog often about how I’m planning on taking my time starting and testing different aspects of my business.

    Numer 3 is very interesting. I’ve always thought it a bad idea to think about problems before going to bed, mainly because it’ll keep me up late trying to think of the solution. But maybe just understanding the problem, accepting it, and then sleeping on it is a good idea. I’ll havbe to try that!

  3. #3 is fantastic advice. I sit down each night as I’m shutting down the house, computers, etc, and quickly look at what to bring forward the next day. I’m calmer at this time of night and so quite often find the answer I’ve been looking for FOR HOURS(!), and also quite often end up writing blog posts, ideas for articles, etc.

    I think it was Mother Theresa who once said to go to bed with a question and you’ll wake up with the answser. It works! That clarity is there with not one thing interfering!

  4. I’d have to agree that #3 sounds like a “visualization” tactic and makes the most sense. You see the problem and then visualize a solution overnight – excellent! And I do believe that this tactic works. I’m a firm believer in the fact that our thoughts manifest into our realities.

    But I also think it’s very important to build incrementally and over lengths of time. Develop the system, learn the system and build it into your routine. Tackle each step in that manner and before you know it – you’re actually doing it – all of it. Then one day you can step back, take a look at what you’ve accomplished and smile 🙂

  5. I concur with #3 but have to say that my emotional block came from #1 – not because I was a control freak – but because I was cheap. I didn’t want to invest the income I had in growing my business, I saw it (like many business people do) as spending instead of investing. When I hired people to help me, my business grew and my clients were happier.

  6. This is one of the most useful articles I’ve read in a very long time. Will plug it on my blog as well. For me, #2 is the key – I have slowly built my company by adding, refining, dropping, and tweaking as my working environment dictated. I was a little early to the game (the music industry is only now catching up) so that gave me time to evaluate our services constantly and refine as needed. I don’t think we’re perfect, but we’re much better off had we exploded quickly (and probably found nobody waiting there for us).

  7. Anita,

    Great introspection from your part! Regarding #3, please read the material on topic, subconscious: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/subconscious.html

    Best Premises,


  8. This is a very helpful article to all small business enthusiasts. I agree with idea#2: Build Incrementally. I found it effective even in life struggles in general.

  9. I found all 5 of these steps to be useful. #4 really hits home for me. I know my computer needs checked & updated regularly but I don’t know where to begin. Do you have a list of checks and maintenance ideas we should do regularly?

  10. Anita,

    Good pointers and we wholeheartedly agree with #2. As we work with entrepreneurs, we have the motto “Fail early, fail cheap.” Taking out a second mortgage and emptying your savings account only to find out it WASN’T a better mousetrap isn’t good for anyone involved.

  11. Many a great mind has used technique #3. Ask an open ended question . . . and leave that thought roll around in your mind for a while. Tiny flashes or sparks will come to mind that may not immediately provide the answer, but may begin to guide you towards it.

    Thomas Edison carried notebooks with thoughts and open ended questions like this throughout his life. When he died, he had over 3,400 of these notebooks – and had been filing a new patent approximately every two weeks for a period. Intuition has a fleeting, elusive quality to it, but one that should not be dismissed. And I think many would be surprised at the number of professionals that firmly believe in these gut messages.

    But I imagine #5 really helps, too 🙂

  12. I loved item #5 -“Pretend you Have an Accounting Department”. Most small business cannot produce accurate financial statements – even if the numbers are dismal. More often than not – this will also kill their chances of getting financing. Yes – some companies will finance startups with dismal numbers, but the owner needs to show that they KNOW their numbers and how to improve them….

    More on the post -http://factoring-invoices.blogspot.com/2008/08/factoring-applications-treat-them.html


  13. @ Justin, @Friendly, @Stephanie —

    #3 is a powerful technique. It took me a long time to master it, though. I don’t worry nearly as much now as I did when I first started this business — but in the early days I was the classic worry wart. So my worry tended to keep me awake.

    But with time and after some successes, I had less worry and could use that technique. I use it today and I consider it one of my most powerful business-building capabilities. Because business presents a series of problems, large and small, to solve.

    — Anita

  14. This is some good grass roots, down home and honest advice. Anytime you have a plan, you’re doing better than if you didn’t. And when it comes to business, even if it’s your own and you’re the boss, you still need to stay focused and the best way to do that is via planning and visualizing.

    It helps you to create built in little check and balance systems for yourself, that otherwise, you may not put into place. And even as Anita states in point #1, sometimes it’s ok to just give in and let the natural flow of things drive the wheel for a while – especially if you have a determined and effective plan in place already. Because unfortunately, sometimes the more you try to control – the more you loose it. If your plan is in place and your focused, it’s ok to sometimes just follow it and see where it leads you. You don’t always have to beat down doors, sometimes they just open for you.

  15. William Torresala

    I enjoyed reading your statements. Indeed # 3 needs to be practiced freely; meaning “don’t dream the problem” – I might add to have a paper and pencil nearby to jog down ideas / flashes your subconscious will be producing and or cause to keep you awake.

    Regarding # 1, I agree but it is important to accept errors and delegate freely understanding that are necessary to get to do a job well done.

    Finally regarding # 5 I have experienced that when I budget what I need to invest (expend) while I bring the concept to development – operational – production – profit then I sleep better knowing that I am not loosing but right on track with my investment but you do need to know where you are financially.

  16. Great thoughts. I haven’t used #3 the way in which you describe and will have to give it consideration. I know that if I have a stumbling block or writer’s block, I find that some of my most creative ideas come when I’m not working, i.e. taking a shower or taking a walk. I’ll mull over the issue and then start free associating. Often I’ll find the solution that way.

    As William says – have a pad of paper near by – I agree – I have one by the bed, by my chair in the family room, one in the car and one in my purse because you just never know when that great thought or idea will come to you. I have also been known to call my home, if I’m driving, and leave a message to myself on the answering machine.

    #4 is also so true – I have a one touch and back up my systems, but not every day. How many use an online service to back up their computers rather than an external?

    Thanks for the tips, Anita! D

  17. I like the 5 suggestions; I have had my engineering business for 5 years now and I want to expand a little bit on them. Computer Maintenance – I set myself an Outlook task every week or two week titled “Computer back-up and maintenance” and I do it on Saturday mornings (I have a home office). I also have a computer guy come in every 6-8 months for a “check-up” He has saved me money – like going from a virus/firewall service to using AVG free ware. His costs were less than $300 for a year.
    Thinking about a solution – I select a problem to think about when I am driving on the highway. When I am away from my office – it kind of frees me from my traditional thinking.
    Accounting – I use Quickbooks and it’s great! I learned it from a Community Education class at my school district ($75). I use an accountant for tax returns only- he also is great for email questions and his total annual expense is less than $500 a year.
    SBDC – Small Business Development Centers – they have tons of free advice and most cities have local offices.

  18. Deepak Kanakaraju

    Great words. I am visiting your blog for the first time and it is simply awesome. I know you from Yaro Starak. I heard the conversation between you and Yaro, at that time you were telling that you had 60k RSS readers and now its 196k, that’s fantastic.

    May be you would have reached 500k readers by now if you did not waste 2 years in blogger, anyway lets forget the past.

    Anita, you deserve it, you will reach 1 million RSS readers soon! And I guess you can work a little on improving the design of the blog. You can make the font size little bigger. Many people are still stuck in low resolution monitors and not every one can read like I and you do, on big screens 🙂


  19. Scott Fox, E-Commerce Success Blog

    Great stuff, Anita.
    I have never heard #3 codified but I’ve been doing it accidentally for years. Looking forward to trying it on purpose now.
    And #2 is the hardest to convince people of – piling on one grain of sand at a time may take a while, but it will also build a sandcastle.

  20. Point 3 isn’t that like sleeping with the enemy… You’ve got to get some peace of mind. I find that answers pop up in the strangest of places…

    Writing this free book was one of my midnight musings – ended up being a fantastic way to keep our marketing focussed.. http://corporate.redballoondays.com.au/go/knowledge-bank/book-of-answers

  21. I love the 5 tips. Starting up a business in not easy. When you watch your baby (so to speak) grows beyond a critical mass, you need help from others, need to hire brains and hands. The emotional stake is high.
    You may not want to be a control freak, but you may just be to emotional involved to let others do the job. Point #1 really rings a bell. I hope more small business owners learn this and really relief themselves.
    Point #3 is good but a bit tricky. I tend to do this: keep a list of issues to be tackled and sort through them into categories first before using the unconscious. There are items of “high immediate priority”, some with “need to work on”, some “nice to be solved”. And, also beware of too engaged in the problem and ignore your better half. Don’t let the business worsen your relationship 🙂
    Well, thank you for the nice article.

  22. #2 Building Incrementally is a very underestimated idea. This is the best way to manage that delicate risk vs reward ratio.

  23. I use Xero (xero.com) for my accounting and know another small business who is more obsessed than I am about ensuring their accounts are done daily.

    It is actually more of a relief to KNOW even if the picture isn’t pretty, than it is to NOT know and worry all night 🙂

  24. These are all wonderful tips from a seasoned and successful business owner. I am writing a book in which I am trying to convey how a seasoned business owner thinks to new business owners. Your number 2, building incrementally, and number 5, think in terms of numbers right from the start, are high on my list. Another one high on my list is learning to think in terms of client needs, not in terms of what you do, as is developing an instinct for creating relationships for mutual business benefit. I had a business for 13 years, then went to work in an SBA funded program counseling small businesses in the DC area. “Learning to think like a business owner” is a passion of mine…I’ve watched too many people trip over their incomplete understanding of their businesses and suffer financial and personal hardships as a result. If we are going to be a nation of self-employed people and small business owners, we need more reliable ways to achieve the full spectrum of skills it takes to be successful.

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