What does it take to make it in business?
That’s a question I’ve been asked many times. Years ago, a college student asked me about all of the elements of starting a company including invoicing, customer service, sales and marketing, and even the subtle factors like employee morale.
“You just have to do everything perfectly and you’ll be fine,” I said at the time.
Many decades before that, Jeff Bezos also had a simple rule for doing customer service and meeting customer needs, according to a new book about the phenomenal rise and continued dominance of Amazon. “It has to be perfect,” he said circa 1999.
Interestingly, innovation and perfection go hand in hand. To build any business, you have to be perfectly innovative. Create the exact product people need at the perfect time (and throw in at the right price as well). Companies fail because they are imperfect at innovation. Yet, it goes much further than that. You can build an average company that is not quite perfect, but having a long and fruitful career in business, running a marketing department or catalyzing employees at a startup to think differently about a new product, or gaining the unparalleled brand recognition of Amazon requires something far greater. Perfection has to touch every corner.
I’ll give you one example. When it comes to email communication, I’ve seen employees who make frequent foibles. I’m not talking about grammar. They come across as a bit rude or condescending, they treat customers poorly, or they’re too abrupt. Do that over a few years and eventually the recipients of those emails (also known as the people who send you money) start to view your organization as a bit average or even toxic.
The chain of events tends to occur on this progression: A handful of toxic emails leads to a slight perception of toxicity which then leads to customers who don’t want to do business with you anymore. You could say toxicity at a company starts with one imperfect email.
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And then, expand out from there. The accounting department fudges on a few expense reports. No big deal! We’ll correct it next year. The marketing department doesn’t stick religiously to brand dogma and lets a few things slip. Your shipping department is not that concerned about a few delays here and there.
In terms of how technology plays a role and how innovative companies either thrive or dive, the imperfections are even more obvious. Using outdated technology because it’s “good enough” for now. Letting security holes stay wide open for years because plugging them would take up too much time and effort.
Now, I’m not sure other great companies like Apple have followed this advice since their inception. You could argue that Apple really had a desolate period after Steve Jobs left. (I recall attending an Apple event once where the air was thick with desperation and a fatalistic vibe.) Yet, you could also say the company has been close to perfect since about 2007.
The question is how to maintain this level of perfection over long periods. I don’t have an easy answer to that. Also, I’ve never built Amazon. If I ever get a chance to interview Bezos, it will be one of my first questions. Most of us are dealing with some imperfections here and there.
The good news is that there is also an opportunity for a restart. In your career, at your company, or even in life. I’m using the word perfection here but what I really mean is a commitment to perfection, to living and working with utmost excellence in mind. As we all know, Bezos is not perfect. But Amazon is a great company and continues to grow and expand.
I can only speak for myself in this regard: Excellence is not always at the top of my mind. I need to constantly evaluate my tasks and projects to determine whether I’m letting anything slide. At the end of the day, this constant self-analysis and adjustment is all mere mortals can do.