It’s almost impossible for me to believe, but it’s been 20 years since I first began my entrepreneurial adventure. I had just finished getting my Master’s Degree at night, with the intention of eventually starting a company of my own, when I got a jumpstart ahead of schedule. The corporation I was working for decided to restructure. My region was going to be combined with another, which inevitably meant some of us would be out of a job. While the timing wasn’t within my plan, the opportunity was actually spectacular. I would have a few months of severance pay, which would give me the time to develop the business with a little seed money to get it going. That is when I learned the first of these ten valuable lessons that I hope to pass on to new and future entrepreneurs.
- Take chances
Risk-taking tolerance is a necessary skill for an entrepreneur. Paychecks are uncertain. Hours can be crazy, especially in the beginning. It is not a conventional route to paying your bills so you need to know that you can be OK with uncertainty, and preferably, that you flourish in its midst. Jump at the right opportunities when they come your way, yet not recklessly. Do your homework to evaluate opportunities to the best of your ability, then lean toward those that make sense. Just like having a baby or going back to school, there’s never a perfect time to launch a business, roll out a new product or leave your day job, so eventually you just have to jump in.
- Make detailed plans
Dreaming is easy, planning is hard. And frankly, if you’re like me, rather dull. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to take those chances when you’ve made some concrete plans. Even if you don’t need a loan, make a business plan. It forces you to carefully consider who your competition is, how to stand out, how to prioritize your spending, and the answers to countless other questions that will drive your business. I highly recommend making a detailed marketing plan as well. Don’t let them just sit on a shelf or lay buried in a file on your computer. Revisit and reevaluate each often. Sometimes they will get you back on track when you start chasing too many different ideas, and sometimes you will revise them because circumstances or opportunities warrant a change in direction…like say, a global pandemic?
- Seek out help
There are so many kind, smart, generous people out there who are willing to help. Never let pride or fear of rejection stand in the way of asking for guidance or support. Contact people you admire and ask for a few moments of their time. Most are flattered by the request and kind enough to offer up some invaluable wisdom. Friends and family want to see you succeed. Some will freely offer help, others will not, but the vast majority will be more than willing to pitch in if you just decide to ask.
- Surround yourself with collaborators
Get out in the community you want to be in and meet people. It won’t take long before you begin to identify people with a collaborative spirit. They are the innovative souls who make suggestions that may benefit only you without even being asked. They are the ones who think of people you should know and offer to make introductions. Make note of those people when you meet them and keep in contact. Eventually you may find yourself working together in ways you never imagined, like putting flyers for your tax services on their pizza boxes or packaging your products together to boost holiday sales. Even if you don’t work together directly, collaborators always take the meeting or your call, and are happy to lend support. Be one, and you will attract others.
- Take exploratory meetings
Sure, if you take this advice there’s a likelihood that you will sit in a coffee shop or two with someone simply trying to sell you things you don’t need, and wasting your time. Heaven knows, I’ve had my fair share of those lost hours over twenty years. More often than not, though, you walk away with a new idea. Maybe they gave it to you directly, or maybe the chat just gets your brain going in a new direction. Sometimes, you even get lucky enough to meet with someone you would’ve ignored because you couldn’t see the value, who offers up a life-changing idea, support or technology.
- Have confidence in your skills
If you don’t believe in you, nobody else can be expected to either. Don’t start a business unless you believe you can run it. Don’t build a business around a special skill or product, unless you know how good it is. You have to have passion when convincing others to buy from you, and it’s impossible to have passion if you aren’t sure of the quality of what you have to offer.
- Know what you’re bad at
I’ve yet to meet a business owner who is great at all aspects of operating their company. I mean, think about it, what is the likelihood that the same person can write engaging web copy, take cool photos for social media, balance the books, create the products, understand legal documents, design marketing materials, solve customer problems, close deals, and be tech support? Immediately identify the tasks that are not within your skill set. If it’s everything related to running the company, then consider hiring a CEO or finding a job using your unique talents. If all you really love to do is cut hair, then become a great stylist, but work for someone else, or hire a manager to run your salon.
- Delegate tasks you shouldn’t do
Obviously for the skills you simply don’t have, it makes sense to delegate. It’s also important to delegate tasks you hate doing, if possible, as well as those that are simply a waste of your time. You will find that time becomes your most precious commodity, even more so than money most days. I know when I have a task ahead of me that I hate doing, I postpone it as much as possible, and yet it lingers in the back of my mind preventing me from enjoying other aspects of my work. Give those tasks away to someone who is better equipped when you can. There’s a temptation, especially in the beginning, to do everything yourself, but keep in mind that time is money. Hire experts. Yes, thanks to YouTube, you may be able to figure out how to build your website or fix your copier, but how long will it take you, and will it be done right? Files need to be kept up to date, but is that really the best use of your time? Stick to what you know and love, and hire the right people to do the rest.
- Never stop learning
Despite what I just said about watching a video to learn how to do something that’s inherently outside your wheelhouse, I absolutely believe you should never be complacent about ongoing education. The moment you think you know all there is to know about running a business or about your industry, is likely the time to retire. Truthfully, none of us will ever really get to that point, but when you stop learning and adapting, the business will start to die. I suspect this is a lesson a lot of entrepreneurs learned during the pandemic when everything we thought we knew for certain was turned upside down. Even if you don’t have a constant thirst for knowledge, let evolving technology and changing circumstances fuel your commitment to ongoing education.
- Give and you will receive
Whether you set out to build a company that donates a portion of its proceeds to charity, or just stumble upon opportunities to sponsor teams or become a mentor, giving just to give always seems to pay off. Do the right thing. Be the corporate citizen you wish you ran across more often. Lend a hand without being asked. Offer up your expertise, without expecting reward, to deserving entities that can benefit. Financial success is wonderful, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to the satisfaction that comes from knowing you have integrity and that your work has made someone else’s life better.
As a final reflection, I would be remiss if I didn’t say THANK YOU to all those who have been my teachers, mentors, helpers, experts, collaborators, clients, and friends throughout my career, especially these last two decades. It’s a scary proposition going out on your own and knowing there is no guaranteed paycheck, but people like you made me believe I could do it, and what an incredible ride it has been. To my fellow and aspiring entrepreneurs, I wish you stamina, ingenuity, and the boundless joy that comes from building something of your very own.