Define Success

In October 2019, EducationSuperHighway reached mission complete!

They were founded in 2012 (the same year I founded Polar Notion) and they set out to provide high speed internet access to 99% of public schools in the United States. After seven years in business, they were done. Because of their involvement, connectivity in schools spread from 4 million to 46.3 million students.

Shortly after announcing their achievement, our executive team at New Story met with Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway. It was immediately clear Evan was fixated on defining success. After brief introductions, he jumped right in with, “We have an hour. How would you define success for our time together?”

Evan spoke with us about the value of a clear definition of success. He wasn’t referring to a generic vision statement or corporate initiative, but a true rallying cry. A singular, clear mantra that feels significant to the team and can actually be accomplished within 5-7 years.

“Ensure high speed internet access to 99% of public schools in the United States” (I underlined the nuance that makes it so clear and compelling)

  • Cable TV? Nope.
  • Dialup internet? Nope.
  • Private schools? Nope.
  • Canadian schools? Nope.

The focus guides decisions and it’s hard to argue with their results. Imagine what it must feel like to be on a team, working for 5+ years to reshape the world… then seeing it accomplished. We’re accustomed to working for years or decades, but most people will never feel the thrill of completion.

As I began thinking about this for our business, it became more personal. If a clear definition of success is so compelling for an organization, why not an individual? Why not a family?

How do I define success?

My answer was vague at best.

A strong definition of success should clarify where time, money, and energy are spent. Without a clear understanding of what a ‘win’ looks like, it is hard to make thoughtful decisions over the long-term. For example, consider the decision to start a business. If you are fulfilled with a $100k salary and 4 weeks of vacation, starting a business can be a long road to get there.

I’ve spoken with many founders who want to build a business, grow it, sell it, and then retire on a beach. Ironically, those same founders aren’t able to name which beach, by when they want it, or a price-range of the house they hope to buy.

This clarity starts with each founder of an organization.

How do YOU define success? Let’s get specific.

  • How much money do you want to make per year?
  • How many hours do you want to work per day?
  • How many days do you want to work per week?
  • How many weeks of vacation do you want per year?
  • How many years do you want to work?
  • How do you hope the world changes during that time?

Is starting a business the only way to achieve success? Is there a simpler path to get what you want?

These answers will change over time, but it helps to get alignment early and often. If you are cofounding a business, how aligned are you and your cofounders?

Your definition of success can impact the type of business you build. It impacts how or if you raise money. It impacts who you bring onto the team. It impacts the business structure.

The answers may change for certain stages of the business. For example, the work involved in the early stage of a business will be different than later stages. Early on, 60-80 hour weeks aren’t uncommon. That might not sustainable at year 20 of the business.

Most people don’t know specifically what they want.

We work for months, years, and decades without a clear definition of success. Decades of our lives spent without a consistent standard to inform our decisions.

We have 9 more learnings. How would you define success for our time together? (Reply with thoughts)

PS. I found a personal purpose statement to be a helpful next step. I created one for myself. I document the experience and created a purpose statement framework, if you’re interested.

Morgan J Lopes

Acknowledgements and gratitude for these learnings. A special thanks to…

  • Evan, for giving generously of your time to New Story. Your wisdom continues to shape the hearts and minds of our people. It take courage to be so clear.
  • Hilimire, for helping me unpack the personal purpose statement. You are having an outsized, positive impact in more lives than you realize.
  • Holcombe, for looking for the devil in the details and pushing me to reconsider ‘common sense’.
  • Entrepreneurs Organization and the incredible founders I’ve met within this community. It’s encouraging to wrestle with significance alongside others.
  • Atlanta Tech Village, Switchyards, and Plywood, for being a place where founders can find other restless souls.
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