How to Tell If Your Business Is Successful On YOUR Terms

By Alexandra Suchman and Alison Mendoza-Walters

Part 1: What does a successful business look like?

What does a successful business look like?

Most people would probably answer this question with something about revenue exceeding expenses, generating high profits, or maximizing efficiencies. In our society, the concepts of business and profits are so inextricably linked that we often assume that the primary goal of every business is to make as much money as possible.

It’s true that profits are fundamental concepts for every business — they are, in fact, what distinguish business entities from nonprofit entities. For many of us though, particularly among small businesses, the quest for the almighty dollar is not what led us to start our business, and is certainly not what makes us feel fulfilled.

I got into this conversation over coffee with my friend, collaborator, and fellow mission-driven small business owner Alison Mendoza-Walters. We talked about how much of the default language used in business literature just didn’t resonate with us at all, and not just because of the philosophical differences between being profit-centric versus person-centric, or having a “zero-sum” versus a “there is enough pie for everyone” mentality. (Though I could go on at length about the damage from decades of businesses putting profits above everything else at the expense of the environment, wealth and income equality, workers’ rights, thriving communities, job stability, and on and on. But I’ll spare you that tangent).

What Alison and I were wrestling with was both more specific and more existential: what does success look like when your primary motivation is doing good work, and making a difference?

Like many other small businesses founders, we started our businesses as part of a search for fulfillment, to build a career around using our unique talents and gifts to help others. While these business missions may be idealistic, us business owners are not naive and living in kumbaya-land: we understand that revenue and profits are essential to having a business. We don’t want to be in the red all the time.

We know that making money and doing good are not mutually exclusive. But we wanted to dig deeper into the question of how to think about small business success when profit isn’t the ONLY goal. A few months ago I wrote about how to define and talk about personal success when money, power, and influence aren’t your end goals, but the conversation is different for businesses. Over the next few weeks, Alison and I will be exploring this question from a number of angles.

Stay tuned.

Click here to continue to Part 2: Can You Measure Fulfillment?