Principles Rule: Mastering the Art of Business


Entrepreneurial success, like success in any pursuit, is about the consummate understanding and mastery of key principles — not about following rules.

A rule states, “You must do it this way.”

A principle says, “This works – and usually works well – and has done so through all remembered time.”

The difference is crucial.

The anxious and inexperienced try to follow rules. The rebellious, unschooled and ignorant break rules – usually unwittingly so. Worse still, all of these types of practitioners try to succeed focusing upon only subsets of situations without realizing how all of the forces at work interact in both conflicting and supporting ways.

But the master of an art, any art, develops mastery over the form of the art using time-tested and time-proven principles.

Mastery of the art should be the ideal of every entrepreneur.


Machiavelli and a host of others have written about the ways and wiles of princes, but not in a manner that is of best use in a world of free enterprise. Locke has impactfully written on the rights of popular assemblies against kings, but how does this help businesses to compete against a host of alternatives?

In similar ways, the teachings on business, commerce, marketing and sales by many fine authors who have never been entrepreneurs – as valuable as they may be – must be accommodated to the world of the entrepreneur as each tries to build one’s own future.

Differentiation is as important as innovation.



In these processes, one most surely will focus upon innovation of some type. But, every successful entrepreneur well knows that differentiation is at least as important, maybe even more so, as is innovation. Innovation focuses upon the provider’s offerings; differentiation focuses upon the value, satisfaction, utility or delight that the innovation provides to the customer.

Innovation without differentiation seldom produces optimal appeal to potential customers or best results for the seller. Commerce, entrepreneurship, and our personal undertakings have much in common.

It might even be said that each of us in our own way and everyday living is a type of entrepreneur. We see and seek various opportunities that we hope will satisfy various wants and needs we may have – and we then pursue these opportunities and possibilities using various ways and means that are consistent with our values and our ethical and moral standards. As free persons, we tend to pursue those things that we want to achieve, and the more we desire or love what we are trying to accomplish, the better and more eager we will become in that pursuit.

What the pursuit of happiness is all about.

Sure, we want to succeed in those pursuits, but we also want to do so in ways that we will feel good about and which we trust will help us to become a better, happier and more fulfilled person. That’s what the American ideal of the “pursuit of happiness” is all about. But, happiness is seldom achieved in the doing or pursuit of something one does not feel deeply about.

In our various pursuits, we each are both a theorist and a pragmatist. Our difficulties arise in relating one to another. We must at the same time be persons of thought, and persons of action. The more thorough the thought, the better are the probabilities that the choices we make and the actions we effect will be correct ones. And the more energetic the actions, the more clearly must become the thought processes, lest we wear ourselves to exhaustion in bad choices, ways, and means, all of which produce little positive results.

Uniting the “is now” with the “ought to be” and the “will be.”

Sometimes, maybe most times, we start only with the vaguest and murkiest of ideas, and refine or clarify them as we become engaged in the pursuit. But, the degree of entrepreneurial talent is largely determined by how well one is able to unite into a sound synthesis of theory and practice, ends and means, and the “is now” with the “ought to be” and the perseverance to have these become fashioned into that “will be” of the future which changes everything about one’s self, and one’s situation.

“Commanding Knowledge” is not an extended awareness into every nook, cranny, and crevice of the situation.

It means thorough knowledge of everything germane and relevant.

The difference is crucial.

In these endeavors, one must possess a commanding knowledge of one’s field, the setting and the situations. Problems are always opportunities in disguise, but one must thoroughly understand the problems before one can provide unique or preferred solutions. But, “commanding knowledge” does not mean an extended awareness into every nook and cranny and every crevice of an existent situation. Rather, it means thorough knowledge of everything germane and relevant.

Thus, each of us also largely crafts our own self forward as we seek to accomplish our professional pursuits. But, we do not do so alone – or in a vacuum. Many forces are always at work – some are friendly and helpful, and others are antagonistic and hurtful.

Constraints conspire to inspire.

But, the greatest achievers usually find conflicts, difficulties, obstacles and obstructions to be somehow useful. The more resistant the opposing forces, the stronger become the muscle that strains against them. This is also true for our professional competencies. Among the best and brightest, constraints don’t inhibit creativity and resourcefulness; they encourage, stimulate, and inspire them. Too often antagonistic and hurtful forces conspire with their own inadequacies and limitations to undermine the efforts of achieving-oriented persons. Success demands that these “resistances” be somehow overcome — or better still, be used to achieve goals

Since all of this involves a great number of human beings, the entrepreneurial genius lies heavily in developing a realistic and astute view and understanding of human nature. The first such understanding is the realization that human nature is protean to the ultimate. The next understanding is that we humans are mixtures of extremes, and not a blended average. We each are as good as the best that we have done, and as bad as the worst.

So, a successful entrepreneur, like anyone who is able to positively and constructively interact with others, has neither a utopian, nor a pessimistic view of human beings. Rather, they know that people are a mixture of

  • good and bad,
  • generosity and greed,
  • selfishness and magnanimity,
  • ignorance and enlightenment,
  • stupidity and cleverness, and
  • kindness and ruthlessness.

And an almost endless variety of contraries with the less-becoming elements of our makeup are too often predominant.

In this baffling mixture of traits that seems to be always changing with situation and circumstance, we must somehow function, making our lives as we try to make our living. This ceaseless effort to make our living makes us. Just as we are shaped by our environments, and by others, we each also further shape, in various ways, the environment we inhabit, and the others with whom we interdependently interact.

The world is full of immediate possibilities and restraining practicalities. And this is as it must be. We want, and need, the liberty and freedom to pursue our own heart’s delight. But, there must be laws, rules, regulations and codes of conduct that restrain and regulate each of us lest we damage the liberties and freedoms that others also, by right, are entitled to have and to enjoy.

Honor. Integrity. Conscience. Ethics. Values. Morals.

Each entrepreneur will seek to lead an organization that reflects the substance, style, and structure that is consistent with each one’s own visions and values. The better and clearer those visions and values become, the more attractive and energizing they become to those who the entrepreneur must both attract and lead. And this attractiveness must be both a magnetic attractiveness and an appealing attraction as well. Both meanings of attractiveness must prevail.

Trust builds relationships; execution builds results.

Trust is, and always will be, the coin of the realm.

Businesses must attract customers, staff, and capital. In these attractions, trust is the coin of the realm. So, trust must never be depreciated or violated in any way. In the various halls and rooms of Cincom’s offices throughout the world, we feature a poster that succinctly advises that, “Trust Builds Relationships; Execution Builds Results.”

Trust and respect are twin imperatives of all success, and of all positive, constructive relationships.

In the End

Results determine whether a business succeeds or fails. Results are driven by productivity. Productivity is a principle cast in iron. Production must be greater than costs. Pragmatism and excellence of execution are both essential. But, so too is everything else upon which trust and respect are created.

Productivity is a principle cast in iron.

Production must be greater than costs.

Mastery of the entrepreneurial art is a difficult yet noble pursuit. Entrepreneurs have always changed the world for the better in many ways, large and small. Along the way all will face adversity, triumphs and tragedies. When struggling or in doubt … go back to the beginning and remember …

Principles rule.

The master of the entrepreneurial art uses time-tested and time-proven principles.

About the Author

Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems, Inc. The longest actively serving CEO in the computer industry, Nies was recognized by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 as "the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit of American business." In 1992, British Prime Minister Edward Heath honored Nies for Cincom's role in bringing the software industry to England. In 1995, he was profiled by the Smithsonian Institute as one of the "pioneers of the software industry," alongside other industry giants such as Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Larry Ellison (Oracle). In 2004, Ernst & Young inducted Nies into its Entrepreneur of the Year Hall of Fame. In 2005, along with the CEO of Adobe, Nies won the International Stevie Award for Best Executive in the International Business Awards—"the business world's own Oscars," according to the New York Post. In 2005, Nies also received the University of Cincinnati Lifetime Achievement award and in 2006, was named as one of the Top Ten IT Visionaries by START-IT magazine. In 2008, Tom and Cincom were featured in a Harvard Business School Study. Email Tom Nies:

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