Startup Visionary Alan Blake on Achieving Long-Term Business Success

Sometimes I talk to businesspeople who tell me they’ve experienced a level of success or failure that they never could have imagined. Alan Blake is not one of those people. He constantly envisions long-term success—against all odds—and advises fellow entrepreneurs to do the same.

As co-founder and CEO of Yorktown Technologies, L.P., the first company in the world to widely market a biotech animal, Blake has been a driving force behind GloFish‘s unprecedented success, responsible for everything from raising seed money and filing patents to wading through the murky waters of FDA regulations. Conquering many of the same challenges that vex the average entrepreneur, he has emerged from his aquatic undertaking, Michael Phelps-style, to claim the equivalent of a gold medal at the 2011 Austin Under 40 Awards for his contribution in the field of Science and Technology.

Blake attributes his success largely to “a strong understanding of how to ensure that the actions which are taken each day align with the company’s long-term vision and effectively move us toward that goal.” Lack of a coherent vision, he says, is one of the biggest and consistently re-emerging challenges faced by many of the dozens of entrepreneurs he has worked with. We sat down with Blake to talk about how to achieve long-term success and avoid the distractions that can take you off the path to success.

Blake says that when talking to other entrepreneurs he often fields questions such as “Should I hire another employee?” or “Should I raise additional capital?” He answers with “Well, where do you want to be in 10 years?”  Frequently, the person he’s talking to is unable to come up with a clear answer. At the point, he advises the entrepreneur to use the following process to help crystallize a long-term vision that will not only help to answer the immediate growth-related question, but also lead to ultimate success.

Identify your hedgehog concept.

It is critical to identify your “hedgehog,” which is a concept from Good to Great:Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. The hedgehog consists of three components: what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine. While it could take a few years for a typical large company to refine their hedgehog concept, it’s possible for smaller businesses to identify their hedgehog dramatically faster, even within a matter of days, says Blake.

Identify a long-term vision or rethink your hedgehog concept.

The confluence of the three areas of your hedgehog concept is likely the best opportunity for long-term success. What you would expect as the outcome of a relentless focus on your hedgehog over 10 or 20 years will often help you identify the ideal long-term vision for the company. If your long-term vision is not appealing, you should rethink the hedgehog.

Identify necessary milestones for each area of the business over the next 3-5 years.

Once the hedgehog and long-term vision are clear, you can fairly easily identify the necessary milestones for each area of the business over the next three to five years. Similarly, these milestones can then be broken down into annual, quarterly, monthly and even weekly goals. Create a schedule for regularly checking the progress of and updating your goals to help you visualize the path ahead.

Communicate your hedgehog concept and long-term vision to motivate stakeholders.

Communicating your hedgehog concept, long-term vision and related milestones and goals will help each stakeholder in the business better understand how day-to-day work is all part of the path to something much bigger—and how one individual can make a significant impact on achieving the company’s vision. Fueled by passion and not just money, your people will be much more motivated to contribute to the company’s success than they otherwise would be.

Identify which opportunities to embrace and which will distract you from your core path.

A clear hedgehog concept and long-term vision are critical not only because they help the business to identify which opportunities it should embrace, but also which activities the business should not pursue. This distinction is particularly powerful in that it can empower employees to make appropriate decisions without undue micromanagement.

When deciding whether to pursue opportunities that arise, constantly refer to your hedgehog and be wary of engaging in activities that will take them off the path to long-term success. “Think of your long-term goal as a destination,” says Blake. “If you need to get to San Diego by Sunday and a friend asks you to stop by San Francisco on Friday, can you still make it to San Diego on time?”  If your answer isn’t entirely affirmative, then you must at least make sure the detour is worth it.

Recommended Reading:

In addition to Good to Great, Blake recommends the following resources to help you conceptualize your vision and get you started on the path to long-term success:

The Entrepreneurs' Resource

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