How to avoid complacency after building a thriving business

Building a successful business is hard. Many sleepless nights, 80-plus hour work weeks, and family time lost. But you’ve done it. Your business is growing and thriving.

As someone who has spent the better part of two decades growing a business, there is one very important lesson I’ve learned about success: Complacency is your worst enemy.

Success is rewarding. But you can’t rest on your laurels.

One might think, “Why fix what isn’t broken?” Obviously, something worked to get your business to where it is now, but what you got there may not be what gets you to the next phase of growth. In fact, I would bet that it won’t.

Let’s put this into context. Fifty-two percent of the Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 are now extinct. Fifty years ago, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 brand was 75 years; now it’s less than 15.

With how quickly the world moves—new technology, changing customer expectations—it almost seems that the challenger is favored, not the incumbent. But that doesn’t have to be your fate. Here’s some advice to make sure “status quo” doesn’t become a part of your company’s culture.

Comfort Zones Are Overrated

Everyone likes to feel comfortable, but growth doesn’t just happen within comfort zones. Inspiring people to reject the comfortable and seek out new challenges helps business thrive.

This doesn’t mean that employees can’t take pride in the work they’ve done and their day-to-day contributions: recognizing and celebrating milestones that are important. But resting on your laurels, in the tech world and beyond, is the death of innovation.

Avoiding complacency is harder than it sounds. This approach often gets push back from individuals and the institution. As a leader or founder you may even bump up against your own comfort zones: the habits, thoughts or approaches that made you successful in the first place. And those will be the most difficult to change.

In fact, to really grow a business requires multiple moments of discomfort for a founder. I’ve experienced this myself many times since I founded NetSuite 24 years ago.

While it wasn’t uncomfortable for me to step aside as CEO to head up product (product is my passion), it was uncomfortable to pass over the reins to the company I had started. The day-to-day leadership was no longer in my hands, and that took some getting used to. But different leaders are required for different phases of an organization. The goal was to go public, and I knew I needed someone that had experience I didn’t. That leader took us public successfully in 2007, so it was the right call.

Then after nearly 20 years as an independent company we were acquired by Oracle in 2016. It was an exciting time, but the transition had many moments of uncertainty—mostly navigating how to keep our identity and culture that we had spent many years creating while also being harmonious with our parent company.

As part of this move, I was also back to leading the business. So after 14 years heading up product, it took some getting used to getting back to my initial role. While our vision and mission were the same, the company was completely different. It required me to have a new mindset. Each moment was challenging, but the results have been beyond my wildest expectations.

Think Beyond Roles

At NetSuite, we believe a key ingredient to reinventing ourselves is making sure everyone has the latitude to look at broader horizons – to think beyond the narrow confines of their job descriptions. We don’t want people stepping on each other’s toes, but you’ll never hear anyone being told to “stay in your lane.”

People can have great ideas in areas that aren’t their expertise. Developers can offer good sales tips and salespeople can have ideas for new product features. Being open to contributions from your colleagues, no matter their role, can foster collaboration and greater innovation.

A few years ago, one of our sales consultants tweaked part of his demo so that the software he showed to manufacturing customers would behave more like what they were looking for. Eventually, he brought his idea to the development team, and they integrated his cobbled-together functionality into the existing product so that we could better service this segment of the market. This update is something NetSuite might never have achieved without this salesperson’s out-of-the-box thinking, and his willingness to share it with developers. I’d like to think he did that because he felt our culture was one that empowered him to challenge the status quo.

There are always ways you can spur innovation. To give people different perspectives, we started a “field trips” program to send our software engineers – people who rarely get to engage with actual customers – out to client sites so they can witness firsthand how the software they developed is being used. These experiences help put our development team in our customers’ shoes and often result in the birth of new ideas.

Take a Step Back

The past couple years have shown us how important it is to prioritize our life outside of work and our mental health. It’s also good for business to avoid burnout.

However, it’s hard to create these boundaries when many of our homes double as our office. Make sure to spend some time away from email, Slack and all the other distractions during the workday. Go for a lunchtime walk or drink your coffee without your laptop or smartphone in front of you. And as a leader, be vocal about how you are creating balance as it will encourage your people to do the same.

Finally, set aside time that is specific for asking yourself hard questions – is what you have now really sustainable in ten years? What will someone else think of doing that will disrupt your value proposition? Can you put yourself in the mindset of that hypothetical company and do it first? Distance from the everyday grind will help you have the mental clarity to find the answers.

It may be tempting to not fix what isn’t broken, especially if your business is doing well. But if you get complacent, it’s only a matter of a time before a business tries to do what you’re doing, but better. In 20 years, half the businesses operating today will be extinct. By fostering a culture of innovation and always challenging the status quo, you can help your business thrive and avoid being broken – or worse, actually broke.

Evan Goldberg is the founder and executive vice president of Oracle NetSuite, a provider of enterprise resource planning and business software to more than 29,000 customers.

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