For many, the decision to become an entrepreneur is made with mixed emotions. Excitement results from the realization that owning your own business gives you more control over your destiny. You may be intimidated, however, when you realize that you'll likely be doing most of the work alone or with just a partner--in other words, without the in-office support network enjoyed daily by people who work for others.
So if you're feeling lonely, you're not alone. But establishing a reliable network of advisors and friends you can turn to for support in times of crisis or uncertainty can make all the difference. The goal is to gather a core group of individuals who will be willing to lend an ear or some heartfelt advice when the need arises.
"For a solo worker, a network of friends and advisors becomes a lifeline for success," explains business consultant Terri Lonier, author of Working Solo: TheReal Guide to Freedom & Financial Success with Your Own Business (Portico Press, $14.95, 800-222-SOLO). "Friends and colleagues can help you find clients, provide you with funding or point you in the right direction, sort out new business ideas, offer feedback on that brainstorm you have, guide you in legal and financial matters and keep you balanced between the work and nonwork parts of your life."
As you grow your business and encounter others with whom you exchange advice on a regular basis, your support network, too, will grow. Our Building Blocks entrepreneurs have each reaped the rewards of reliable support networks from the earliest days of their ventures. Here, they share their tips.
A business writer for the past eight years, Kylo-Patrick Hart has run a successful homebased consulting business since 1989.
D.J. Waldow, B-School Cleaners
"A lot of the support I've needed has come from my father," says D.J. Waldow, 21, who's been running a dry-cleaning service from the University of Michigan Business School in Ann Arbor since January. "He owns his own business, so when I've found myself in need of advice, I've usually turned to him.
"Because my father is a children's dentist and runs his own practice, he relates to many of the business realities I face, and I can talk to him about anything. There was a day on the job when I had absolutely no customers. I went from one day when 20 customers dropped off clothing for cleaning to the next, when nobody did. I was really confused about the situation and a bit down. My father reminded me that when you own your own business, you're always going to have ups and downs. There will be times when everything is going great and times when things won't be going so great. His advice to me was to stay positive, keep pushing ahead and have faith that everything would work out in the end." Waldow heeded this advice and persevered.
Waldow is also grateful for pointers shared by fellow students. "I've met a handful of master's students through our school's entrepreneur club who ran their own businesses when they were undergraduates, and they've provided advice on everything from marketing to bookkeeping," he says.
Perhaps the most central support of all has come from Waldow's business partner, Matt Campbell. "The tricky thing about running your own business is that it's virtually impossible to dodge an unpleasant task, take a day off when you're not feeling well or come up with solutions to various challenges entirely on your own," Waldow says. "Having a partner who shares in the responsibilities takes a good deal of the pressure off. As things come up, Matt and I put our heads together and discuss the possibilities until we come up with a mutually agreeable solution. We work very well as a team."
Al Schneider, usedmall.com
"Having a partner is beneficial when you own your own business, but there are many other people you need to interact with as well," says Al Schneider, 57, co-owner of Englewood, New Jersey-based used-mall.com. Since March 1996, he and partner Harvey Berlent have been running an electronic classified listings service geared to companies that want to buy or sell used or surplus equipment.
Schneider says it's essential to cast your net wide when assembling a reliable support network--especially in an emerging industry such as his, in which the financial rewards tend to go to those who remain on the technological and developmental forefront. As a result, the key components of his support network tend to be people with common technological interests with whom he regularly shares ideas and information. Over time, he has come to view several of these people as trusted friends and confidants.
"It's mostly a mutual exchange of information--I have unique knowledge, they have unique knowledge--so it's not been on a basis such that every time we have a conversation, it's billable," Schneider says. One noteworthy group of colleagues he's needed as part of his support network has been Web-site developers, because his business operates on the Internet. Ongoing, informal interactions with these people have enabled Schneider to keep abreast of new developments in virtual communication and to establish a much-needed sense of professional community.
To expand the size and strength of his support network, Schneider takes advantage of opportunities to meet and maintain ongoing contact with others. "Harvey and I make it a point to meet with people at trade shows who are on the forefront of development, and we constantly conduct `reality checks' of new ideas with individuals who have futuristic vision," he says. "We believe in seeking advice and support from a wide range of people who are, in one way or another, associated with the building of a business like ours."
Suzanne George, Suzanne George Shoes
"Luckily, I have a lot of good friends who own their own businesses to whom I can turn for support," explains Suzanne George, 34, who launched a made-to-order shoe business in the summer of 1995.
While enrolled in a six-month training course on how to operate a profitable business, George was encouraged by instructors to map out a list of people with different skills who'd be willing to provide occasional advice during the start-up and growth phases of her venture. "While assembling my business plan, I was expected to put together my own advisory board--approximately five people with varying specialties who would be willing to answer questions or provide other assistance when I encountered unexpected situations or concerns," she says. "I built that into my business plan in a very formal way, and those names have certainly come in handy since."
George feels remarkably fortunate to receive extensive support from her advisory board and numerous other friends and acquaintances. "For example," she says, "one time when I was doing some fashion-show work, I encountered a variety of legal issues and concerns that needed to be dealt with. I have a friend who's an attorney, and she took care of everything for me, pro bono. Other times, I've simply picked up the phone and gotten immediate answers to my questions from friends who work in marketing and public relations."
In addition, George finds that she is constantly learning from and sharing ideas with other entrepreneurs in various nonwork settings. "I really like to maintain a balance between my work life and my social life, but a lot of times, at dinner with friends who own small businesses, we'll end up talking about work during our relaxation time, too," she says. "I think that's because, when you own your own business, it just blends into everything you do. It's always there; it becomes a part of you."
Suzanne George Shoes, 526 Seventh Ave., #3, San Francisco, CA 94118