Wayne Gretzky, deemed by many to be the greatest hockey player ever, famously said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”
Pretty obvious, huh? We’ve all looked for signs to tell us where the puck is heading. The problem is, while some trends predict the future, others are precursors to trend implosions – and others still are off the mark altogether. Deciphering the differences requires both wisdom and luck.
In these dynamic times, when innovation, disruption and technological advances increasingly lead us into an unrecognizable world, predicting the future from past trends is trickier than ever. The trend lines that pointed to Google, Apple and YouTube as obvious hits in retrospect also predicted certain success for Webvan, Groupon – or, for that matter, Betamax.
So what’s to be done? Are you doomed unless you happen to pick the right trend? Lucky for you, execution trumps trends, and great entrepreneurs can create their own future by doing the following:
1. Stay focused. Entrepreneurs who stumble are often lured by billion-dollar market opportunities and divert their attention away from their core business too soon. Instead, attract and retain loyal, paying customers in a defined niche first. You can branch out later. The best entrepreneurs are keyed into trends and new markets, but with an eye toward building lifetime customers, even recruiting them to help with the improvements. This may not initially feel like the quickest way to grow the business, but it’ll help you stay loyal to your priorities without distraction, and in the end, boost the odds of success.
2. Know that having a great culture is the ultimate competitive advantage.Create a great team and you’ll run a 400-meter race faster than you ever would on your own. But great people do not automatically mean a great culture. The founders, leaders and managers must be intentional about accomplishing that. Make sure everyone knows they’re respected members of a winning team where people are devoted to achieving a meaningful goal. Great hiring, training and a commitment to immediate feedback are key to this – as is thoughtful firing. Allowing people to stay who don’t fit in will drive off those who will help foster your success. People really don’t compromise their values in the long run. So be sure everyone on board has common beliefs around respect, integrity, trust and a shared vision for how to spend their time, money and energy.
3. Sell, sell, sell. Most young entrepreneurs are excited about product features, solving market problems and coming up with cool new ideas. But great businesses are not simply the wrapper or delivery system for great products or services. The successful ones devote time and energy to building their team and culture and put a special emphasis on sales. They have a product strategy, a lead generation and lead qualification plan and a clear approach to finding customers, closing sales and managing accounts. They recruit customers to help them refine their service or product and help them with the next sale.
4. Take a Goldilocks approach to raising capital. I learned long ago in the incredibly capital-intensive world of real estate that raising capital is the easy part. In the early stages, having the right capital – the right investors, in other words – is key. And having the right amount of capital is important, too. Raise too much, and you may lose focus, see diminished creativity and put yourself under too much pressure to deliver at an impossible pace. Raise too little, and you’ll spend your time on the treadmill of capital-raising rather than building the business. This means developing a thoughtful business plan with key milestones that precede the next capital raise.
5.Know when to get out of the way. Entrepreneurs are optimistic. They believe in themselves, in their vision and in the trends they have analyzed that make their ideas worthy. When they’re successful, the business will usually outgrow them and they’ll need to replace themselves. In most cases, entrepreneurs continue to do what they do best, read the trend lines and build the products and services that respond to them. The best ones are able to evolve, and either stay on or leave and then return in a different capacity. Think Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Trends are important, but there’s more important stuff, much of which is under your influence. Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” And over a hundred years later, scientist Alan Kay tweaked Lincoln’s advice when he wrote, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”