Entrepreneurs, Startup Advice

The meaning of success: Five business leaders on whether they feel successful, and what the word even means

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty. Source: Supplied.

Earlier this month, twitter user @APompliano posted a list detailing the mindsets and everyday habits of “the most successful people I’ve met”.

The tweet was shared profusely, and drew criticism and mockery from the vast and unforgiving Twittersphere. Soon, and rather predictably, copycat lists emerged, with new lists ranging from the political and satirical, to downright bizarre.

The original tweeter — Anthony ‘Pomp’ Pompliano, founder of a digital assets investment firm in North Carolina — has since taken a break from the social media platform, partly to do with negativity and personal threats he’s received.

But, while the internet seems pretty unanimous that success doesn’t come from a daily routine, where does it come from? Money? Luck? Being a golden retriever? What does the word ‘success’ even mean?

For entrepreneurs and business owners, the idea of success can be particularly abstract. While a lot of the rhetoric in the space is around company turnover, capital and fundraising, money is rarely the driver of a successful business. So, what exactly is it they’re aiming for?

SmartCompany asked five business people, who many would view as successful, about what motivates them, how they view their achievements, and how they make sure their staff feel successful too.

New FinTech Australia chair Alan Tsen

New FinTech Australia chair Alan Tsen. Source: Supplied

Fuel for the rocket ship

Kate Morris, founder and chief executive of beauty e-commerce retailer Adore Beauty is, first and foremost, a realist.

“Look, money helps. It’s hard to feel successful if you’re living off rice and beans, as I did in the early years of my business,” she says.

However, for her, success itself is not about that.

“Success is about having choices about how I want to live my life, and having opportunities to make a difference to the world. I get to work flexibly to spend time with my kids; and I also get to do great things with my business now, like paid parental leave and our Women in Tech scholarship.”

For startups, it can be hard to distinguish between financial and personal success. But, according to Alan Tsen, general manager of Melbourne-based fintech hub Stone & Chalk and newly-elected chair of FinTech Australia, “the ones that succeed tend not to do it for money”.

A lot of the media focus is on capital raises, Tsen says, rather than other milestones or goals founders may have set themselves. But he echoes Morris in saying money is just an enabler for getting entrepreneurs to where they want to be.

“The capital raise is fuel for the rocket ship, versus what drives the founder to get into the rocket ship.”

Justin Dry Vinomofo

Vinomofo co-founder Justin Dry

Vinomofo co-founder Justin Dry admits one of the “mistakes” he made early on in his entrepreneurial journey was to “tie [success] to a number”. But these days, his definition of success is now something else entirely.

“Now it’s all about enjoying the ride, always have massively uncomfortable goals and to keep taking risks and having the courage to do so,” he tells SmartCompany.

“Ultimately though, success for me is spending as much time with and looking after the people I care about.”

Others also see success in terms of positive impact on others. Canva, the Australian graphic design startup, achieved ‘unicorn’ status earlier this year, reaching a valuation of over $US1 billion.

However, co-founder Cameron Adams says his measure of success is “definitely not material stuff”.

He says: “For me, success is having a positive impact on the world.”

This could mean working with charities or on social enterprise projects, he says. But Canva’s success is being able to make design services more accessible, he says.

“We’ve had hundreds of thousands of stories of people who have changed their lives,” he says. “[Users are] able to set up their business more easily, or to share their ideas.”

Aubrey Blanche, head of diversity at Atlassian, dismisses the Twitter post that started the whole conversation, saying it “sets up super-unrealistic expectations”.

Success, for Blanche, isn’t about working out, reading and self-improvement, it’s about “being able to show up as truly who I am, in at least the majority of my life”.

“It’s not about the numbers in your bank account, it’s about asking ‘have I left the world a better place?’,” she adds.

Atlassian Aubrey Blanche

Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian. Source: Supplied

Focusing on the next thing

When SmartCompany posed the question ‘do you feel successful?’ our entrepreneurs and business people were largely flummoxed. Blanche says giving herself a pat on the back is something she is just “not predisposed to do”.

“When I look backwards, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given … the opportunities to do the work I’ve done, to try to create change,” she says.

Similarly, Tsen says: “I feel lucky … to come to work every day and feel invigorated.”

Tsen suggests that, for entrepreneurs it can be difficult to feel successful, because they’re constantly looking ahead to the next milestone.

An entrepreneur himself (one of many hats he wears), Tsen admits he’s “never taken an extended break”.

“I don’t holiday. It’s a focus on the next thing that you want to achieve,” he says.

And while his team at Stone & Chalk are wont to congratulate each other on the company’s success, “personally, it can be challenging”.

“We’re our toughest own bosses.”

This seems to ring true for Adams. While he concedes that “some people” would consider Canva a success, he says the leadership team is “always very aware of how big our mission is, and what we still have to achieve”.

That said, he admits that there are moments he’s proud of what they have achieved. Those moments come when the whole team is together, he says, and they’re “random, and few and far between”.

But at those points, Adams says, he can take a step back and think: “Wow, this is a massive thing we’ve created.”

For Morris, it’s a similar story.

“I suppose I would consider myself successful now, though that’s a pretty recent change; and it does still feel like there is a lot to do. The horizon seems just as far away as it ever did,” she says.

“I still get impostor syndrome if I compare myself to others,” she adds.

“I do struggle to celebrate success but I know I need to try harder, at least for the benefit of my team.”

Equally, Morris says, the most successful people she knows are, in fact, dissatisfied with the status quo. That is what gives them the drive to succeed in the first place, she says, but the attitude “can make you pretty unhappy if you get caught up in it”.

The key, she says, is to get some perspective.

“We practise gratitude around the dinner table every night. Each person has to say three things that made them happy or that they were grateful for that day. It’s a good way of keeping things in perspective.”

When asked if he considers himself successful, Vinomofo’s Dry says he does. But that’s not the same as being “satisfied”, he says.

“There is so much more I want to achieve in both my business and personal lives,” he says.

“Looking back, one of the things I would do differently is to stop and take the time to appreciate those special moments that were such a big part of the journey that we rushed past chasing the next one. It’s been very different over the last few years when I’ve created the space to enjoy those moments.”

Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty. Source: Supplied.

Rewards and celebrations

It’s one thing to celebrate your own success, but it’s also important to acknowledge that of your staff. And this goes beyond monetary incentives; while the business people we spoke to all stressed the importance of rewarding successful staff, again, not one mentioned cold hard cash.

Morris extols the virtues of a “well-structured and regular performance review program”.

“Everyone likes to feel like they are making progress and moving forward. People need goals to work towards so that they can feel that satisfaction when they achieve them,” she says.

Similarly, Adams says Canva focuses on making people feel empowered, encouraging teams to set themselves “big ambition goals”.

“When they do achieve them they feel like they’re celebrating something worthwhile,” he says.

“We want to acknowledge [staff members] and the effect they’ve had.”

Canva founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams. Source: Supplied.

Canva founders Cliff Obrecht, Melanie Perkins and Cameron Adams. Source: Supplied.

And when he says ‘celebrating’, he means it. These celebrations have included a Japanese festival, a paint-flinging party, a Holi festival-themed coloured powder party, and — Adams’s favourite — ‘Tomatina’-style tomato throwing to celebrate the launch of Canva in Spanish.

At Atlassian, Blanche is focussed on maintaining an inclusive culture — one that sees employees sharing their experiences and practicing openness and honesty. Partly, the idea is that happier workers will more productive.

“What we try to do is help our employees find not just a sense of success but a sense of purpose, where they’re able to develop relationships that matter to them, make impact that matters to them,” she says.

If staff members are improving their skills, growing in their roles and progressing in a way that feels important to them, she says, “that will probably reflect how they feel successful at Atlassian”.

Monetary incentives are one thing, but Blanche says: “We know in our gut what it feels to be fulfilled. You can’t replace that.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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