Self-interest and your small business

Mark Forster has an interesting post on acting in one’s self-interest. As he correctly points out, this is often taken to mean “do unto others, before they do unto you.” But as Mark explains:

In fact this is the very reverse of acting in one’s own best interests, since it can hardly be thought to be in anyone’s best interests to alienate other people so that they will not cooperate.

The results of confusing acting in one’s own best interests with a narrow mean-spiritedness are disastrous.

Business is a perfect example of this principle. We own a business with the goal of making a profit—we are pursuing our own self-interest. But we cannot achieve this if we charge outrageous rates, attempt to underpay employees and treat them poorly, cheat customers, and engage in other activities that might seem to have short-term “benefits.” The result of such actions is that we will have difficulty getting customers and keeping employees, which ultimately is not in our self-interest.

Acting in our self-interest means looking at the big picture and the long term implications of our actions.  A classic example is a college student who faces a choice between studying for an important exam or going out with his buddies. Hitting the town for a night of partying can certainly seem appealing, but if he fails the exam it would harm his grades and could ultimately impact his career.

In business we must often choose between the short-term and the long-term. If we want to truly act in our self-interest–to achieve our long-term goals–then we must recognize when the two might conflict. And we must act accordingly.

Small business success is an attitude

Mike is a plumber. John is an electrician. Both have a reputation for doing good work. Both stay very busy. But that is where their similarities end.

John drives a new van with professionally designed graphics. Mike drives a 15-year old van with a tattered magnetic sign. John wears a polo shirt with his company logo. Mike wears whatever t-shirt happens to be clean that day. John works 40 hours a week, spends his weekends with his family, and takes regular vacations. Mike seldom gets home before 6 PM, works most Saturdays, and doesn’t know what a vacation is. John charges the highest prices in town while Mike is known for his low rates. Mike complains regularly about being underbid by the competition. John doesn’t know what his competition charges.

Mike and John are friends. Neither can understand how the other operates. Mike can’t understand how John gets away with charging such exorbitant rates. John can’t understand how Mike manages to stay in business.

The differences between Mike and John go way beyond the obvious. The differences are fundamental. The differences go to the very core of how they view their business and the world. The differences are philosophical.

To Mike, his business is the means to pay the bills. He views the world as limited in opportunity. He operates much like everyone else in his trade. He finds comfort in the status quo and refuses to take risks. When John tells him to raise his prices, Mike complains that customers won’t pay more.

To John, his business is the means to the type of life he wants to live. He views the world as full of opportunity. He continually looks for ways to differentiate himself. He believes that what was good enough yesterday won’t be good enough tomorrow. He regularly offers upgraded services and products, which his customers love and make him more profit.

Mike is afraid to stand out. He is afraid to act on his own judgment, and thus he embraces the status quo. John wants to stand out, to be different. He has confidence in his own judgment, and the courage to act accordingly.

Mike and John could just as easily be the owners of any small business. Indeed, they have many counterparts in virtually every industry. Their outlook on life ultimately determines what they do with they lives. Those who dream and take action will achieve their dreams. Those who seek to learn and grow will learn and grow.

In the end, each of us gets to choose whether we will be Mike or John. Each of us gets to choose what our business will do for us. Each of us gets to choose what kind of life we will have.

Long-term success requires a long-term commitment

I hear a lot of small business owners complain that they simply can’t find the time to work on certain projects. They want to develop systems and procedures, or improve their filing system, or complete some other project that will have long-term benefits. But they just can’t seem to squeeze the time into their day.

Brian Tracy offers some tips on how to make better use of your time.

Some people allocate specific 30-60 minute time periods each day for exercise. Many people read in the great books 15 minutes each night before retiring. In this way, over time, they eventually read dozens of the best books ever written.

The key to the success of this method of working in specific time segments is for you to plan your day in advance and specifically schedule a fixed time period for a particular activity or task.

Long-term projects require a prolonged committment– consistent steps in the right direction. By setting aside some amount of time each day or each week to work on a project you are able to make gradual, yet consistent progress.

Many highly productive people schedule specific activities in preplanned time slots all day long. These people build their work lives around accomplishing key tasks one at a time. As a result, they become more and more productive and eventually produce two times, three times and five times as much as the average person.

Like many time management tips, this is easier said than done. The daily demands of owning a business, in addition to family, friends, and hobbies, can stretch your time very thin. Focusing on priorities, rather than the interest du jour, keeps us moving toward your long-term goals. And to keep that focus, you must regularly schedule time to work on those projects.

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