One small business success story that you don't hear much about is Alcoholics Anonymous. Of course, this has to do with the first rule of AA, which is that you don't talk about AA.
But consider this. The organization's rapid expansion from two men chatting a table in Akron, OH to a international non-profit corporation is all the more remarkable because of its peculiar structure.
Founded in 1935 by 'Bill W.' and 'Dr. Bob,' the group expanded to 100 members in just a few years. The next stage of growth occurred when alcoholics who were recovering through the program moved to other cities and started new meetings. AA's growth was almost entirely self-funded and spread through word of mouth -- in fact, the organization does not advertise, hold fundraisers, accept charity donations, or have any celebrity endorser.
Today, AA counts two million members and growing. Its revenue comes mostly from dollar bills collected at the end of meetings, which -- by a back of the envelope estimate -- comes to around $100 million a year. That buys a lot of coffee, which they keep at every meeting.
As countless numbers of people are testaments to the success of the 12-Step Program, small businesses owners can learn much from this model. From what I've seen of the program, eight tricks come to mind.
(1) You don't have to invent something new to be successful -- improving on a classic can work just as well. 12-step (and 9-step, and 8-step,... etc.) programs have been around forever, but Bill W made it into something that stuck.
(2) Do something that helps the world. This can pay huge dividends in goodwill and maybe even karma.
(3) Don't over-hype your product. People won't expect a miracle, and they may stick with it.
(4) Make a product the works. People will be pleased, and they may stick with it.
(5) Trust good word of mouth to get around, even if it goes quietly.
(6) Turn your customers into members. And let your members to become leaders of your company.
(7) Stay sober -- that is, figure out your weaknesses and work around them.
(8) Be anonymous. Or at least be humble.
And one bonus take-away: Free coffee is always a good incentive.