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Core Beliefs That Drive Success

Inspiration is essential, but so are the right guiding principles

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by Elizabeth MacBride

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One of the most important characteristics of successful entrepreneurs is the ability to make decisions—small ones quickly, larger ones in due time. The best are guided by a set of core beliefs. Know your guiding principles, and you'll be able to act when faced with the tough calls, like whether to give up or persevere, how to handle a tricky business relationship that threatens your company, or how far to go in pursuit of a partnership. Let's look at how core beliefs figured in an innovative start-up.

"Do women like bald men? Maybe not. Do women like shaved men? Whole other question." So says Todd Greene, 47, an art major who founded HeadBlade, maker of razors designed for men's heads: think all-terrain vehicle that fits the palm of your hand, and you get the idea. His razors have developed a near-cult following, racking up nearly $10 million in annual sales and earning a place in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

How did the company get started?

I used to shave my head at night. Problem is, you can't see the back, so it would take me 15 or 20 minutes. But I'm not a morning person, so I couldn't do it then. By the end of the day, I'd have five o'clock shadow, otherwise known as ring around the head. I thought, How do I take a blade and put it on my finger? It would be shaving by feel. It was my million-dollar idea. I think we have only one life to live, and I thought to myself, I really don't have any excuse if I don't do it."

What was the hardest day?

"In July 1999, I had been working on HeadBlade for eight months. I rented a booth at Venice Beach. In a full day, I sold eight. I just spent $150,000 to manufacture 500, and I'm standing in the hot sun. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?'

"But you just have to believe in yourself. A lot of people measure success by how much money they make. A friend [in investment banking in New York] said to me, 'I make more money than you pay all your employees combined.' But why do I care about that? My value is being who I am. People who have money are people who lose money. By the way, the recession had its way with him."

How do you define success?

"For me success is thinking of something, whether it's an ad or design or product, then executing it so it comes out to where I imagined."

What principles do you use in business day-to-day?

"I've had potential investors come to me, but I don't have investors other than my father and two friends. One principle is: Be careful of taking OPM. Other people's money. I do like the idea of us growing, but I have a hard time with leveraging other people's money. It has to do with being from Maine. I'm not a serial entrepreneur, and I'm not trying to rule the world. I would love to be partnered with a larger company, but only if it helps HeadBlade reach customers through distribution and new product development. I want to create a legacy for HeadBlade. I want it to live so much longer than I will."

You're sticking to a fairly narrow market, right?

"We get letters from people at war or in prison. It is a very wonderful tapestry of people. I call them HeadBladers. It's about feeling proud of who you are. You're not going to have any hair, so you take control of that. We have enough growth potential in the number of men who want to shave their head. For us, it's been about not biting off more than we can chew."

How does being a Mainer affect your values?

"Let me tell you a story about my dad. He had a wholesale hardware store. He was intimidated by academia. He was really proud I was going to Bowdoin. The first year, I wasn't doing too well, and I told him that. He said, 'I don't care if you have to lock yourself in your room. You pass those courses or you don't come home.' He had a big birthday party, and I didn't come home because I was studying. I called him and said, 'Dad, I don't want to let you down. I'm going to pass these courses.'"

What guides you now?

"We just introduced the ATX model, and revenues are up thirty percent over last year. It's my Bruce Willis movie as opposed to my Oscar winner. We're working on our marketing to tap that, running television ads on ESPN, Smithsonian, National Geographic. Find where guys watch and they watch late at night. We want to keep getting better."

Is there anything specific you use as inspiration?

"A selection from Pedro Coelho, the author of The Alchemist: 'So during the moments we have, I believe it is better to live a dream rather than to simply dream it. The dream is the start of something greater, something that impels us to make daring decisions. And it's true, that the person who pursues a dream takes many risks. But the person who does not, runs risks that are even greater.' I just always think: I really don't have an excuse if I don't do it."

Photographs by Gary S Chapman/Photographer’s Choice/Getty