Defining Success

Hot Air BalloonWhat is success? How do you define what success is when you’re an entrepreneur? I highly doubt that there is any written definition of entrepreneurial success but I bet it’s a subject of debate in business classes around the world. Mirriam-Webster (still better than Wikipedia for a standard definition) defines success as: 1. obsolete : outcome, result. 2 a: degree or measure of succeeding b: favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence. 3: one that succeeds. … right, exactly.

My gut tells me that I’ll know success when it happens and that whatever I might think it is, I’m already wrong. It’s all about perspective, and that perspective is what shapes success. I suspect that others may say “he’s been successful” or “she achieved success” while the entrepreneur will quietly disagree. Again, it’s about motivation and perspective. Success is totally relative as the definition above more or less eludes to.

This topic is prompted by a recent blog post by Dharmesh Shah, a Boston area entrepreneur who recently closed a round of financing for his company, HubSpot. I really enjoy reading Dharmesh’s blog, and I recently added him to my blogroll (what an honor!). Dharmesh has a perspective that I enjoy and that I share. With his feet very much on the ground, he tells it like it is, and keeps it very real. I share his perspectives on entrepreneurship, on funding, on management, hiring, and business models. Ultimately, I think we’re both a little more old school perhaps than the more typical or stereotypical web entrepreneur.

Back to success….

By no stretch can I say that I, or CitySquares, has been successful yet. Not even close pal! We are achieving small measures of success, sure, but we have not yet been successful. You may say that raising our financing was a small measure of success, but actual success? Not yet. As Dharmesh points out, just because you close a round of financing doesn’t mean shit about your success. It says that you’ve been given a full tank of gas, in exchange for a seat in your car, with the expectations that you’ll get to an agreed destination on time and maybe with some more passengers, and maybe a bigger, shinier, more valuable car. All that raising money says about you and your business is that you’ve been able to assemble a model and sell the vision and the story to (hopefully) some intelligent, experienced folks who may be angel investors or venture capital investors. Either way, most of the time, raising money is simply the result of having a good idea, a good team, and a concept that is ready to be proven, or an actual business that needs more fuel in the tank to get to another milestone. And that is what we’re talking about here, milestones. It’s those milestones that get you to the finish line. Milestones are not themselves success, they are steps towards success.

I frequently hear about this company and that company raising some outstanding amount of money, and people typically respond to that with applause, congratulations, high-fives, and in some cases big parties and celebrations. For what? Because someone said they believe your story and bought shares in your company? Come on…

When running a business, especially a funded business in an exciting industry like the Internet, or pharmaceuticals, or biotechnology, or energy, etc., it’s easy to get swept up in the ego of it all. It’s easy to get distracted, take your eye of the ball, and it’s easy to lose perspective and find your feet are suddenly far above the ground. You can bet your bottom dollar though, that somebody or something will be there to yank you back down. And depending on how high you’ve floated on the fuel of your own ego, the harder you will fall, and the more pain it will cause you, and the more dust it will kick up.

Success comes in varied shades of varied colors. So if you think raising money is success, well, than I tip my hat to you, but I do, respectfully, disagree. If you think that selling your business for multiples of revenue, or traffic, and putting gains into the pocket of your employees, your investors, and yourself is success, well, I will almost totally agree with you. If success, to you, is raising a child, building a family, earning the respect and love of your family, friends, and community, than I wholeheartedly agree with you and you are a winner in my eyes and to everyone else around you. Hopefully you will agree with that.