The Internet is full of articles from seemingly successful entrepreneurs dispensing valuable lessons from their first year in business. I recommend that you read them. Leaving the security of a job to start your own business requires confidence, determination, and all the free advice you can get. Hopefully what follows here are more useful kernels of wisdom to get you past the hard times as an entrepreneur.
A little backstory is in order. Divining Point is not my first rodeo. My first business was an unfocused mess of a company that helped me pay my way through college, taught me invaluable life lessons, and pushed me into a career path that inevitably brought me here today. In that regard, the first business was a success. But truthfully it resulted in me having to get a job and reconsidering whether I had the mettle to be an independent business owner.
Fast-forward to four years ago, Divining Point started off as a consultancy, like so many other companies do. I juggled roles. I took full time contracts and after hours freelance projects in order to keep pushing forward with the vision of doing my own thing. I delivered as much value as possible within each 24-hour day, and I did my best to do right by my clients. In April of 2016 I decided to refocus 100% of my efforts on the company and formally give it a name. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way that might be useful to you.
Nearly four years ago I left the stability of a good-paying job working with a team of professionals who challenged me, made me laugh, and treated me as an integral part of the organization. To complicate matters, just months before I left my job, I learned that my wife and I were expecting a child. Two weeks later my wife was laid off from a position as a chemical engineer that she’d held for 16 years. I had very little capital and almost no financial safety net. Most people in my shoes would have immediately postponed their plans. And yet, I still left.
Having been in sales and marketing for over 20 years, I knew I could hustle. I also knew I could help clients get on track with their companies and provide them with valuable strategies for sales and marketing. All I needed to do was push forward and get over the fear of failure. Really, the worst thing that could happen would be having to get another job.
Embrace the possibility of failure. Accept the risk of financial setbacks. Stay organized and don’t get distracted by the worries in your stomach. Running your own business is an exercise in taming your fear while continuing to work nonstop at peak performance. If you’re not brave and if you’re not focused you’ll get off course and your business will die.
Redefine Yourself… Often
If you’re like most people your business will change frequently over many years. The opportunities to service clients and deliver useful products will inevitably evolve. Your company will pivot. Your focus will shift. Technology will change. You will suddenly find yourself making money in ways that didn’t seem possible before. That’s a good thing. In fact, we believe transformation and growth are critical components of success.
While this change is healthy, what is absolutely disastrous is the failure to redefine your company IN CONJUNCTION with the shifts in your operations. You may identify new opportunities and develop a plan to capitalize on new revenue, but your long-term success will be capped without a roadmap that guides your decision-making.
To use a more personal analogy, the person you are today is uniquely different than who you were ten years ago. Your core values may be constant, but the way you manifest and embody those values isn’t. What you do, who you speak to, who you service, these are all fluid. As your company grows you should redefine your brand strategy, identity, messaging, and positioning… even your website. Do it often and stay ahead of the changes in the market.
Be Passionate About Your Business
Love what you do and whom you do it for. It seems simple enough, but it’s much harder in practice. New entrepreneurs do things they really don’t want to do in order to make money in the early stages of their company. These mistakes are easy to shrug off if you see them for what they are: short term sacrifices.
The trap comes from repeating these “mistakes” over and over in the pursuit of consistent revenue. You take on too many projects that don’t fall in line with your core competencies. You work with difficult clients in segments outside of your area of expertise. You work long hours in pursuit of poorly fitted “money makers”, and before long the once bright vision of your company is now cloudy and grim. You may as well be working for someone else.
Don’t take the bait. At some point you need to say No. Do it as a commitment to your company. Be crazy in love with your business in ways that prevent you from cheating on yourself. Find those things you enjoy doing the most that bring the greatest value to your ideal clients – and then stick with it. Be faithful to this vision.
Don’t Pretend To Have All The Answers
One of the best lessons I ever learned happened on accident. About 12 years ago I met with a GM of a local auto dealership, and he stumped me with a question I couldn’t answer. I froze for a moment and then gave him the truth: “I don’t know”.
He nodded and said, “I respect a man who isn’t afraid to say he doesn’t have all the answers.”
Truth of the matter is no one has all the answers. Having the humility to accept this fact can actually lead a person to greater success. In most cases it’s better to ask questions in pursuit of the truth[nbsp_tc]instead of coming to the table with a ton of preconceived ideas or solutions.
To extend this even further, not having all the answers can lead to greater collaboration within your organization, better connections with your clients, and more meaningful discoveries. Surround yourself with smart employees, contractors, partners, and clients. Be the conduit that guides all of these energies towards great things instead of being a controller that eventually burns out and turns everyone off.
A very wise friend by the name of Steve Reilly once told me, “Every new opportunity is a bridge to the next stage in your business. Early in your business the bridges will be small, but they’ll become bigger and bigger over time.”
As I mentioned above, short-term sacrifices make sense early in your company’s genesis. They are bridges to take you to your next destination, but eventually you’ll need to build bigger bridges in order to go further and reach the places you want to take your company. That means saying No to bad deals and saying Yes to deals that challenge you to stretch outside of your comfort zone – but still within the industries, services, and client types you’ve identified as ideal fits for your company.
Building bridges also means partnering and networking with people and companies who share your ideals and visions for success. These personal bridges become channel partnerships, referral sources, and cool collaborations that bring about wonderful case studies. Be generous in sharing opportunities with these key allies… and pretty much with everyone you meet. Life rewards people who operate from a position of abundance.
Building bridges includes managing client engagements with the intention of establishing long-term relationships instead of short transactions. No matter if you sell a commodity or a complex solution, the customer experience should always increase brand loyalty. The client’s needs should always be in mind as you conduct with your daily business.
If you think you have what it takes to start your own business, do it. Get out, get hustling, and start building those bridges that will take you to where you want to go. The upside is huge. You work for yourself. You work with great employees and contractors. You establish good relationships with clients, and you make money. The worst thing that can happen is you have to go get a job. As a person on his second go round as an entrepreneur I can tell you that’s a perfectly okay outcome, too.