Shape Up!

2. Getting Mentally Fit

Unfortunately, it's not enough to feel good about yourself. To succeed as an entrepreneur, you also have to know your stuff. While nothing equals work experience in the industry you're entering, getting book smart--reading books and articles and taking seminars--can help you mentally prepare for the challenges ahead. "Take as many seminars as you can," says Kenneth Goldberg, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at National University in San Diego. "What you don't know can hurt you."

An MBA will teach you how to be a CEO, but it might not teach you everything you need to know about the start-up phase. To fill in your knowledge gaps, check with your local chamber of commerce, SBA office and Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for free or low-cost seminars aimed at start-ups. Don't forget community colleges and universities, which are a great and sometimes underused resource offering networking opportunities, seminars and guest lectures that explore business trends and issues.

A big part of getting mentally fit will revolve around your business plan, a research tool that makes you think about your business concept in-depth, from your product and service to your customer and sales projections. As you write it, you'll dig deep to discover your competitive advantage, your competition, barriers to entry and the customer base you're targeting. Your business plan "should be a compelling discussion," Rich says. "It's a sign to see if you've done all your homework." Not to mention a confidence-builder.

If you don't have a mentor, find one. It's important to have a seasoned pro in the wings who will take an interest in your idea and be there to listen and offer advice. A good mentor will evaluate your business plan and act as your coach during the start-up phase. "Next to evaluating your business plan, a mentor is probably the most important thing," Goldberg says. Your business mentor might be a professor, someone at the SBDC, someone with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) or a successful entrepreneur. "Most successful entrepreneurs want to share their knowledge with people," Goldberg says. "It may lead to new business for them, too."

Finally, take the time to learn the lifestyle of your chosen industry, not just the business, says Mel Chasen, an entrepreneur and the author of Entrepreneurship Made E-Z (Made E-Z Products). Make lunch appointments with five successful entrepreneurs in the industry you're pursuing to learn what they went through during the start-up phase. What was a typical day like during their first year in business? How many hours did they put in, and how did they stay motivated? What mistakes did they make that you can learn from? How did they adapt early on to changes in the market?

"You're making a transition. You know the field and the industry, but you don't really know the lifestyle, the downtimes, the depression," Chasen says. "[By learning this], you'll start with a whole plan for how to do things and avoid the mistakes."

Mental Fitness Checklist
If you can't answer yes to these 10 statements, you will need to boost your mental fitness:
  1. I have work experience in this industry.
  2. I've taken seminars and classes on the subject.
  3. I've gotten to know a few other entrepreneurs in this industry.
  4. I have a mentor I look up to and speak with regularly.
  5. I'm always reading books on this industry written by experts and successful entrepreneurs.
  6. I keep up-to-date on this industry through newspaper articles, magazines, trade publications and Web sites.
  7. I have an intellectual curiosity to keep learning as much as I can about this industry and about being an entrepreneur.
  8. I know who my competitors are, and I know as much about them as I possibly can.
  9. I understand the barriers to entry in this industry, and I have an idea of how I'll overcome them.
  10. I know my competitive advantage.

Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog,

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This article was originally published in the October 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Shape Up!.

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