10 Best Kept Secrets on Building a Business That Lasts

When in 1994 Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras wrote their business best seller ‘Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies’, the world was a very different place to what it is now. More than 20 years later, it turns out organizations cannot be ‘built’ to last by simply adhering to a set of fixed best practices; instead they should ‘build’ to last by continuously redefining practices in response to the rapidly changing context around them. Today’s business context is characterized by VUCA, an acronym derived from the military world: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. The VUCA environment translates into complete industries being turned around or swept away in the blink of an eye, the average corporate lifespan being shortened dramatically and the rules of success being altered by the day.

Here are 10 best kept secrets on how to build today to last beyond tomorrow.

1. Be crazy enough to think you can change the world (Steve Jobs)

We all remember the “Think Different” Apple campaign that would eventually play a pivotal role in helping Apple achieve one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in business history. The campaign honored remarkable people who changed the world, by being crazy enough to think they actually could. Organizations that are building to last have a bigger purpose or goal in mind, transcending that of their competitors. They will do whatever is required to chase their dreams, therefore being more resilient and creative in finding answers to the hurdles they encounter along the way.

2. Make it your goal to be less wrong (Elon Musk)

If you want to build to last, surround yourself with people who are critical about what you are doing. In an interview with Elon Musk on what it means to start your own business, he says you should take the approach that you as an entrepreneur are wrong and that your goal should be to aim for ‘less wrong’. Seek continuous feedback from anyone you can, particularly your friends as they are more honest and truthful. A great brand example is how Marmite deals with lovers and haters. Its popular ‘Love it or Hate it‘ campaign allows the brand to listen in and learn from haters in a way that others brands don’t.

Organizations that are building to last have a bigger purpose, transcending their competitors.

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3. Change obstacles into opportunities (Nick Vujicic)

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Companies who are building to last, do not give up easily. Even more so, they see problems and challenges as opportunities in disguise. A striking case here is Nick Vujicic. Born without arms and legs, Nick refused to allow his physical condition to limit his lifestyle. Being a keynote speaker, author, musician and actor, he has already accomplished more than most people achieve in a lifetime. Similarly, companies that are building to last ‘embrace’ obstacles as a starting point for creative reflection, inspiration and action, rebuilding or even partly destroying what they have built before.

4. Iterate to keep getting better at things (Tom Wujec)

You may have heard of the “marshmallow challenge”: teams of 4 have to build the tallest free-standing structure using only 20 spaghetti sticks, one yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow that has to sit at the top of the construction. What is striking is that Kindergarten children built structures that on average are more than twice as high compared to those built by recent business school graduates. Why? Business school graduates have been trained to find the single right plan. However, children build successive prototypes going through an iterative and experimental process in which failure is part of the experience. Companies which build to last, understand the power of iteration to keep getting better.

5. Copy, remix and sample from the best (Kirby Ferguson)

From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, Kirby Ferguson says our most celebrated creators copy, transform and combine from others. He believes these 3 elements are at the basis of all creativity, turning everything you see and know into a remix. Building to last means taking root and growing from ground that has already been prepared. Smart companies realize that they depend on others to fuel their own creativity, giving them the best protection to survive and grow.

Companies that are building to last ‘embrace’ obstacles as a starting point for creative reflection, inspiration and action, rebuilding or even partly destroying what they have built before.

6. Never say no, even when you (think you) have made it (Gary Vaynerchuk)

I love the “One is greater than zero” philosophy of Gary Vaynerchuk. Achieving something truly exceptional requires taking a lot of little steps to get there. Even though these small steps don’t seem to matter, great companies understand that each of them has its unique role to play in getting to the top and that it takes humility and determination to build lasting success. One of my personal friends climbed all 7 summits, including Mount Everest. When I asked him how he accomplished this amazing achievement, he simply answered: “Take a first step, then a next and repeat the pattern.”

7. Stay focused on the here and now (Bill Gates)

In an interview commenting on the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates stressed how important it is to stay focused on the here and now, being practical about the next thing to do and not getting ahead of yourself. While the vision you set for your company can be very long-term, companies which build to last are still very much drawn in by their everyday activities and challenges. In the words of Bill Gates: “It was not until 1997 that there was this wide recognition that we were the company that had revolutionized software”.

8. Create a community of people who believe what you believe (Simon Sinek)

A stable building requires strong foundations. Successful companies build a set of similar values and beliefs, thereby creating the necessary conditions for mutual trust and interdependence. According to Simon Sinek, the very survival of the human race depends on our ability to surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe. It creates the conditions to take risks, experiment, explore and rely on each other when things go wrong, all of which help you build to last.

How to achieve success? Take a first step, then a next, and repeat the pattern. @kristofdewulf

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9. Think of connectivity as a human right (Mark Zuckerberg)

Being connected helps you achieve amazing things and has become a prerequisite for progress. Mark Zuckerberg takes it one step further and wants to turn connectivity into a human right in itself. Smart companies apply this principle inside and outside their organizations, connecting ever more dots and building their future from them. They understand that in order to keep flourishing, everyone needs a seat around the table to co-create the future, irrespective of rank or level.

10. Believe in anyone (Peter Diamandis)

In today’s interconnected world, small teams driven by passion can do extraordinary things. When Peter Diamandis co-founded Singularity University in 2008, he took a very different perspective on students, putting a challenge on their shoulders to positively affect the lives of at least one billion people in the next decade. What would have happened to Kodak had they really listened to Steven Sasson, one of their engineers who invented the digital camera back in 1975, long before the digital age? Companies that are building to last understand that anyone can make a difference for the better.

Hope these 10 learnings will help you build today to last beyond tomorrow!


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Kristof De Wulf started his career at Vlerick Business School, obtaining a PhD in Applied Economic Sciences from Ghent University and later becoming Associate Marketing Professor and Partner at Vlerick Business School. Together with 3 Vlerick colleagues, Kristof co-founded InSites Consulting in 1997, acting as CEO of the company since 2012, providing strategic direction and energy to more than 130 team members in New York, London, Rotterdam, Ghent and Timisoara. With over 20 years of relevant experience with world leading FMCG brands, Kristof helps global brands to unlock the consulting potential that resides in ‘ordinary’ consumers. Kristof has published numerous articles in A-rated journals such as Journal of Marketing, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Retailing, Journal of Business Research, International Marketing Review, Services Management, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Journal of Business Ethics, etc. He is co-author of the book ‘The Consumer Consulting Board’, has been awarded with the MOAward for Agency Researcher of the year 2010, and is a regular speaker at various research and marketing events worldwide. He is included in ‘The Ultimate List of Social CEOs on Twitter’, just a few places behind Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch ☺.

  • Chris Willis

    Can I just say that I love everything about this. And observe from personal experience that attempting to emulate these principles is a sure path to earning the label of Positive Deviant. Not that that’s a bad thing …

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