I recently starting using StumbleUpon. If you’re not familiar with the service, it asks you what you’re interested in and then uses some super secret (random) method to connect you to sites in your interests. When you’re bored of a certain site, simply stumble to a new one.
I marked one of my interests as “entrepreneurship”, so I’m often taken to blog posts or articles on entrepreneurship sites. At least half of these articles are “rules of entrepreneurship” type of articles. They list out the things you need to do to get started. Things like: have a great idea, pursue your idea with passion and spend money carefully. I agree with most of the advice given. The problem is that it is so generic and mostly common sense. What is the stuff that no one tells you either because it is bad news or uncomfortable? Well, here’s my list.
I have the pleasure of having a relationship with the group of people from BOSI. They have great ideas about entrepreneurship. Strangely enough, their huge game-changing idea is very simple: not all entrepreneurs are alike. Your motivations, habits and needs are different than anyone else, so any kind of advice needs to be run through your own filters. You got yourself into this mess called “being an entrepreneur”, you’ll need to figure out how best to navigate it for yourself.
Personally, I’m not one of those natural entrepreneurs who dreamt of having a company. I saw a need I could satisfy and I built a product that would satisfy it. I had no real intention of selling it. I simply knew that I wouldn’t remain interested in the project unless something was on the line. So, I decided to charge money for it to keep myself interested. I didn’t even think at the time about that making me an entrepreneur. I believe that same initial reasoning is still the most important thing I bring to the table. I still spend my time seeing needs for our customers and our company and designing clever ways to satisfy them.
Use common sense
Stop reading articles about being an entrepreneur. Most of the stuff you’re reading is stuff you already know said in potentially eloquent ways. Spend less than you make. If you’re weak in an area, find a partner to shore up that area. Have integrity. Pay attention to your competitors. Price yourself correctly. Duh! If you couldn’t figure all that out without hearing it from someone else, give up.
Be in the right place at the right time
The vast majority of entrepreneurs saw a gap and they filled it. If you want to be very successful as an entrepreneur, be there when there’s a gap that you have the ability to fill. How can you make sure you’re there when there’s a gap you can fill? That’s easy…
You’ll probably have to get lucky a bunch of times in order to be successful. This isn’t something you can manufacture. You’ll just need to cross your fingers and hope for the best. I suspect that if my 8 year old were allowed to ask any successful entrepreneur questions for 1 hour, eventually he’d get to one where the answer would be “that was just luck”.
Make decisions and stick to them, unless they were bad decisions
So many times I see the first half of this advice or the second half of this advice. Mine is really non-advice. You need to stick to good decisions and drop bad decisions. The trick is to figure out which is which.
Being wishy-washy is bad. In recent history Netflix’s changes have hurt them considerably. For the smaller business constant total overhauls are terrible for your employees and customers. But, if you see something that isn’t working and isn’t going to work then staying the course is even worse.
Ignore half of what your customers tell you
Customers have lots of ideas. They want new features. They want easier ways to reach you. They want easier ways to pay and different terms. Most of them will be great ideas that will benefit your other customers. Some of them won’t be worth the cost. Some of them will make your product or service harder to use, explain or sell. Some of them will only show benefit to your most keen observers. If you implement every good idea your customers have, you won’t really be doing your company or your customers a great service.
You need to pick and choose. Not just the things that are right for your business either. Sometimes you have to do something that isn’t the best thing for your product in order to satisfy a customer who is important to your business either from a revenue or marketing perspective. It doesn’t feel good, but it won’t be the only time you have to balance your own comfort and happiness and the happiness of your customers.
Make a plan, then deviate from it often
Going into business without a plan is ridiculous. If you have no idea how your going to eventually succeed, how will you know when you get there? Ideally, you should know how you’re going to get new customers and how and when you plan to turn a profit. But your plans shouldn’t be set in stone.
I don’t even bother to make solid plans anymore. I set goals. I have ideas about when I expect measures to be attained, but they change constantly. Customers change, the market changes, you capabilities change. Your plan needs to change with it.
Stop thinking about VC and about winning the lottery
These days, especially in technology, there are more and more people creating “business ideas”. They are excited, driven and well-spoken. They may also have an existing product, an engaged customer base, profits, growth and a great team. Most of them will not get venture capital. Sure, the tech blog you read talks about another team that got half a million from so-and-so every week. But for every one of those, there are thousands who are crossing their fingers waiting for funding.
You’re probably not going to win the VC lottery. It takes a lot of work. It takes some skill. It takes some luck. It doesn’t help if you know the right people either.
Here’s a confession, though. I play the lottery. Whenever the jackpot gets big enough I buy one ticket. I figure my chances of winning go from zero to much more than zero by simply buying a ticket. In the same vein, if you need funding, take whatever strides necessary to keep the door to VC open. At the same time, live your life as if you won’t get it.
Be afraid to fail
About one in every 3 entrepreneur advice lists will talk about Hershey’s or some other entrepreneur who failed a number of times before the succeeded. Don’t be fooled. For every one of those there are hundreds of people who started a business and failed at it and just simply lost money, freedom and opportunity. Obviously you don’t want to fail. But I say that you should go beyond that and let the fear of failure drive you to do what it takes to succeed.
If you are using your common sense (see above) you will worry about your revenue and expenses. You will worry about unhappy customers. You will worry about your employees leaving. You should worry about those things and what they would do to your business. Then fix them.
Be a good quitter
Sure, Jack Welch already detailed the “stop doing” list. But you need to really do this. Find things to stop doing. Try new things and drop them when they don’t work.
In my business, we’ve invested a lot of time into lots of different initiatives. For a while we were going to build church management software; I even had a working system that managed attendance, giving and membership. Since my accidental start in entrepreneurship I’ve also been a part of trying out two different ideas, both of which were very exciting to me at the time. They were all interesting little diversions. I learned a lot from each. But I quit each of those and hundreds of much smaller ideas. I’ve quit at just about every stage of a project.
Small business relationships are hard relationships
Starting a business with a friend seems like such a good idea. It can be, but be prepared to potentially have to choose between the business and the friendship. I currently have a great relationship with my business partner, but it isn’t always great. It is a relationship that takes energy and effort. It is the hardest relationship I have in my life besides with my spouse.
I have to use the same skills I do in my marriage. I have to stay humble, but keep myself satisfied. I have to give up my “rights” to keep the other party happy. I have to be kind and practice extra amounts of courtesy. I have to share things I don’t want to share and be accountable to someone else for decisions I could make without any consequence had I not entered into the partnership. My business partner and I argue, we bicker, we hurt each others feelings. He requires me to validate his decisions and tell him how I feel about the partnership.
Most of us can’t start and run a successful business alone. We need others around us who are strong in the areas we are weak. But to have them work with us requires we maintain those relationships. Even if you’re not partners and they are your employees, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can just do what you want. All the same rules apply. Business relationships are complicated and the fewer people that you work with, the more complicated the relationships.
You probably aren’t smart enough, detail oriented enough or driven enough to succeed
I’m not. At the beginning, starting a business seems easy enough. Even navigating the government paperwork and banking seem easy enough. Hiring great people is hard. Keeping up with a changing industry is hard. Being disrespected by a customer and still serving him is hard. Collecting money is hard. Staying motivated when things aren’t going how you planned is hard. Giving up nights and weekend is hard. Turning a profit is hard. Doing it for a long time is very hard. It takes a good business, discipline, good tools, creativity and intelligence. Lots of days I wonder if I have what it takes. You will only know if you try.
Good luck to you.