After 30 years in business, I’m learning from start-ups. Here’s why.

The Succeeding in Small Business blog frequently mentions the need for fresh thinking and continuous improvement. As a small business owner, continuing to generate new ideas and improvements demands that I also seek sources for inspiration.

I am fortunate in this regard to have found a true wellspring of new and original thinking in the principals of entrepreneurial start-ups. In recent years, I’ve become involved in organizations whose mission is to further entrepreneurial success. One great example is Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), a Western Massachusetts organization providing “support to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

At VVM and other groups, I have the privilege of hearing early-phase new business plans that entrepreneurs are pitching or submitting for review. Sometimes, I offer counsel on launching ideas, products and brands. Often, I learn at least as much from the process as I impart.

Much of what is true for start-ups is also important to longer-established businesses. Lessons in “what makes for a successful start-up” that have made a lasting impression on me include the following:

– Focus is important. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, claims that the ability to focus is the primary predictor of both professional and personal excellence and success. The entrepreneurs who most often succeed demonstrate this ability to both see and remain committed to the overarching goals they set.

– Flexibility is important, too. Yes, focus is great, but focus at the expense of the ability to regroup, redirect and (to use an overused phrase) pivot can go beyond persistence to become foolish stubbornness. When do you know a plan is not working? Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Sure, but more often, 10,000 failures indicate that it’s time to seriously tweak, pivot or discard.

– The best entrepreneurs combine the ability to focus with the ability to continue generating ideas. This is why we see so many serial entrepreneurs, who develop a company, sell it, and then develop another. And if an idea doesn’t quite work, they can often refashion it into one that does.

– No entrepreneur should be an island. During business plan reviews, many a seasoned businessperson will offer advice – on concept, phasing, financials, regulatory and testing matters, competitive scene, and more. Not only does the entrepreneur learn something, the rest of the review participants often do as well. There are a lot of really smart people out there, with a great deal to share if you have the willingness to hear it.

– This is still a great world full of wonderful ideas. Many of the business plans I hear are confidential, so just let me say… world health, the environment, education, communication, and a multitude of other burning needs give us the opportunity to improve the world. If indeed the world does improve, I bet it will be in large part thanks to the efforts of focused, flexible, imaginative, and well-mentored small and growing businesses and, of course, their fearless leaders.


Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. The company is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, as well as its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. Contact Michelle at

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