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Best Advice I Ever Got: Charlie Gilkey

Putting up your own shingle also means putting up a sign that you're open to advice. The CEO of Productive Flourishing explains the most useful pieces he's received.

Charles Gilkey of Productive Flourishing

I'll tell you something that no one told me when I started up: somehow, putting up your own shingle also means putting up a sign that you're open to advice. All sorts of people start offering their words of wisdom--experienced executives, college students, and even people who've never actually done anything with that good business idea they won't tell you about, because you'll steal it. (Right.)

While people generally do mean well, their advice often misses the mark. Here are three bits of advice that I've received or incorporated that have never led me wrong:

1. Build from your strengths. 
In today's fast-paced and crowded market, being good simply isn't good enough. Rather than building a business that will have you cap out at "good," take the time to assess your team's core capabilities and build from what you can be truly great at. It'll galvanize your team and your market, and give you early momentum so that you won't get by merely being good. Every business mistake I've made can be traced back to not getting our business out of the comfort zone of our strengths.

2. Fanatically focus on your customers. 
Your business really isn't about you; it's about how you provide a solution to your customers that is worth paying for. Growth comes from serving more customers better, and the fastest way to get there is to get to know the conversation going on in your customers' heads. Note: This doesn't mean that your customer is always right, but it does let you know what your customers' needs and values are so that you can determine how and where you're going to serve them best.

3. Failure is necessary for learning. 
As frustrating as it is, we usually don't learn as much from success as we do from failure. Fortunately for us, success is usually harder to come by, so we therefore have a lot of opportunities to learn. To be an entrepreneur is to chart unfamiliar territory, and to turn opportunities with uncertain outcomes into economic value. To do that well, you're going to have to try some things that may not work out. But to not try at all because there may be failure is worse than trying and failing, for you learn nothing from what you don't try. Seth Godin has been saying "fail fast and fail cheap" for a while, and Jim Collins advocates a similar approach in Great by Choice when he show that great businesses "fire bullets, then cannonballs." Find a growth opportunity in your business and start a small experiment--a big win is absolutely worth a few small failures.

Charlie Gilkey is CEO of Productive Flourishing, a small business development and growth consultancy in Portland, Oregon. His forthcoming book is called Beyond Bootstrapping@CharlieGilkey

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