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What Matters More than Money? Stamina

What is it that entrepreneurs most need? When I ask that question at business schools, the answer is always "money." But when I ask it of entrepreneurs themselves, the answer is something else -- and it's always the same: "stamina."

I've interviewed successful business owners around the world, and that's always the answer I get. When you think about it, the reason is obvious. If you quit, the game's over and you know the outcome. But if you can keep going, you still have a chance. The question is, How do you keep yourself going? The answer may surprise you. Liz Elting, who runs Transperfect, one of the world's largest translation companies, vividly remembers an all-nighter she and her co-founder Phil Shawe pulled for a prestigious new client: "I remember one Christmas Eve that Phil and I were doing a job for Goldman Sachs, and we were in there working through the night. When it was done, we were late (and exhausted!) for our own personal family celebrations... In the first few years, there was a lot we gave up."

James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame spent twenty nerve-wracking and nearly bankrupting years bringing his revolutionary design to market. Chronicling the lawsuits and betrayals he went through, Dyson's autobiography Against the Odds (one of the few great business autobiographies) is exhausting to read. It chronicles years of dishonest dealing, corrupt business practices and sheer bad luck as Dyson bulldozes his way through business deals that always seem to explode at the last minute.

And I'll never forget Karla Diehl's laughter when her firm Edison Automation made it into the Inc. 500. What was the big joke? "Everyone's congratulating me as though we just arrived," she said. "But we've been trying to figure this business out for nearly twenty years!"

What all business founders learn is that success rarely occurs overnight, and the triumph, when it arrives, does so when you're too tired and battle-weary to celebrate. But what they've all learned along the way is that keeping going is the ultimate test. So where does that stamina come from? A colleague once asked me how I'd outlasted the 40 other CEOs in my corporate group, who'd all quit somewhere along the way. I realized that since I had two small children at the time, I had to go home at 6 p.m. Getting out of the office had kept me in the game.

It's counter-intuitive, but stamina comes from having the courage and discipline to step away from work. Here are three ways to start:

  1. Go home before everyone else does. It gives your employees permission to go home, too. Unless you're in crunch mode, they're much smarter when they're rested than when they're fried.
  2. Give everyone a break after hitting big milestones. Otherwise the milestones become meaningless.
  3. Be honest about family commitments. Most people don't work for money; they work for their families. They'll be more committed if you reduce the conflict they feel between work and family.
All success requires stamina. So why do we persist in thinking long hours are good for us? If you're running a marathon, why try to maintain a sprinter's pace?

Image courtesy of Flickr user MondSeeLand Mondsee-Irrsee, CC 2.0