Grow Your Business Like China, Part 2

“Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia.” – Alexis Carrel

Since our job at ETR is to find little secrets in our quotidian world that illuminate wealth and power and personal success, I’ve been dutifully mulling over that saying by Confucius since I read it the other day:

“Coming to the city of Wei, Confucius was asked by Ran Yu how a state should grow. First, he said, you need a sizable population. Then you need to enrich them. Finally, he said you have to educate them.”

Although my experience here in China has helped me better understand how important these three aspects have been in putting this country at the top of the most-likely-to-succeed list of economic superpowers for the 21st century, I have been puzzled about the way Confucius ordered them. When we talk about developing our country in the United States, we almost always begin with education, talk obliquely about wealth, and leave out population size altogether. (Except to acknowledge that our middle-class consumer market has been, for the last 50 years, the largest in the world.)

But Confucius said grow the population first, then enrich it, and then, finally, educate it. That seems like such a risky way of doing things.

I’ve been thinking about how these three elements might apply to developing a business – and, if they could apply, what order they might be arranged in.

Let’s start with the first directive: Grow the population. How does that make sense in a business context?

The first thought that comes to mind – defining “growing the population” as “growing your workforce” – doesn’t make sense. When you are beginning a new venture, you want to keep your employee payroll as small as possible. Rather than shoot for size at that point, you want to keep things small and smart.

The next thought – equating population size with market size – doesn’t make much sense either. Only the young and extremely foolish go into a business thinking they can create and grow their own market.

When it comes to starting a new business, then, what is the essential, first element of success?

It seems to me it has something to do with motion. When you decide to start a new business, you usually have only two things to work with: yourself and your big, new idea. Those are your working parts. Everything else is standing still.

You don’t have any employees working hard for you. You don’t have vendors supplying you with products. And you don’t have customers.

You have your idea, yourself, and a big, flat world of stasis. That stasis – that inertia – is what usually defeats early entrepreneurs.

So it seems to me that Confucius’s directive to grow the population first can be translated into business-building if you think of the size of the population as the amount of momentum you generate. The more momentum you have, the easier it will be to get your business up and running.

Any basic physics book will tell you that it takes a lot more energy to get going than to continue moving once you’re in motion. Inertia, the force that resists change in speed or direction, is the problem. And this stillness has to be energized and shaken into motion if you want your business idea to work. It’s an enormous task … and guess who has to do it?

Yes, creating that initial motion in your business will challenge you physically, mentally, and emotionally. To ensure your chances of success, be prepared to work harder, faster, and more intensely than you have ever worked as an employee.

A good way to break through the initial inertia of starting a business is to apply the same system ETR recommends for achieving any goal: Break the challenge down to its individual components and tackle them, one by one.

Once you do get the ball rolling, you will be able to enjoy the forward motion that momentum gives it. But every time you try to develop a new aspect of your business, expect to put forth the same super-human application of energy … because every new business situation has some amount of inertia.

At this point, of course, you’ll have plenty of help. You’ll still be responsible for breaking the goal into the tasks that need to be done to achieve it. But now, instead of doing them yourself, you’ll be assigning them to specific people and monitoring their progress.

For example, in developing our new, residential community in Nicaragua, Daniel (my travel companion and partner in the project) assembled several teams of experts: architects, land planners, accountants, lawyers, engineers, etc. He appointed one of them, the architect, to be responsible for drawing up a Master Plan that plotted out the community in detail and allowed everyone to understand the many problems we would be facing to complete the project correctly and on time. Then he began a series of meetings with each of these teams to assign short- and mid-term objectives, argue with them about costs, push them on timelines, etc.

Daniel told me when we began that I was going to be “surprised” at how much work was involved in getting a big project going … and he was right. The work has been so demanding I’m not sure I would have gotten involved had I believed him.

Now that we’re three-quarters of the way through the inertia, I feel better about things. I can see how the community will come together, how beautiful it will be, how much fun it will be to live there, and – if we get everything else right – how profitable it will be. Moreover, I can see that in six months or a year, I won’t have to be working as hard on it as I am now. The professional teams Daniel started and prodded and pushed this past year will be up and running smoothly by then, and their energy and direction will be a big part of the project’s momentum.

Because Daniel has been in this business for 30 years, he knew exactly what he wanted from each person we met with. He knew precisely the scope and range of the work he wanted done, when he wanted it completed, and the standard of quality he required. He was willing to pay good money to build a team of the right people. “It sounds expensive now,” he told me, “because we aren’t making any money yet. But it would be a lot more expensive in the long run – trust me – if we went with inexperienced people.”

So that’s the first thing you have to do when starting a new business: Break through the inertia barrier. On Monday, let’s see how we can apply the rest of this Confucian strategy – enrichment and education – to business.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]