This month, we at Absolute Marketing Group celebrated our fifth year in business. It’s a major milestone for any small business because statistics show if a business can survive for five years, it is likely to survive another five. This installment of the 5ives reflects on five universal lessons we’ve learned from our years in business or from those shared by the over 400 clients we’ve served.

1. Customers Will Never Cease to Surprise

Our clients run the gamut from startup sole proprietorships to publicly traded corporations, from retail to renewable energy and from clients with a million big ideas to clients who just have one really good one. As a marketing firm, our job is to know as much about customer audiences as possible and try to predict what will impact these individuals.  Even as people who breathe consumer behavior, it’s surprising how surprised we often are by our own clients.  We may not have seen it all, but we’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen enough to know that judging a client by industry, budget or product is about the dumbest thing you can do.

The point is you’ll never know where the big breaks will come from.  Rather than trying to speculate and separate the big fish from the small fish, it’s better to simply be ready when opportunity knocks. Every customer is an opportunity. So when they come knocking, give them your full attention because you just never know.

2.  Adapt within Your Means

Know when to say no. Know when to say yes.  In our original business plan, we didn’t intend on having a full-time employee until year three. By our fourth birthday, we already had six full time employees and five interns.

In our second year of business, we rolled out our Interactive Department, which has become one of our most sought-after services.  Last year, we introduced video production.  Both services paid off in terms of revenue and critical acclaim, but neither would have come into being had there not been a market for them.

There’s often an obscure line between proactive and reactive planning for a business, especially in a fast-paced industry like marketing.  But by being honest with yourself as a company and knowing what opportunities are present and on the horizon, you can be strategic in how you expand.

Sometimes this also means saying no. Recently, Absolute withdrew itself from two bid opportunities that would have stretched our resources too thin to produce the quality of product we pride ourselves on.  Understanding your capacity is as important as striving to expand it.

3. Love Your Craft

People talk about passion, but when they do, I often get the sense that people see passion and a love of the craft as interchangeable.  When it comes to loving your craft or having profession-passion, I believe there is a difference. To me, passion is a relentless determination to achieve your goal. Loving your craft takes passion one step further – it appreciates the nuances and embraces the less glamorous side of the job.

The same is true for successful businesses.  In marketing, I’m fairly certain my girlfriend thinks I’m crazy because I yell at great (or awful) billboards.  The creative gets me feisty, but so does the message delivered, the industry the ad is for, the audience that’s trying to be captured, the size of the space, the location of the board and what my guess the total cost of that execution would be. The love of the craft isn’t about the thrill of the moment, it’s about relishing the entire experience.

4. Teamwork is More Than Trustfalls

Team building is important. Trust is important. But knowing how to build and maximize the contribution of each member is the most important aspect in assembling a successful team. No two people are alike and businesses that can utilize differences to create better products are the ones that tend to perform better.  Teamwork transcends a mission statement. Teamwork means equal contribution. It requires leaders who are willing to pull the trigger, stand up and take the fall. Because after all, the team will be there to catch them.

5.  Embrace Failure. Fear Complacency.

Every young business has screwed up at least once. Companies who say otherwise are liars or oblivious to the need for improvement. I don’t know which is worse.  The decision to open a business is a huge risk in the first place. But if opening the doors is the only risk a business ever takes, its fate is sealed.  Failure is wonderful if you can plan for it. Taking calculated risks minimize the backlash if something goes awry and leaves you with something to start over with.

Complacency is cancerous.  In some fields, complacency is dangerous. Safety officials will point to studies that show the more experience a laborer has, the more likely they are to get injured on the job. You might argue, it’s a result of being exposed to more hazards, but officials point to another set of studies that show how risk is associated with complacency. Every business should have dreams. Young businesses have an easier time staying hungry because, chances are, they aren’t at the top of the food chain in their industry. Venerable institutions need to find a reason, other than just revenue or market share, to stay in the hunt.

Customer appreciation, introspection, zeal, teamwork and courage – these are all traits everyone can vouch for. To withstand the dynamics of the business climate and stand against the winds of change takes all five attributes working in concert. Young businesses, learn these lessons from the survivors who have had to learn them the hard way. For experienced business, I think you can all agree these five lessons are universal. If you don’t agree, let’s talk about it.  Or perhaps you have some of your own insights to share. Shoot me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.