An Entrepreneur's Confession: Six Lessons From Six Years In Business

This month, as Nextiva, the company I co-founded, marks the sixth anniversary of acquiring its first customer, I am taking a moment to look back on some of the lessons I've learned along the way.

#1: No dream is too big

My favorite quote comes from Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." This quote embodies what I've come to see as true over the past six years: that innovation and imagination are the keys to the success of a business. Nextiva started out with just a few people, all of them passionate about delivering a cloud-based phone service to every business. From the outside, this looked like an insurmountable task. Large enterprises and Fortune 500 companies were the ones creating innovative products; what kind of impact could be made by a few guys in a room?

A major impact, as it turns out. We saw a lack of innovation in the industry and decided to do something about it. The road wasn't easy, but with a considerable amount of hard work, customers came calling and soon we were (and are) competing with the big guys.

If you think you have a great idea or a better way to do something, you should do it. With some imagination and innovative thinking, you may find your competition trying to keep up with you.

#2: Take care of the basics

Most entrepreneurs are both hard working business owners and visionaries. They are the ones taking risks and creating new products and services that benefit our world. As much as it seems glamorous to work on the best new thing, most of the success in one's business comes from the incremental improvements and the consistency in repeatable tasks.

These daily concepts aren't the sexiest topics for someone at the top, but they are essential. This means knowledge of everything from individual customer service calls to the participation in regular meet-ups with department heads. The more you are aware of how your business is doing every single day, the more successful you will be (and the happier your customers). At Nextiva, many of our innovations have resulted from a client interaction or internal idea to make life easier for the customer.

One thing to keep in mind is that you have to create repeatable processes. You may not come up with a new way of doing something or a new product every day (or maybe even every year) but you will still be serving your customers on a daily basis. What matters most is to take seriously your daily activities and interactions with your customers.

#3: Track everything

Entrepreneurs are known for their strokes of genius at any moment--day or night. From coming up with an idea for a new marketing initiative, to a hot concept for a sales contest (that must start tomorrow), to an innovative way to retain customers, it can be really exciting to start programs, but none of these matter unless you track your progress.

Everything in your business comes down to the numbers. What you don't track will not improve, period. We track the daily, weekly and monthly performance of each of our departments and it makes all the difference.

#4: Culture and people matter

The quality of your team has a direct impact on the satisfaction of your customers. The best way to develop a top-notch team is to focus on hiring. We spend a great deal of time searching for and vetting the most motivated and driven individuals to join our "family." This dedication directly feeds into our company's culture.

We believe that people are our most valuable asset and the key to our success. I am constantly saying that technology doesn't run a company, people do. This appreciation for our employees positively impacts our culture.

We work hard to create an environment that allows employees to thrive and do their best on behalf of our customers. We provide such perks as complementary food and fun events, but do not view them as core to our success. I don't believe our employees stay because of those things. Instead, I believe that our team members stay with us because we work hard to engage them, develop them and offer them solid paths for their careers.

#5: Don't obsess over your competition

It can be tempting to focus on your competition with a nearly obsessive eye. What are they doing now? How are they being more innovative than us? How did they acquire that customer?

I've learned that just isn't the way to go. Yes, I do pay attention to our competitors, but never to the detriment of meaningful internal projects. We focus on raising the expectations for our customers so they will have no better place to go. I recommend other business owners do the same--keep the competition in the back of your mind, but focus on your own company and how you can make it the best it can be.

#6: Failing is encouraged

While this may seem counterintuitive, I think failure (in the right context) can be helpful. Creating a culture that allows hard-working, innovative employees to fail from time to time is incredibly important for a company's success. When someone knows that they will not be reprimanded for an attempt to make a process better or an idea grow, they are more likely to try. This creates a culture of innovation within an office.

I've learned that when a team member is allowed to make his or her own choices and fail at them, it is fine as long as they have the ability to identify the fault quickly, correct it, learn from it and get back on track.