by Tom Koulopoulos
Of all the things we do to ensure our success, one is more important than all else, and yet it’s only learned in the school of hard knocks.
There are uncountable books on how to succeed in business, and all of them have something to teach. From being an efficient operator to being a great innovator, it’s all part of the essential chemistry that makes up every entrepreneur’s journey.
However, as I look back on my own entrepreneurial path, one thing stands out as the ultimate key to the success I’ve experienced and had the privilege to observe in the experiences of other successful entrepreneurs.
It has nothing to do with the many conventional pieces of advice you’ll get about how to hire the right people, how to raise capital, how to run an efficient company, how to align with the needs of your market, or how to be more innovative. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that all of these are necessary but woefully insufficient in building long-term, enduring success in any business when compared with the one thing I am going to share.
What is it? Well, giving it a name is much harder than describing it, because it doesn’t fall neatly into a category or a label. So, let me give you an example.
Behind Closed Doors
In the mid-1990s, I had a 5-year-old company that was doing extremely well. To ride the wave of our success, and to create some more gravity for it, I decided to write my first book. It was a decent first attempt at authoring but far from a bestseller. Nonetheless, I was pretty proud of myself.
At about the same time, there was another book that had just hit the market on a similar topic. The authors were well established consultants with deep roots at Harvard and MIT. Their book, Reengineering the Corporation, went on to be one of the best-selling business books of all time. This was what I aspired to!
So, with little to lose, I wrote a nice letter to one of the authors, Jim, and sent it along with an autographed copy of my book. A few weeks later, I got the most pleasant reply letter from Jim thanking me for the book and noting that he would be reading it during his travels. I was a bit giddy to get a personal reply, but for some reason I didn’t follow up.
A few years later, a series of serendipitous events led to a meeting with Jim about partnering with his company. After the meeting, I got a call from Jim saying that while the partnership wasn’t right, he was sure we’d have the opportunity to work together again in some way. It could have been the way he said it, but it was clear to me that this was more than just a gracious way to say “no thanks.”
A few more months went by, and our Inc. 500 status was landing us acquisition offers. I needed someone who understood our business to turn to for advice. I called Jim. Without hesitation, he agreed to get together and chat.
While we decided to keep growing the business rather than sell, Jim became an indispensable adviser and mentor over the next several years.
Ultimately, in what I can only describe as serendipity run wild, he helped orchestrate the sale of my business to a $2 billion tech giant.
So, here’s my question to you: As you read through that, what’s the “one key” that I referred to in the title of this column? Was it writing the book, sending it to Jim, not selling the business, having a great adviser, the ultimate sale of the business? Actually, it’s none of the above. The key was the connection with someone who was willing to open doors for me.
With no direct benefit to himself, Jim opened doors for me in more areas than I can begin to recount. I remember at times wondering why in the world he was so willing to help when this was clearly (in my mind, at least) a totally one-sided relationship where I was getting all of the value.
As I look through the entirety of my career I can point out dozens of Jims, from my high school wrestling coach, to my first boss who ended up as my first VC, to my first consulting client who basically funded my first business, to people I’m still meeting today who, for little reason other than that they could, have been able and willing to open doors I could never have opened on my own.
What’s critical to understand is that these people don’t just fall out of the sky. As was the case when I sent my book to Jim, you have to reach out. After all, nobody ever said that you cannot pick and choose your mentors, and yet so many people feel they need permission to do so. If anything works against the vast majority of people, as they attempt to build a career or a business, it is their inhibition to seek out and connect with people who can open doors.
What I’ve learned is that we all meet these people but not all of us nurture the connection, treat it with the respect it deserves, celebrate having these people in our life, and give back by telling them how grateful we are for their help.
And here’s the coolest part of all. Eventually, you will find yourself on the other side of that equation, where now you are the one opening doors. And when you arrive at that point, I can guarantee you that a moment will come when you realize that the reason these amazing people helped you is the same reason that you now help others: because there is something about fueling the spirit of human potential that is familiar to you, because seeing others grow and succeed is, in many cases, even more fulfilling than experiencing your own success, and most of all, because you can.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.