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Summary of Live to Win by Victor Kiam

Notes from Victor Kiam's 1989 book Live to Win. Advice and aphorisms for entrepreneurs. Victor Kiam is best known for his turnaround of Remington Products, which he purchased in 1979. The business had lost $30 million in the previous three years but made a profit in his first year as owner.

This book is a bit older but I loved it! It was a lot of fun following the journey of an entrepreneur from his vantage point. I found many useful tidbits I think will continue to stand the test of time. I have organized these tidbits into seven categories.

Almost all of the below are directly from the book but some are thoughts inspired by what was read. 


On Product / Offering

• Victor Kiam prefers to use the term “Unique Selling Proposition” (USP). An example USP could be convenience. He provides the example of putting together multiple items and creating a portable “travel kit”.

• Even if your individual offerings are not unique, the way you offer them individually or altogether as a package may be. In the long term, you need to be able to maintain your USP.

• Build on your USP and market it. What makes your company different? How are you unique? You should strive to lead the way, not simply be in the brass section of an orchestra playing the same tune as everyone else. 

• Can your idea / service easily be ripped off? If you can easily be ripped off, it could still work for you in the short term.

• Avoid “me too” products. These are products that you feel you “need” to offer simply because your competitor does.

• Introduce something great, make great margin and bow out when the market is flooded with imitations.

• For 3.5 years his company was only a one product company. It provided the cash flow for all that came after. Product 1: shaver. Product 2: shaver accessory.

On Sales

• Show stability by not always updating your offer every season.

• Use limited offerings as a tactic to sell more product / service.

• SELL what you are selling.

• Any sale you are working on at that moment is the most important sale.

• Keep “small talk” small (avoid politics, religion, etc).

• “No one expects you to lose money while providing your service.”

• If a customer is always only looking to take advantage of you, don’t worry about that relationship -  you don’t really have one.

• It’s hard to change consumer habits.

• “Paining the vista” – entice the customer with a picture / video / presentation of your product / service in all its potential glory and how it looks for the prospect.

• You have to know your market.

• Look at the demographics of your clientele. What else do you / can you work toward providing that this demographic would also want? Think about partnering with businesses that offer services/products targeting the same demographic. This can be a great lead source from introductions / referrals.

• Create a “balance sheet” (positives and negatives) of your idea / offering for you and the person you intend to sell it to. This helps you be able to help your buyers navigate potential negatives.

• How do you stack up to your competitors? Bring attention to their liabilities.

• Don’t allow anyone to present or demonstrate your offering unless they know it thoroughly.

• Train customer service staff to be salespeople as well.

• Don’t be afraid to ask why you’re not getting the sale.

• Know when to draw the line, when the final “no” it is no. “Stop punching a dead body, it could end up being your own!”. What that means is when the answer is no or the sale is dead, if you keep pursuing it then it could lead to not just the death of the sale but also the relationship, your reputation or even your business.

• A good salesman is energetic, observant, confident in themself and what they’re selling, enthusiastic for their job and for its growth potential, able to get along with people and has thick skin to handle rejection. All this coupled with hard work.

• Take sales in stride, there is always another email to send, phone call to make, etc.

On Customer Service

• Customer satisfaction = your chief responsibility – ALWAYS!

• A sale is the goal but a happy customer is priority #1.

• “If you can’t undercut a competitor on price – don’t worry. You can always overwhelm your prospects with hard work and outstanding service”.

• Don’t make excuses for failed promises and missed deadlines. Deliver. Or let clients know you won’t. Timeliness makes up for a lot.

• It goes both ways; clients have to be worth it for the business as well. If they are a client that is uncertain, creates a lot of issues and you do not need their business then don’t take work from them.

On Employees

• As a business leader you should want entrepreneurs working for you at all levels.

• Give employees a forum for their ideas to be heard and given consideration.

• Present clear goals and incentives to your employees.

• Incentivize employees. Keeps the entrepreneurial spirit alive within them. Keeps their incentives and the company’s aligned.

• Gives them a stake in the company for it performing well. Treat employees properly, fairly and get them involved in the success of the company. When the company does well / better, they should do well / better (ex. financial bonus based on the success of the company).

• Anyone who is a liaison between the company and its customers needs to be knowledgeable and competent – provide proper training!

• Hire the best person for the specific job. This may seem simple enough but a lot of things prevent owners / managers from making the best decision.

• Sometimes you have to look past reputation (look past, not ignore). The reason someone has a bad reputation from their past company, etc, may very well be the reason you’d like to hire them or do business with them.

On Business

• Covering up mistakes only ever creates bigger issues later.

• There is no greater failure than “maybe”.

• Any job worth doing is worth doing well.”

• You can turn “losers” into “winners”.

• “Experts” don’t always know but don’t reject experienced advice outright, give it a certain amount of weight before making a decision. However, don’t allow it to overwhelm your gut feeling. What is the source of the contrary opinion?

• It’s not always worth looking for the key to a locked door. It’s sometimes worth it to just find another door to go through.

• Business is a game – play it to win! (but not at all costs). Reputation is more precious than gold. With clients, prospects, financial institutions, etc. Maintaining a well earned good reputation helps you sleep at night. Just as much as a bad reputation can hurt – a good reputation can help.

• Someone who “double deals” does not belong in the game. They are not true entrepreneurs.

• Every interaction by yourself, an employee, etc IS the company. Guilt by association is real for your company.

• No one should know your business or your competition as well as you. You need to know as much as you can about your competitors.

• When expanding to a foreign market, learn the particulars as best as you can.

• There are 3 parts to almost any business: finance, marketing and operations. Add 25% to budgeting estimates for unforeseen issues.

• There are no miracles, just a series of small things along the way.

• Success brings with it new responsibilities and choices.

• “The person who takes the fullest advantage of success is the person who plans for it.”

• Possible financial benefits of a venture / idea + time expended + money spent + reputation risk = your decision.

On Entrepreneurship

• An entrepreneur is a doer.

• “When opportunity knocks, the entrepreneur is always home.”

• Don’t build a business for someone else.

• No risk? Never failed? Not an entrepreneur.

• You can’t be half pregnant. As an entrepreneur you have to believe and be all-in.

• Don’t avoid failure - risk success.

• An entrepreneur doesn’t follow fashion – they set it.

• By nature the entrepreneur is often cutting against the grain of popular opinion.

• All limitations are self imposed.

• Be creative when faced with problems that appear to be a “no”.

• Negative feedback can be a plus. Forces you to look within and look critically upon your ideas.

• “The perfect fit” - you don’t have to fit the entrepreneur lifestyle, you can make it fit YOU. You can make your lifestyle fit your business.

• “Seeing the tree in the forest”:  What good things / products / services are you doing or have but don’t notice because they are being lost in the forest? Best sellers / good habits you don’t know you have. Things you’re doing amazing at that you may not realize.

• Develop an entrepreneurial resilience. Don’t let initial disappointments and unforeseen issues get you down. They happen in any business. They are nothing more than opportunities to exercise your entrepreneurial ingenuity.

• Create a personal “intangible balance sheet” of assets and liabilities, aka strengths / weaknesses. 

• Lean into strengths. Leverage the assets you have. Build on strengths and use them to offset liabilities.

• Work on liabilities. Liabilities do not have to be enduring and can become strengths. Draw up fresh strategies to reduce / eliminate them. Let your mind go wild during the brainstorm sessions.

• Pinpoint your problems, have you done all you can to overcome them? Turn your weaknesses into strengths as they relate to the business you are building.

On Life

• Discuss your business with your life partner. You need to have a compromise in place with relationships with regard to life as an entrepreneur; if not, one will suffer.

• “Winning at the workplace is a shallow triumph if you’re losing at home. Those who can maintain a healthy bottom line in both environments are achieving the greatest victory of all.”

• “Business is where you are and family is your most sacred business.”

• Be cautious about mixing business and friendships.