A story about how complacency killed my business, and what I learned as a result.
Over the last 12 years, I had the privilege of learning there's no complacency in business through hard-won lessons gained on the backs of victories, defeats, triumphs and failures. Today, more than ever, there’s no denying the reality that all business owners face: where we fail to innovate, others will not.
Pick any industry you wish, and the front of the pack will always be led by those who choose to innovate.
Adapt or die
In 2006 I rode a wave of both good luck and good timing to generate a significant income via affiliate marketing. Still in university, this sudden and dramatic success enshrined in me the belief that I was truly meant for grand things — a belief that would be challenged and corrected in short order.
As much as I’d like to tell you that my success at the time was due to my ideas and relentless work ethic, in fact, the opposite was true: I was successful despite myself. In a space where my competitors evolved rapidly, I remained complacent. Where others built increasingly optimized landing pages and fine-tuned their paid traffic campaigns, I remained content to use a tired template and predetermined ad creatives.
I watched as I slowly became less relevant; competitors changed their strategies rapidly, taking advantage of new trends and technologies that empowered their businesses. In my complacency, I stuck to what I knew. It didn’t take long for the bottom to fall out from underneath me, and in so doing I learned my first painful (and expensive) lesson in business: complacency and success cannot go hand in hand.
When I finally gained the motivation and interest to take action, the best opportunities had passed and I was left picking up the scraps that other affiliates had left behind. My strategies — nay, my thinking — had become outdated and irrelevant.
By 2009, my affiliate business had died. At the time I blamed this on a changing marketplace, unscrupulous competition, and an unfortunate tax bill. In reality, the death of the business was due to the simple fact that I forgot what it meant to innovate; to be hungry.
I lost that hunger that an entrepreneur must possess to drive their business and industry forward, and it cost me my success. I bemoaned my poor fortunes to my father. I complained and chastised, calling out every malady I could think of as the reason for my business's downfall. Looking back on the conversation, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to keep his eyes from rolling to the back of his head.
“Cameron”, he said, “you forgot the number one rule of business: adapt or die. You failed to adapt, and so your business died. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and make something happen.”
Understanding the value of innovation
In the digital space, where I spend most of my time, the value of innovation is obvious. We live in an era where the next market disrupting business may quite literally be around the corner. The pace of change is incredible, unyielding and dictated by those that would seize opportunities and define markets.
In some cases, innovation seemingly spurs from nowhere. In others, innovation is driven by external circumstances or forces that demand it.
Whether your business is large or small, digital or brick and mortar, there’s no denying the rewards that innovation brings. When we fail to innovate we fall, by default, into complacency.
We see innovation’s value with some of today’s most valuable companies. Apple, for instance, leveraged the phenomenal success of the iPod to not only save their struggling business but to also go on to completely redefine the way we view and consume content. One could argue that, through the iPhone, Apple changed the world. In so doing, they grew to become one of the world’s most valuable tech companies.
Innovation also brings tremendous value to smaller “brick and mortar” businesses — we see this when small businesses take advantage of new ideas and technologies. Take Effect Home Builders as a good example: they build net-zero homes that leverage a slew of technologies to create as much energy as they consume. Located in the middle of oil-rich Alberta, Effect builds homes with the primary purpose of reducing their environmental impact.
In the case of both Apple and Effect, each company brought innovation into a space that needed an injection of new ideas but was outwardly resistant to them. Apple faced technology giants like Microsoft, who said that the iPhone would never catch on, and Effect faces a political and social environment that is not yet swayed by the allure of ecologically-conscious homes or convinced of their necessity.
Neither company has chosen to be complacent, and in the end, by responding to an ever-changing market, both see success as a result of their adaptations.
A few questions to ask yourself about complacency
You could say that I’ve learned the lesson of why it’s important to never lose that sense of drive and hunger that you have when you start a new business. Complacency killed one of my business before, and I am very aware that if I slip back into those old behaviors and thought processes, that it would do so again.
If you feel your business becoming a little too comfortable with its operations and position in the market, ask yourself a few questions:
- Are my products and services market competitive?
- Do my services align with customer expectations?
- Am I leading my industry as it changes?
These are simple questions to ask, but I know first-hand what results when you stop asking them. By asking them, you’re continuously reevaluating your business and what it does for its customers. If you’ve been honest with your answers, you’ll find that you never have the opportunity to get comfortable — you’ll always find ways to strengthen your value proposition and further improve your services.
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