The Best Things in Business are Free

Negotiating for a lower price or something extra is the modus operandi of every antique retailer, real estate broker, flea market merchant and automobile dealer. Everyone is looking for a good deal, a real bargain. I’m not taking issue with that. Bargaining is a terrific way to create and stimulate economies.

Everyone has heard the saying, “the best things in life are free.” That idiom was a line in a song from the 1920’s but it is often attributed to Coco Chanel, who added a second sentence afterthought – “the second best things are very, very expensive.” Almost a century later, the best things in life continue to be free. The same can be said of business. I’m not referring to a bunch of “buy one get one free” promotions or deep discount sales events. I’m getting at the elements of business that drive superior performance at no extra cost.

For a moment, take a deep breath. Forget about throwing heaps of cash at such initiatives as computer systems, advertising, equipment, recruiting – even training. Stop worrying about low-cost foreign competition and the state of the economy or your industry. The best bargains in business are there to help you deal with any setback, and their associated costs can be unleashed from your existing overheads.

Here are the 4 best bargains in business:

1.  Leadership. A good leader costs as much as a bad one. The best leaders have the ability to instill clarity of vision and a compelling purpose that inspires people to make the extra effort. As we know, Steve Jobs wasn’t the easiest guy to work with, but the results under Jobs? Outstanding. Apple employees believed in his vision, and delivered it over and over again. They still do.

2.  Culture. Culture takes time. But once you have a healthy culture, once you leverage it and enjoy the results, you are on your way. Culture is the state of mind that says, “These are the things that really matter in this company. This is the way we do things around here.” Mindsets are free. Some companies thrive on innovative cultures. Others pride themselves on getting the job done. Zappos and Patagonia believe that culture is the brand. When you get there, you’ve nailed it.

3.  Simplicity. Organizations that insist on simplicity are generally the most successful. This is a corollary to leadership and strategy but it is also a core value that must permeate the entire organization. Everyone on the same page fighting complexity creates sustainable winners. The California-based In-N-Out Burger Chain is a wonderful example of keeping things simple and doing less, better. Just look at their menu – 3 burger choices, fries, shakes and soft drinks. If you want chicken, salad, pizza or wraps, go elsewhere.

4.  Creativity. While the above bargains don’t have to cost extra money, they take considerable effort and in some cases, considerable time. This is not necessarily the case for creativity. The “big idea” and the process of creating and implementing the thought is one of the most unappreciated bargains in business. I spent an entire career espousing the power of creativity, and the companies I touched did very well by it. As for today, Red Bull and Google stand out as quintessential idea machines.

Whining about the economy, budget constraints, and low-cost competition does nothing to improve a company’s strategic health. Businesses who live by these bargains are the ones who enjoy success – both in the journey and the bottom-line destination. But, beware. Bureaucracy lurks on the periphery, waiting for its opening to subvert the lean, mean, business machine.

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