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Lessons learned in starting a sustainable business

As I mentioned in a few earlier posts, I’m about to spend six weeks travelling about a bit, leading some workshops, speaking at conferences etc. I won’t bore you with all the details, at least not yet.

Amongst the countries I’m visiting is Greece, where this interesting looking event is taking place.

It’s the presentation I’m looking forward to the most.

That’s because I’ve been asked to talk about the lessons learned in a dozen years or so of starting and running small businesses. That’s with reference to sustainability but not specifically, as I understand my brief.

The idea is to encourage the audience of Greek would-be entrepreneurs, policy makers and others that despite the bureaucratic hardships they face in starting and running legal small businesses, it is worth it.

So I’m putting together some really basic lessons I have tried to learn since I began starting various businesses, including Ethical Corporation, since 1999.

Here’s some draft thoughts. I’d love to hear additions.


•    The culture you create and sustain matters more than anything else.
•    If it’s not hell yeah, it’s no. (Thanks to Derek Sivers for that one)
•    You have to feel it to do it right.
•    Everyone will tell you it won’t work: ignore them.
•    Don’t ever ask permission: always assume.
•    Understand that success teaches you nothing: success is finding your way out of the maze of your mistakes without going bust.
•    Lots of people will give you bad advice.
•    There is always someone who will believe.
•    Reading books really helps! News can be a distraction from what matters: if it matters, it’s more likely in a book.
•    Embrace failure: do an audit every time.
•    Read Peter Drucker’s “Managing oneself” four times a year: and make your team read it too. Memorise it:
•    Remember who you are. (Drucker helps you do that, but so do others)


•    Be positive: always.
•    Cash flow is always king: find someone to watch it daily.
•    Find your critical customers: and nurture them. Then find others.
•    Respect, show and appreciate loyalty in customers, suppliers and staff.
•    Filter your calls and meetings based on your objectives and a firm agenda.
•    Partnerships are REALLY hard to make work and are all about aligned incentives beyond three months.
•    There’s a lot that’s free! Software, slideshare, YouTube, events, advice from experts you seek out.
•    Take notes after every meeting. Then read them. Then read them again a week later.
•    Record important calls.
•    Keep all external emails and scroll through them once a quarter for new ideas.
•    Never assume anything is still true. Or is true because someone told you it was.
•    Your customers will give you all the new product/service ideas you need if only you ask them right.


•    You run a people business. That is lesson number one. Never forget it. People are everything.
•    Take an interest in your team and show that you care about their lives.
•    Find a mentor: find two. Have them disagree. Then decide what you think is right.
•    You learn from EVERYONE. You just have to ask the right questions.
•    Let people work at home: but only when they know enough and incentives are right.
•    Finding successful entrepreneurs to talk to is vital.
•    You can always find people who will help for free.
•    Don’t always interview people in the office. (Some interviews should be outside it)
•    Don’t do staff reviews in the office.
•    Show your people their success matters more than yours.
•    Show your people that your success is their success.
•    Be prepared to give up control and equity.
•    Hire people who are better at functions than you are, and monitor them as closely as you can without hindering them (trust, but verify).
•    Promote women even if promoting men is ‘easier’ (if you are a guy! Vice versa if not).
•    Hire an antipodean: they are grounded non-moaning hard workers, and fun!
•    Rather than let a good person leave: consider setting up a new company that helps them get their idea out there.


•    There is always money somewhere.
•    Passion and vision goes such a long way.
•    If it goes wrong early: offer to sack yourself but offer an alternative path!
•    Show the business is not all about you: Systems and process achievements, objectives and plans matter.
•    Demonstrate there is an exit for them in the near-ish future if they want it.
•    Don’t neglect their emotional side: It’s not ALL about the money if they are Angel investors, for example.


•    Trust your considered instincts: don’t second guess yourself, you’ll be mostly wrong.
•    Have a hobby outside work!
•    You need your mother to understand what you do: she’s a valuable advocate!
•    Share your challenges with your partner.
•    Listen to your partner carefully, even if you disagree. They can often be right.
•    Always have a break planned to look forward to.
•    Your best ideas will come outside the office: Don’t get trapped there.
•    Steam rooms are amazing places for thinking. So are mountains and coasts.
•    Read fiction. It takes you away from work.
•    Watch/read comedy: It helps you relax and think laterally.
•    Recognise your own capacity for self-delusion.
•    Remember that pride hurts you more than it helps you.


•    Look people in the eye.
•    Have a firm handshake.
•    Pay your way.
•    Help people instinctively: what goes around comes around. People remember.
•    Don’t talk: Ask. Your work will speak for itself.
•    You can create your own support network: Start an entrepreneurs club.
•    Always be selling your idea and building support.
•    Don’t over-claim. You’ll be busted fast. Honesty sells more in the long run.
•    Smile.

Now, what did I miss? Lots, no doubt…

1 Comment

  1. I don't have any lessons to add, but they are all points well worth heeding. Thanks!