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What is a successful business?

How do you measure the success of a business? Is it the fact that it pays its way? And does that mean that if it makes more money it is more successful? These are questions I keep coming back to.

Running a business is not too different from running a household. It is an enterprise, with incomings and outgoings. With the place you live there are bills to pay: electricity, gas, rates and rent or mortgage payments. If you are able to pay the bills, does that mean the household is a success? Sure, if you don’t keep up with the bills there will be problems. Is it even more of a success if I add extra rooms? For me, these are not valid measures. For me, the success of the place I live is that it is my home.

If a tap leaks, why do I want to fix it? If I am a property speculator it may be to protect my investment. However, in my case I do it because I want the settlement of knowing the house is sound. The house looks after me and I look after it.

In the same way, a business has to pay its bills, and it has to make a profit in order to do so. But if that is its primary purpose then it is not very attractive. There was a local plumber who was like that. He had apparently been told that plumbing was a good way to make money. I haven’t seen him around here recently. A good plumber understands water. The plumber we use (when we can book him – he is ever so busy) has a respect for water and the way it flows. In his spare time he goes fishing – he can’t keep away from water. He is a lovely man.

So, how do you measure the success of a business?

Looking at the businesses I deal with, the ones I enjoy mixing with the most are where its people are proud of what they do. They know they are making a contribution. They have a service they can offer, and the business is their way of doing so. It seems to be a human characteristic that we want to feel useful.

All this does not mean that the business doesn’t grow. However, just as there was a reason for launching the business in the first place, there has to a reason for the growth. Has the volume of work increased to the point where we have outgrown our premises? Are there new products that we want to add to our range? Are there new ideas we want to explore? Personally, I hate going into debt, so I try to fund any expansion out of profits. Growth itself is neither good nor bad. Sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it isn’t. It is the pursuit of growth for its own sake that for me is an issue.

The reason I am writing this is because I regularly receive offers of business loans and other incentives to grow and expand our business. The people calling me seem to assume that all businesses want to get bigger, and all that is holding them back is lack of funds. I often feel that the people who call with these offers inhabit a different universe from the one I live in, so I tried to understand their point of view.

This ‘go-for-growth’ way of thinking permeates our world, from individual to national level. Companies will consider making redundancies in departments or sectors that are not profitable. Surely, then, making more money equals success? Otherwise you may lose your job.

The government measures the success of the economy by how much more money it turned over this year compared to last year. When large businesses, or countries, make less money than previously they are deemed to be in trouble.

It is a fact that when China’s growth rate drops by one or two percent, there will be repercussions worldwide. Some people will lose their jobs and have difficulty keeping going. But is the corollary equally true: that when its growth rate increases this is a mark of increasing  success?

I know people have questioned this many times before. Bhutan briefly hit the news headlines when their government decided to measure gross national happiness rather than gross national product as their criterion for success. But old habits die hard, it seems.

For me, the fact that a business (or a country) pays its way is necessary, but is a one-dimensional measure of its success. Just as paying the bills does not make a house into a home, the purpose of a business has to lie somewhere other than profitability. That calls for more sophisticated measures of success than whether it made more money this year compared to last year.

I also think that what is valid at the macro level (governments and large companies) may play out differently at the level of a small business like ours. The first dividing line seems to come when you take on employees. As a principle, we prefer to work with people, rather than employ them to work for us.

The next time someone phones or emails to offer me ways to grow our business that is what I will say to them.

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First name into the hat …

St Lukes Trust in Padworth, Berkshire

Nominator Michael says:

“st. luke’s trust is a charity that supports people with disabilities enabling them to become more independent.
With a large garden, we provide a peaceful yet productive space where tenants can work at their own pace and develop skills in a supportive and caring environment.

Apart from enabling tenants to grow their own produce, our large garden means we will have a regular supply of fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs. Our tenants take part in all aspects of the produce; choosing what is planted, maintaining/watering and eventually the picking and harvesting. This gives all tenants a sense of achievement and they take pride in this activity, and large beds means all tenants have the chance to take part no matter what their level of disability.
i think if the charity was to recieve the gift it would be spent on smaller hand tools as these are the one’s used most by the tenants.”
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The water’s tribute to Viktor Schauberger

For Viktor Schauberger, the water was alive. If he was right and if the water could speak, maybe this is what it would say of him.

He saw us. Not many of your kind are able to do that.

He saw the complexity of who we are. He marvelled at the intricacy, beauty and simplicity of the shapes we form and move out from as we flow.

He loved us.

He was able to feel the swirls within swirls within swirls that are our joy and reflection of the movement of our Mother, the Earth.

He knew that our movement is our life, our expression, our buoyancy.

When he was a child, he sat on the bank and played with us.

We felt him as he followed our flow with his mind. This was a rare treat for us.  We loved it when he moved with us in that way.

When as an adult he came to us in a moment of need, how could we not respond? We felt his desperation as he stood by the bank of a stream. He asked for our help. We showed ourselves to him. For him, it was a moment that changed the course of his life. From then on, we were joined.

In his free moments he drew what he saw of us in his mind. He made many drawings, and pondered on them.

He was saddened that most humans did not see us as he did. He saw that their actions made us sick and reduced our vitality, our healing quality. He wanted to do, to make things better. He built devices. They were beautiful, like us, their inspiration.

Some of his devices over-stimulated us. But we still loved him, as he loved us.

He looked for a formula and was disappointed when he couldn’t find one. We wanted to tell him, “We are very good at what we do already. Your love is enough for us. That makes us sparkle with joy. And when we sparkle with joy then we are enlivened and all is well. Your love is precious to us.”

But even though we were with him always, he couldn’t hear us.