Missionary or mercenary? 3 keys to small business success

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 8:10 p.m. MST

Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com, founder and CEO, takes questions from shareholders during the Amazon shareholders meeting in Seattle in this June 14, 2007 file photo.

Associated Press

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It would be hard to dispute that the founder of Amazon.com Jeff Bezos is anything other than a success. Bezos had a successful career with a New York hedge fund when he decided to roll the dice, move to Seattle and start Amazon.com.

Last Friday night, I attended the Utah Technology Council’s 14th Annual Hall of Fame banquet that featured the Amazon founder as their keynote speaker. The main event was the induction of former Omniture founder and current DOMO CEO Josh James, and Merit Medical Chairman and CEO Fred Lampropoulos into the UTC Hall of Fame.

But I could have listened to Bezos for another hour or more.

After hearing his story and what motivated him to build Amazon.com, I’ve become a huge fan. You really have to admire someone who started in his garage and is now worth somewhere around $19 billion (that’s right — billion with a “b”). He ascribed his success to “A lot of luck and planetary alignment,” but I believe there’s a lot more to it than that.

Bezos argued that there are two types of entrepreneurs: missionaries and mercenaries. Missionaries are motivated by a strong desire to provide a product or service to their customers with almost missionary-like zeal. Everything about what they do is designed to enhance the customer experience and provide value.

The mercenary is only interested in building a company to churn and burn — make some quick money with a quick sale, move on to the next business and start all over again.

Interestingly, Bezos suggests in the long run, the missionary is more successful than the mercenary — and definitely lives a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

In addition to my self-imposed mandate to become a real missionary, three of the biggest lessons I took away from Bezos that night are:

Start with the customer and work backwards: “At Amazon, we’ve selected people who are thinking of ways we can improve the experience for our customers,” he said. “ ... We seek to do things in new and better ways … it’s creative disruption … in our case, we think of it as our job to build the best customer experience in retail we can.” Too many businesses create products they think should be successful, but don’t pay any attention to whether or not their offering resonates with their future customers. We should be asking ourselves, “Do I really understand my customers’ needs and does my product or service meet those needs?” When we start with the customer and work backwards, we’ll be investing in the products and services our customers will purchase and build a strong and thriving business while we’re at it. Amazon.com is a great example.

Don’t be afraid to walk like a toddler: “Businesses need to remember, it’s not bad to fall down. It doesn’t hurt too much,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, all that happens when we stop is that our operating margin will improve. It won’t be that bad.” I think Bezos and Thomas Edison are cut from some of the same cloth, “I’m not discouraged,” Edison said, “because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” For example, before they came up with the Kindle, Amazon had tried and failed at least three times to come up with the right platform for an eBook. “Sticking to the knitting is way more comfortable,” Bezos said. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the businesses that aren’t always trying to improve and grow eventually become obsolete and irrelevant. “Most people get criticized for experiments that failed,” he said. “They shouldn’t.”

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