My friend Mike recently asked me to list two key things that have helped SparkFun become successful. I gave him nine.
1. Get past the engineer's curse. Many engineers ask for two weeks to add "just a few more finishing touches." Two weeks later, that same engineer needs "three more weeks and it'll be awesome!" In the end, the product never ships. At SparkFun, we tell the customer exactly what they are getting, even if that means the silkscreen is messed up or the LED might be yellow instead of blue. People are not ok with surprises, but they are quite understanding as long as you warn them.
2. Trust (aka delegation). We cannot do it all, so we have to find good people and ask them to work for us. It's a leap of faith to let someone else ship an order or answer the phone. But we have to do it, and the sooner we ask for help and trust that person, the sooner we will get back to what we really should be working on - the business.
3. No one ever said they fired someone too soon. This may sound cold, but I have hurt SparkFun and myself by not letting people go quickly enough. Even the person getting let go is harmed when you don't let them go, because they aren't in the job that they could really excel at. When you wait, bad things happen. Do not wait.
4. Luck is a thing. The best-laid plans can be augmented or destroyed by Lady Luck. We moved into the remaining space in a building that was occupied by another tenant. We had plenty of space for us, but nowhere to grow past the space we rented. When the other tenant closed its doors, they didn't just move out; they also had to pay the five remaining years of their seven-year lease. When we needed more space, it was available and at a discounted rate. You can't plan for these black swans, just try to ride them.
5. Never stop working on yourself. There is no book that will tell you how to run a successful business. There are no social-media shortcuts. Running a business means a lot of work, challenges, and learning something new every day. Read, talk, listen, and take classes. You will quickly realize there is a noise-to-information ratio of about 20 to 1. I have to listen to four hours of a speaker to get 15 minutes of valuable "A-ha!" moments. I have to read 200 pages of a book to get 10 worth of action. Don't stop looking for more.
6. Learn the word "no." We want to meet, talk to, and help others. However, will the person be mad that I said no, or will they be more mad when I fail to deliver? Saying no is 10 times harder and more important than saying yes to something.
7. Focus on one thing and do it well. Far too many companies assume additional features or services are what the customer really wants. Like user interaction design, simpler is better. Look at craigslist: it's ugly as sin, but it did something so well (classifieds) that it uprooted the newspaper industry. There are infinite opportunities out there. Find one and hammer it.
8. First to market is important and overrated. If you have the benefit of being first to market you will enjoy a quick market share, but you will be locked into the eternal race with the red queen. If you are second or 12th to market (I believe Wikipedia was the 12th attempt at a wiki-based encyclopedia), you have the advantage of being the one that the incumbent never saw coming. Being later to market has made many of the largest companies. Nobody's watching - try something crazy.
9. Listen more than you talk. No one is given a permit to run a company, they just decide to. And there is no better way to show your ineptitude than when you open your mouth. I surround myself with people who are ok saying, "I don't know."
Remember this advice is worth what it cost you, and in this case it was darn near zero. Hope you enjoyed reading!