"How did you do it?" Without a doubt, this is the question most often asked of successful founders. But it's the wrong question focused on the wrong thing: the outcome. What we really ought to be asking about is the journey--from start, to successful outcome, and more important still, beyond any individual measure of success.

There is distinct and consistent pattern in the journeys accomplished founders take, one that reveals important clues about how to increase your own odds of success. There's another pattern among those who fail to seek out or see why the exceptional ones succeed. It's important to know that one too.

Falling short of entrepreneurial success

Here's a pattern that stubbornly proves true: 9 out of 10 ventures fail. For more than three decades the U.S. Small Business Administration has annually reported that 80% of all start-ups never make it past their first year, and 50% of those that do disappear in under ten years. Seasoned entrepreneurs will tell you that this is less a result of ideas that weren't embraced, and far more a result of entrepreneurs failing to understanding, appreciate, or even ask about what's lies beyond "starting up".

Those who fall short are often too busy dreaming of success--which brings us to a second and less expected pattern. When a rare entrepreneur does succeed, that is to say, when he or she actually achieves the benchmarks of success they envision when they start, they are most often disappointed. It's not that the accolades and accomplishments they garner along the way have no value or aren't noteworthy. Instead it's the reality those things don't fulfill the founder in the way they imagined they would.

Former Dean of the Kellogg School of Management and Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies Dipak Jain put it this way. "In entrepreneurship, you have to keep in mind that you are building not for tomorrow but for many more years beyond. Successful entrepreneurship is about taking good steps that will allow others to take good steps. It's not just about getting there." What it's about is realizing that "there" keeps moving.

A path towards success--and more importantly, beyond it

Stanford Business School Adjunct Professor of Management and former CEO of Trammel Crow Company Joel Peterson teaches his MBA students that they need "to look beyond the superficial" to truly understand success, how to achieve it, and what gives it lasting impact. Think about that for a moment. He's telling yet-to-be minted entrepreneurs that "success" isn't just the overstated obvious (though necessary) basics of profit and loss, marketing and brand, or taking care of the here and now. Joel and others who are themselves accomplished entrepreneurs or work closely with them look at success in broad terms, much broader and further out than any present task, role, or plan.

'For such founders, a continuum inevitably emerges, one moving not simply to success but beyond it to something more. Simply being aware of what lies beyond success can not only help you better define success in the first place, but also raise the odds of arriving where you really hope to go.

  1. Startup. Every new venture begins as a "start-up". Though at times treated as a higher form of achievement, at this stage everything is simply beginning, being tested, tossed out, and tried again. Success, if it comes, is several moves away. Startup is about courage and calculated risk taking, not flag waving.
  2. Survival. Survival is different than starting up. It's the period of trying to achieve some consistency. It's the first thing you must earn to even get the opportunity to take a shot at success. Failing to give this phase it's due or assume it can be bypassed is like showing up on your first Monday as an intern and expecting to be named vice president by Friday.
  3. Success. A central problem in understanding success is the same problem in achieving success: the failure to define it clearly in the first place - and then constantly monitor and refine it as you go. While perhaps hard to believe, success is something many don't think about in clear terms. Not only does this make it hard to get past startup and survival, it makes it far harder to stay driven and keep going after initial successes are reached.
  4. Significance. We all want to succeed not once, but ongoing. It is our dominant desire as humans to continue to advance. Our ability to do so and to find satisfaction in success are inextricably linked to others. As much, we want our advancements to 'matter' to others. What we seek individually inevitably must be significant and relevant to many, and that takes many contributors defining success together from the start.
  5. Sustained Impact. Ultimately, what's truly significant is what sustains. Equally true, what sustains typically has great significance. The circularity is greater still - if we are conscious of the importance of sustained impact from the startup phase forward, we raise the odds of attainment for each and every phase on the continuum.

As Dipak, Joel, and many others will attest, if this continuum was clear to more founders at the start of their professional journeys, not only would those pesky SBA statistics begin to change, so too would the satisfaction level of those who beat the odds.