Who Wins: The Opportunist or the Opportunistic?
We all love stories about people who start a business and become an overnight success: The initially rag-gier and eventually richer, the better.
Why? Those stories are fun to read even though in most cases "overnight" really means "after years and years of trying and failing and trying again." Talent and skill is always earned.
That's why trying to duplicate those overnight success stories is usually futile. Chasing quick bucks is certainly tempting, but gathering slow bucks is almost always better.
Take two friends of mine.
One is an opportunist to the nth-degree. He dives headfirst into whatever industry or business opportunity he thinks is hot. He calls them "the big thing," as in, "Visual bookmarking is the next big thing."
I always think it's funny he places the word "the" before the words "big thing," since he has considered hundreds and jumped on a number of "big things" in the twenty-five years I've known him.
Examples: He tried to ride the '80s fitness wave after it crested, set up a Web design firm that was profitable until people realized they didn't need to pay $5,000 for a simple website, worked in real estate and ran a mortgage brokerage (enough said about that), and most recently turned a small squadron of programmers loose churning out game apps.
Now he's licking his app wounds while trying to figure out what the world beyond mobile will look like, since, as he says, "All the innovation has already been squeezed out of mobile... I'm thinking about what's next--and I'll be first."
For his sake I hope he's right. (Although I can't really imagine what a post-mobile world will look like; maybe that says more about me than about him?)
Now my other friend. He makes boxes: Not fancy boxes, not little blue Tiffany boxes, but ordinary, everyday cardboard shipping cartons.
Where innovations are concerned he only cares about advances that helped his customers: Faster turnaround to support lean manufacturing, customized equipment to accommodate a dizzying combination of carton sizes, carton printing techniques that support customer branding, etc.
His company does the same thing, year after year after year.
About 10 years ago the three of us had dinner. My opportunist friend tried to convince my box friend it was time to get out of the packaging business. "Manufacturing is deserting the U.S.," he said. "Every overseas container that arrives is like a nail in your business coffin."
"I don't think so," my box friend said. "Every product in those containers eventually gets shipped somewhere in the U.S., and it gets shipped in my cartons. And every item a shopper buys online needs one of my boxes to get shipped."
So what is the main difference between my two friends?
One is an opportunist: He boards possibility after possibility but jumps ship when the business gets tough or when another possibility appears to offer brighter prospects.
The other is opportunistic: He stays the basic course while capitalizing on ways to improve his products and service. He never looks for the quick buck.
Over time he's accumulated an incredible number of slow bucks.
Quick bucks are rarely sustainable since excess profits breed ruinous competition. (Just ask my opportunist friend.) Plus quick bucks suffer from the ever-increasing speed of commoditization as new ideas and products are quickly copied and the hot and initially highly profitable turns into the commonplace. The next big thing becomes a commodity within months, not years.
But some things aren't commodities: Reliable products. Great service. An obsessive focus on meeting customer needs.
Quick bucks may come, but they definitely go. Slow bucks can be, by comparison, forever--or at least as close to forever as is possible.
I know that, because there's at least one other thing that's different about my two friends:
One never offers to pay for dinner.
Guess which one.