Before GPS there were the stars. That’s how people navigated their way by land and by sea. Specifically, they’d look for Polaris, aka the North Star, the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear), more commonly known as the Little Dipper.
Polaris essentially aligns above the North Pole. The star appears motionless in the sky, with other stars seemingly rotating around it—making it a crucial “fixed point” to use for navigation.
Business owners should be as dependent upon North Stars as explorers once were. “In business, the North Star represents a company’s unwavering definition of its purpose, its products, its customers and potential acquirers,” according to Chief Executive.
The concept of following your North Star “emerged from Silicon Valley companies with breakout growth,” according to Growth Hackers. This evolved into a measurement—the North Star Metric (NSM), which is the “specific metric that best captures the core value your product delivers to customers.”
Where’s your North Star, Evan Goldberg?
All this suggests small business owners need to find their own North Stars. I recently talked to Evan Goldberg, founder and EVP of NetSuite, about how he found his.
Rieva Lesonsky: How do you define a North Star?
Evan Goldberg: A North Star is an analogy referring to the guiding principles behind a [business]. It’s [your] purpose, ambition and vision. Put more simply, it’s the reason [you] go into business in the first place. It’s a necessity for every business.
As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important when there are so many distractions. You’re getting advice from everybody, adversity is challenging your thinking and assumptions, new opportunities are always presenting themselves, and the world around you is constantly changing.
These distractions make it hard to focus and that’s exactly why a North Star is so important. It guides your decision-making, brings your team, partners, investors, and other constituents together around a common set of goals, and keeps you on track as you navigate the twists and turns and side roads and forks that will define your organization’s journey.
Lesonsky: How did you know when you found your North Star?
Goldberg: It came out of my experience running a startup. I had multiple incompatible systems—one for finance, one for sales, one for support, one for web store—you get the gist. It was impossible to get an accurate picture of my business. My company didn’t succeed, but I learned a lot out of that failure.
I was on the phone with Larry Ellison, who helped me with the first company, about what I wanted to do next. We talked about the need for one system that organizations could use to simplify the management of their businesses and help them grow.
That 5-minute conversation became my North Star. Fast forward 20+ years and it’s still our North Star.
Lesonsky: Any advice for entrepreneurs and small business owners about how to find theirs?
Goldberg: Start by asking yourself three questions about your business: Who are you targeting, what problem are you solving, and how can you do it uniquely?
Usually, you start by knowing who you are targeting—for us, it was entrepreneurs and making their lives and the lives of their employees easier by helping them build a great business.
But to truly understand your target audience and their challenges, empathize—really listen and try to put yourself in their shoes. What are the problems they encounter every day that are keeping them from achieving their goals? And how do existing products or services fail to solve these problems?
Finally, you must ideate and determine how you will uniquely solve them. This is the core of your North Star. What is your differentiating approach? How can you do this in a way that will be hard for others to copy? As you start to answer those questions you will get a clearer view into what will set you apart from the competition.
When I started NetSuite in 1998, we provided accounting software on the internet and if I had said our North Star is to make accounting on the web, we would have had a very different journey.
Instead, thanks to the experience with my first startup we realized this was a common challenge—too many systems and no clear view of the business. So, we knew we needed to automate all of a company’s core operations in one system to give entrepreneurs everything they need to grow. This gave us a much broader purpose as well as a more meaningful reason to exist.
Lesonsky: Any advice on how you keep going?
Goldberg: The best advice I can give is "take it one step at a time." As the famous adage says, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and this is particularly true when you’re running a business.
There will be good times, there will be tough times and there will be everything in between. You will question your North Star, heck you will question everything, but staying focused on that next step—while keeping an eye on the future—will help you and your business keep going.
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