Behind the Scenes

Defining “Success” On Your Own Terms

Photograph of a gorilla sitting in a green forest

Check out those beveled edges!

Sometimes when I’m talking to tech people I notice the conversation falling into predictable patterns. They might say—or I might say—that:

But each one of these companies is/was actually a jaw-dropping financial success with huge cultural impact. So why do we keep talking about their failures? (Our own successes, meanwhile, are God-given and only our natural due.)

I think the answer isn’t that complex. We’re all anxious primates. Tech giants are bigger, more dominant primates. If you think of Apple not as the people who made the iPod but as a very large silverback gorilla (with beveled edges), sitting on top of a mountain of money and hooting, refusing to let you publish your app in the app store and taking 30% of all your bananas, then maybe the relentless need to point out how it’s actually a big bad failure of a company makes more sense.

If you look around you will realize that you are constantly negotiating with enormous hooting, screeching technology gorillas. You can’t talk about the gorillas directly, because that would remind everyone that you are not, yourself, a hugely powerful and dominant silverback technology gorilla. So you talk about money and how dumb everyone is. What’s the market cap? Is the stock up or down? Boy did they screw up on that smart car thing.

But moneygoggles don’t help you see things more clearly. Money is a totally fine metric when you’re outside of a company—one of the best! But inside of a company, it’s a severely lagging indicator. Money shows up months, or years, after other decisions. Which is why seeing the world through VC/market goggles can be dangerous, even if it satisfies your base instinct to say that you are the best and smartest and would have made all the right decisions, if only they’d put you in charge.

We’ve instrumented everything in Aboard. We know retention (really good, especially after 90 days) and conversion rates (room for improvement!). We’ve learned over and over that people do everything on their phones, so we need to work ever-harder on mobile, forever. 

Meanwhile, my co-founder Rich and I are about to go to a two-day offsite with a potential customer in a truly big, dry industry. We’re going to learn so much about inventory. Which goes to the one metric that I’m using right now: Leads. Conversations. People to invite to a party (you are invited, by the way). We use Aboard to track them, of course. It could be a little better at it! We’re working on that. But the more people we meet, the better.

That’s the big metric of success. Folks. That’s it. The whole thing.

I don’t think you should focus on the failure of others, or even the success of others. What you do need to do—and what is surprisingly hard—is to define success for your own part of the world, and work towards that. Non-monetary success, because again, money lags. Primates like to look up when we should look forward. Success for Aboard is: Launch the new web app, mobile app, and website. Then have more conversations. Thousands of them, in time. Everything else will follow. Build a solid, NYC-focused business and honor commitments.

As to revenue—Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield, had the quote that sums everything up: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.” Rich and I built and sold a business together, and I swear to God, it’s not actually much more complicated than that. You can’t have a hockey stick without a line in front, anyway.

(P.S. Despite the way people see everything as failure, true, unalloyed failure at global scale is pretty rare. The Wikipedia page on big corporate failures can be skimmed in a few minutes, and you’ll recognize a lot of the names and acronyms. It’s a fun read. Enjoy the Schadenfreude!)