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Posted on Sun, Aug 1, 2010 : 6 a.m.

What defines success in business?

By Dianne Marsh

If you haven't read Carrie Hensel's recent column “How can women-owned companies close the revenue gap,” consider doing so. It has some interesting points about how women-owned businesses tend not to grow at the same rate as majority male-owned businesses. She briefly points out that perhaps women business owners are choosing to stay small.

I want to further explore the possibility that some business owners, male and female alike, may be defining success differently. They may be defining success not by the size of their company nor by how many jobs are created, but rather by the positive aspects of the company as a whole. Or, as the Small Giants Community describes it, the company's “mojo.”

Mojo goes far beyond size, really expressing the essence of company culture. And Small Giants are measured by more than size as well. Zingerman’s is a “Small Giant” in spite of the company growing to a number of businesses. 37Signals is another company that insists that finding the natural size for your company is essential, and that natural size is more a factor of what the company is able to sustain rather than continual growth in size.

When companies like Zingerman's and 37Signals purposefully discuss success outside of growth, it's obvious that they are not apologizing for stagnant growth. Both companies continue to grow, both in revenue and in employees. But they recognize that this is not their measure of success. They want to have innovative companies that both the founders and the employees want to work at, and that their customers enjoy.

While I agree that articles like the Wall Street Journal article provide meaningful and useful information for companies who feel that their growth is being held back in some way, I also believe that as a society we need to recognize that there are many definitions of success in business.

And if women-owned businesses are growing more slowly than majority male-owned businesses, that might be purposeful. Perhaps by equating success with that of excellence rather than on the size of the business, companies are free to place a higher priority on other attributes such as quality, service, culture, or customer satisfaction, those being far more valuable benchmarks of success.

Growth is often still part of the plan, but it is not the singular focus. This “bigger isn’t better” approach enables the companies to carry less debt, relying more on self-financing. Interestingly, Forbes reports that that women-owned businesses are more likely to be self-funded than male-owned businesses.

Does that offer some insight? With their own capital at stake, perhaps women are more likely to create businesses that can withstand economic downturns, and to create companies that prioritize customers and employees over growth. That sure sounds like success to me!

Dianne Marsh is co-founder of SRT Solutions in Ann Arbor and a software blogger. She shares this regular column with co-founder Bill Wagner.



Sun, Aug 1, 2010 : 6:27 a.m.

I looked at the preview of the book by 37Signals founders called "ReDumb" or something like that. It must have been written in the spirit of comic relief. In any case, no doubt the grant funded slackers out there will buy into it. We've moved from Ivy League style grade inflation to life inflation. As recent experience shows, however, every bubble bursts. Now, back on topic. All success is love. Love of service and love of customers. That's why Marxism, socialism, whatever is a failure: it is hate based and was doomed from the get-go. Love your customers, you will succeed.