This is a monumental year for my company; it is our 30th anniversary. I know, you see my photo or videos in the Business Journal and think, “Stevie, you don’t look a day over forty!” I stay out of the sun. When people find out about the big 3-0, they invariably ask how we kept our little enterprise going for three decades. This is especially pertinent given the statistics of business survival. According to the Small Business Administration, 30% of new businesses fail in the first year, 50% during the first five years, 66% during the first ten; with only 25% making it to the fifteen-year mark.
As a born talk, I try to come up with sage advice to others who ask about our longevity, but I always go back to the wisdom of previous generations. A lot of that wisdom comes from outside the world of business. I have been practicing martial arts for over forty years and I use the lessons of ancient martial arts to guide much of what I do in life. I say ancient martial arts to distinguish it from the trophy-hunting practice often seen today. I learned the most valuable lesson for business on my first day of karate training.
When I first walked into a karate dojo in 1977, my teacher, Mr. Okamura, was an older Japanese man. Like most young men, I was eager to learn the high-flying antics of movie stars like Bruce Lee. When I asked Okamura what I had to do to become an expert martial artist he said, “Practice one thousand punches every day.” I stared at him. How could practicing the simplest of techniques help me become a master? I asked, “When do I learn the flying kicks, the spinning kicks, or the secret death blows?” (Note: there is no such thing as a secret death touch.) Okamura sighed and said, “Someday, you will learn those, but they are worthless.”
Okamura explained, “It is unlikely that you will ever need to use your martial art to defend yourself; but if you do, it will be in a moment of fear or panic. If someone attacks you, you have no time to think; you must act. Fancy techniques require thinking. In a real situation, you will only have time for either a quick punch or simple kick. In that moment, you must deliver your technique with power and precision in a split second. If you practice a simple punch or kick one thousand times every day, the technique will be there when you need it. If you scatter your training across every technique available, you won’t master anything. Better to master one thing than be average at many things. He who chases two rabbits gets no dinner.”
I can’t say I have always heeded Okamura’s advice, but it has served as a guide when running my business. I even wrote a book, One Thousand Punches a Day. I identify simple acts that I think will grow my business, and I employ them every day. These simple acts could be five e-mails or calls to prospective clients, or follow-up contacts with previous clients; every single day. And, when I am tempted by some plan that promises to jump my business ten-fold, I treat it like a spinning jump kick; I may learn it some day, but I can’t rely on it when the chips are down. I also remembered when Okamura said to have a good teacher who would examine how well you punched; and make corrections if needed. There is no point in practicing something every day if it isn’t getting you anywhere.
There isn’t a business alive that doesn’t survive on simple acts performed every day. Focusing on simple acts is a challenge. It is tempting to shift our attention to a new and exciting technique, rather than continue plugging away at what works; but focus is the key to a successful business. It is also hard to keep one thousand punches a day in mind when we are surrounded by stories of billionaires who created mega-companies overnight with one cool new idea; but those people are like Bruce Lee. You can’t duplicate them, and they don’t come along very often. Better to have a simple punch that you can rely on.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.