“Do you know what the secret of life is?” Curly holds up one finger. Mitch replies, “Your finger?” “One thing. Just one thing,” says Curly. “But, what is the “one thing?” Curly smiles. “That’s what you have to find out.” City Slickers, 1991.
Social media, business journals, white papers and blogs are saturated with guidance for businesses. A quick glance at the LinkedIn newsfeed pulverizes the reader with platitudes, business management practices and time saving ideas. Clever quotes and clichés come in waves. The endless repetition of recruiting tips is enough to induce a seizure. However there’s really only one thing, and one thing only, that a business needs. I was reminded of this after reading an article on my flight back from a client meeting in Northern California.
It was a tiny excerpt of an interview with Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Samuel Adams. The interviewer posed this question, “What’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with you?”
Mr. Koch’s answer was instructive for both start-ups and businesses seeking staying power.
“Not long after I started the company, I was talking with my uncle Bob about buying a computer, and he asked me why I needed one. I said something to the effect of `to keep track of business and bills.’ Then he asked me if I had made any sales. At this point, all the distributors in Boston had turned me down. I told him I hadn’t sold anything. He said, `I’ve seen a lot of businesses go broke, and they all had plenty of computers. Sounds like you’d better put some cold beer in your briefcase and go out and make some sales.’ And that’s what I did. The next six months, not only did we not have a computer, we didn’t have an office or phone, either. We focused on the essentials: marketing great beer and working our tails off to sell it. 30 years later, our strategy is the same.”
The one thing that Samuel Adams needed was sales. That’s the lesson imparted to Mr. Koch by his uncle. It’s the lesson that we should all take away. Without sales, nothing else matters. With sales, or even the promise of a sale, all things are possible. Or at least fixable.
This is not to diminish the inspirational value of the latest Richard Branson quote. Or the crushing conciseness of a Steven Jobs’ jab. Nor the wisdom gleaned from Jack Welch, Harvey Mackay or Peter Druker, et al.
No, instead it’s to make a much simpler point. Until and unless there are sufficient and sustainable sales – things like employee empowerment, logistics, hiring, customer satisfaction, training, expenses and taxes etc., are all long-term luxuries and/or opportunities for improvement for the business that already has the most important thing; sales.
For example, if you have sales you don’t need money. Seriously. An investor friend said this about raising capital for a new venture, “great businesses don’t have to worry about finding money, money will find great businesses.” In other words, sales trumps even having an actual product to sell. Just consider almost any of the high-profile internet start-ups.
You may never have produced a widget, but if you have a signed contract you have sales. If you have sales you can borrow money. If you have money, for however short a time, you have a shot at making the business go. The converse is not true. If you don’t have sales, not even an idea, nothing else matters.
So, press-on mastering the finer points of growing your workforce. Or managing your accounts receivable and mapping out your strategic vision for the enterprise. Just don’t forget Jim Koch’s uncle’s advice. Go out and make some sales.
 Spirit, August 2014