An episode of the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory illustrates the importance of choosing functionality over aesthetics. Photo: Flickr

Sometimes what we think we need is just a subjective desire that has no bearing on reality or our real business needs. What then is the fuel that powers and propels a business for the long haul?

I am a fan of the “Big Bang Theory,” a very funny TV show about a group of scientists.

In one episode, Sheldon, a brilliant theoretical physicist who lacks emotional intelligence and social skills, demands that his roommate and fellow physicist Leonard take him to work. However, Leonard declines and tells Sheldon to take the bus. Sheldon then asks their neighbor, Penny (a waitress), to drive him. He is so sorely lacking in social etiquette that Penny dumps him by the roadside. Thereafter, Sheldon pesters the rest of his friends to drive him to work each day. Growing tired of his constant pestering, they tell him he has to learn how to drive.

Howard, Sheldon’s aerospace engineer friend, builds a driving simulator just for him. Sheldon insists that his on-screen car color should be a specific blue. Howard then promptly retorts, “Okay, it will be black.”

Think beyond form – think function

The reality is that colors may appeal to a person’s subjective bias. You may like blue. I may like gray. Someone else may like red. And nobody is right or wrong. And frankly, who cares?

I did not believe in wasting money on rent for an expensive office, renovating it for mere show, and employing lots of people

The example of the driving simulator illustrates the contrast between form and function. The simulator serves the need for someone to learn how to drive, and that is sufficient. Whether the on-screen vehicle shows up as blue, green, white, black or red has no relevance whatsoever.

It is the same in business as it is in life. In business, you have to focus on the fundamentals – assigning too much importance to non-essential matters can prevent your business from moving forward. What are these fundamentals?

1. Bootstrap

When I started in business, I bought the lowest-end Mac and the cheapest second-hand laser printer and worked out of my parents’ shop. I did not believe in wasting money on rent for an expensive office, renovating it for mere show, and employing lots of people. That was how I started and it gave me an advantage over many of my competitors, which by the time of the dotcom bust in 2001, many had gone out of business. “Bootstrapping” has always been my philosophy. And I am in good company – companies such as ZOHO and FusionCharts have bootstrapped as well.

While some businesses may have deep enough pockets to go the long distance, not every business can throw money freely at the wall and hope something sticks. Whether you are a startup, an emerging business, or a successful global enterprise, an agile and lean mindset should help to ensure sustainability.

If you have a million dollars sitting pretty, would you rather spend it all on a single grandstand event, or would you rather stretch it intelligently and strategically on a multi-platform, integrated communications campaign that spans three years with money left over to hire at least two earnest young upstarts? The choice is obvious if you want your business to outlast your competition.

2. Function

For a new or existing business, aesthetics are important, but functionality is crucial.

I am a creative director and an artist (since the 1970s) and so I do appreciate aesthetics. However, as a business automation and productivity practitioner, I have to also discern the importance of aesthetics versus functionality. A business is about more than presentation; the systems and processes behind an enterprise are paramount to its success.

If you can only spend a $100,000 dollars and you have to choose between an expensive visual identity revamp or re-engineering your business for efficiency, productivity and crisis preparedness, which will it be? A pretty facade may have short-term appeal, but an integrated back-end system may be the turbine that continues to propel your business onwards.

This is especially evident in labor-strapped advanced economies such as Singapore, where it is increasingly difficult to find skilled and willing labor. If you visit a McDonald’s outlet today, you will be greeted with self-service kiosks with only one or two frontline servers, compared to each outlet having more than five just a year or two ago.

3. People

People are the fabric of a business, from the founders and top executives to the entire team behind the enterprise. The frontline employees deal directly with paying customers, so their importance as brand ambassadors cannot be overstated. Find the right people, treat them well, keep close to them, and they will fight your competitive battles and care for your customers. And in turn, your bottom line will go up.

So, if you have a fresh injection of funds, say a million dollars, the best thing you can do is put some of that money into recruitment, retention and talent development. Keeping good people is a must, and building agile and responsive teams is critical.

And if there are people who simply can’t fit in, a good system of termination should be in place. There may be no “bad” employees, but they may be unsuitable for your corporate culture and roles. Rather than spending all your funds on a “superstar,” it may be wiser to find a good team of collaborative and cohesive people with various talents and experience instead. As the Chinese proverb goes, “三個臭皮匠,賽過諸葛亮” (“Two heads are better than one.”).

It is about sustainability

The euphoria of starting a new business often wears off quickly when funding runs dry and business is slow.

Likewise, the excitement of a capital injection may be uplifting for a while, but driving your business forward for the long haul depends on your ability to stretch your dollars, how intelligently you distribute what you spend, and who you hire to build your business with you. There is no shortcut, and there is no magic formula, but simple rules that apply to businesses of all sizes.

Seamus Phan

Seamus Phan is a professional speaker, published author, and artist. He straddles between the creative and technology spheres, and has great interest in studying Asian cultures, philosophies, leadership, and branding. On the side, he is an artist specializing in Chinese brush painting.