Succeeding Despite Yourself: The Impact of Quality
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
In my never-ending quest to discover what qualities determine success in business, I like to collect stories about people who run their own small business and overcome the odds against their success. If you're thinking about a start-up of your own, but you've been told you don't have the necessary skills or temperament, think about this one:
I've been observing the path of a contractor for a while. It's quite amazing.
The man specializes in kitchens. And he apparently specializes in taking about six to nine months to do the job. You wouldn't believe that the guy would get any business. He's a total mess. He's late to appointments. He doesn't answer his phone. He doesn't return phone calls. He loses his notes and has to come back and re-measure. He loses his work orders and has to come back and get new ones signed. He forgets your name. He loses your phone number and has to drive to your home and ask for it again.
When he does call you, he makes excuses and complains about his crew, his suppliers and his sub-contractors. He makes excuses for why he can't do the job on time. He's never on time with any part of the job. He'll make an appointment with you and forget to show up.
So why does anyone ever hire him? Indeed, why is it that everyone he has ever worked for raves about his work and recommends him. Complete with forewarning about his bad habits?
He has two saving graces:
1. He leaves your kitchen intact until he actually works on it, and he completes the job within two weeks of starting. So you are not inconvenienced by having a non-functioning kitchen for all that time. In fact, he often completes the work within a week from start to finish. So most of the time you wait, you are simply waiting for him to "get it together."
2. His work is exquisite. Despite his absent-mindedness, he truly listens to what you say about how you use your kitchen and how you want it to look and work. So, when he finishes, it looks better than you dreamed and using it is such a pleasure that you want to go to cooking school to have reason to spend more time in it.
Like many people who are more or less geniuses in their specialty, he loves his work. He has a passion for it that drives him to perfectionism.
But he hates everything else about the business. He hates paperwork. He hates sourcing supplies and suppliers. He hates keeping his books and records. He hates computers. He hates being pestered -- he'll get to it when he gets to it, he doesn't see any reason to nag.
As you can guess from the fact that he listens and understands deeply the needs and wants of his customers, he very much wants to please you. So, he will promise you he will do what you want at the time you want it. He believes, despite years of proof to the contrary, that he can deliver on his promises. He's not lying. But he can't. He is incapable of judging time accurately. So, knowing you'll be disappointed or angry, he doesn't communicate with you very well until he can actually give you the finished job. He loves his customers, he just hates that they expect anything more of him than the beautiful end result of his labor.
You might think that this is a complaint about a contractor. It isn't. I've never used his services, so I have no reason to complain.
As I said in the beginning of the article, this is about someone who succeeds despite having few of the usual personal attributes of successful small business people. He has one shining attribute that trumps them all -- he's the best. The quality of his work practically raises it to the status of art. He should sign the finished work.
This man has financial success and takes pleasure in his work. He would be much happier if he would accept that he is wonderful at making kitchens and terrible at running a business. He needs to get someone else to do all the stuff he hates.
If you want to go into business to do something you love, do it. But make sure that you understand that there are parts of it you may hate or be incapable of doing. Yes, if you are starting as a solo entrepreneur, you may have to grit your teeth and do most of all of the "hateful" parts yourself at first. But get as much volunteer help as you can, and later, even if it means putting off larger financial rewards, hire or outsource help.
Nevertheless, the story of the contractor proves that quality of product or service counts for a great deal. That is especially true in small local businesses. Since most people who start small businesses do so as local providers, it's important to recognize that you can overcome great odds against you and succeed.
So, as the story of the contractor also shows: think local. Locally, you can demonstrate the quality of your work and build trust and confidence among customers/clients. It will give you a chance to work out the bugs in actually running a business. It will give you an opportunity to find your weak points and compensate for them. It will give you the opportunity to find what you can do yourself and what you should outsource or hire help to do.
Then you can boost your success by expanding to the Internet. In cyberspace, your product or service might look just like any similar product or service. It's hard to prove your quality, and written testimonials don't carry the same weight as local word-of-mouth and referrals.
Don't worry if you make mistakes. If you are good, you have an excellent chance of success.