Has your business got the X Factor?

By: Chris Barling

Date: 7 June 2010

In business, as in the popular TV show X Factor, more people fail than succeed. If this can be attributed to luck, some people seem to have more luck than others. So it's reasonable to ask if there is such a thing as the 'business X Factor' or is it all about being in the right place at the right time?

Make your own luck

I guess I should know all about luck. I co-founded ecommerce supplier SellerDeck and we managed to float our company on the London Stock Exchange during the dot com boom, raising £25m and valuing the company at £100m, despite at that point having never made a profit.

Looking back, it is all rather ludicrous, so we were definitively in the right place at the right time. Having said that, we didn't get there by accident. I had carefully looked at technology trends for several years before starting the company, concluding that the internet in general - and ecommerce in particular - offered a tremendous opportunity. At the time, even Bill Gates wasn't a believer.

Know where you are going

Simon and Amanda Walker sell specialist pens online. Their original target was people who are interested in unusual pens, so they knew that to interest these people, they would have to provide a massive range. That's why their website states that they offer the "widest choice of pens on the planet" - more than 6,000 at www.cultpens.co.uk. They understood the customer requirement; they created a plan that would satisfy it; and now they have a highly successful business. Textbook stuff.

Be profitable to survive

There are a variety of reasons for starting a business. Some start because they want to get rich, others want to change the world, but no one wants to fail. Avoiding failure means making a profit. Profit is the oxygen of business. Even if the principle objective isn't about money, you still must make a profit. There's no need to worry about the X Factor if you don't make a profit - you won't be around long enough to find out whether you've got it or not.

Focus on customers

One of my company's customer's grew his business from a front room start up to a business with £23m sales. Chatting to founder Steve Hanbury recently, I was reminded of how important his total commitment to customer service and value was to his success. Customers pay the wages; if we forget this we're in trouble. All successful businesses need to focus on their customers.

Avoid rigidity

The press delight in stories of hapless travellers whose satnavs took them up a track or to an impassable river. The drivers thought that they knew where they were going, but more attention was required. It's no different in business; when disaster is imminent it's critical to be flexible and not insist on sticking to the business plan.

The true X Factor

It's worth asking yourself whether practising the business virtues mentioned above comes naturally. Focusing on customers, setting a plan yet remaining flexible to change and also enjoying yourself while doing it seems a big ask. Are these the key to success?

It's unfashionable to admit to watching X Factor, but I hold my hand up and say that it's interesting to note that many of the talented contestants are sometimes hesitant about their capabilities, while those with least talent are often convinced they have great ability. The best are generally humble and are looking to improve. The true X Factor might be a willingness to receive input, take it on board and strive to get better.

Chris Barling is Chairman of ecommerce software supplier SellerDeck

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