Every business needs four types of people:
· Customers to make purchases.
· Suppliers to provide goods and services.
· Employees to do the work.
· Owners to invest capital.
Customers want the best value at the lowest price. Suppliers and employees want the highest compensation for the lowest cost. And owners want the best return on their investment.
Sustainability hinges on maintaining a satisfactory trade-off between these competing needs, but it's impossible to achieve a perfect balance. Some will enjoy higher prioritisation than others.
So who comes first?
I suspect most entrepreneurs would argue that their customers come first because, without them, there would be no revenue and, thus, no business. Some might opt for their employees instead, claiming that you can't sustain a good client base without a good workforce.
Personally, I believe that owners always come first, but no-one ever admits to that because it's not politically correct. We've been socialised into believing (or at least claiming to believe) that “the customer is king” and “our people are our most important asset”. But when times are tough (cf. COVID), unprofitable customers are ditched and non-critical employees are retrenched. Owners are always first in and last out.
The tendency for owners to neglect their own needs is compounded by the media's schizophrenic presentation of entrepreneurship: you're either a selfless innovator striving to make the world a better place, or a corporate sociopath who'll stop at nothing to maximise personal gain.
There's no rational (or relatable) middle ground. No-one celebrates the sensible owners who look after their customers, employees, and suppliers, while also protecting their own financial interests. We're too distracted by Elon Musk memes and Bill Gates conspiracy theories.
As an owner, you assume all of the risk. Yet most of the owners I know believe that they're doing the right thing by putting everyone else's needs ahead of their own. They usually only pay attention to their own interests when their business is in dire straits, and by then it's often too late.
Look after yourself while you're looking after your business. No-one else is going to do it for you.