Twenty years ago, my wife and I were asked to give a talk on the Critical Success Factors in business. I have always been involved with biotech and med-tech startups, and my wife has worked for huge scientific and pharmaceutical companies. We thought that this dichotomy would interest the audience, especially if we came up with a list that was applicable to both startups and mature companies.

Starting with the 4 P's of Marketing as our model--you know, Product, Price, Place, and Promotion--we debated which P's were most important for business success, and chose these:

  1. Passion. The ability to find ways to make it happen come what may, to lead with personal authority, to reinvent yourself, and to communicate a purpose all come from a burning passion for what you are doing. The desire to always do your best is rooted in passion. Pete Rose, who treated every pitch and play, no matter what the situation, as if there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a tied Game 7 of the World Series, is the epitome of passion. I showed the clip from Scrooged in which Bill Murray yells at the head of marketing after being told that a new TV commercial was successful because market research showed that "people want to watch the show." Francis Xavier Cross's response to Elliot Laudermilk is, "That isn't good enough; they have to be so scared to miss it, so terrified!" Now, that's passion, and it will take you far.
  2. Pragmatism. You can have all of the energy in the world, and embrace the "us versus them" mentality, and break down any wall in your way, but, without being pragmatic in your approach, you will get nowhere. Even worse, you will waste a lot of time, money, and organizational energy. The tools of pragmatism are planning and auditing--the ability to set goals and test whether the experiment is working. Pragmatism melts ego--a pragmatic person is not vested in a particular view but rather in what is best for the project and charting the right course for the current terrain. My wife quoted fashion designer Donna Karan, who said of herself, "I have a passion for pragmatism."
  3. Perspective. Getting past an egocentric view of the world, your business, and your problem is crucial to success. Perspective is what MBA students learn; B schools teach you to think about all of the major outside risk factors that have an impact on your business. Knowing where you are relative to the market and your competitors, as well as the trends and the latest developments in technology and science, comes with an ability to view your work from a distance. Effectively managing people and seeing the wisdom of the alternative view come with an ability to change your perspective. I showed the clip of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet's Society in which he stands on the desk to demonstrate how a change in perspective changes one's perception of reality.
  4. Personality. Unless your business is literally a "one-man band," or you are truly irreplaceable, being successful in business means being able to work with many different people--employees, investors, customers, regulators, board members, and other stakeholders. Simply put, people want to work with those whom they like and identify with. My wife cited many examples of extremely successful people who were not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, but who did very well, were protected in layoffs, and always landed great positions because "everyone liked them." She mentioned how often during reviews of employees, managers would make a favorable comment such as "He's a great guy," and gloss over the individual's performance issues. Right or wrong, being liked goes a very, very long way.

When we finished, we asked our audience of more than 200 people to vote on which of the four P's they thought my wife and I would say is the most important one--the preeminent P, so to speak. Virtually everyone's hand was raised when we put Passion to the vote. I laughed and told them that they were simply voting for Bill Murray. We said that in our experience, it is, without a doubt, Personality.

Fast forward 20 years and four startups later, what would I say? Well, another P has come into the mix:

  1. Perseverance. After defeating the FDA in a very public, drawn-out, and tragic battle that took everything I had and more, I received an email entitled "Perseverance" from our lead investor. He was passing along his father's favorite quote and congratulated me for enduring, come what may.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. --Calvin Coolidge

Yes, perseverance got me through that unprecedented battle, and we would not have been successful without it, for sure.

If I could go back in time and knew then what I know now, what would I tell the audience is the most important P?

I would have told them exactly what I said 20 years ago--"Personality, and if you don't have one, go out and get one."