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To Tell The Truth

Fasten your seatbelts: We're about to shatter some of the most common small-business myths.

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Human nature compels us to seek answers to the questions daily life poses. Where did we come from? Why does the sun rise? Who is running this show? We want to know the truth. But sometimes the truth is too darned complicated. So we nudge it, massage it, dilute it and mold it into a simple, compact package we can grasp. In other words, we create a myth.

Unfortunately, our society--not unlike many cultures that have preceded us--has started to mistake these myths for truths. If we've heard something repeatedly, it must be right, right? Once a myth hits our societal grapevine, truth is doomed. In the hands of the gullible or the uninformed, the dangers increase: A myth can spur decisions, actions or devotions that end up actually causing real-life damage.

Entrepreneurs, for better or worse, plow one of the most fertile fields for mythology. Whether it's through splashy infomercials, overly enthusiastic pseudo-entrepreneurs or pure human greed, certain untruths have been circulating for far too long. We decided it's time to debunk a few of the big ones.

Myth #1

Get Rich Quick!

Reality: Perpetuated by everyone from sleazy, two-bit advertisers to even the most blue-blooded business media, GRQ is the mother of all small-business myths. As we've evolved, this myth has often taken on more sophisticated forms, but the undercurrent is the same, as is the appeal. We're Pavlovian--GRQ is the bell that stirs the greedy juices within us. We practically slobber over stories of people who rose from obscurity (where we live) to untold wealth (where "They" live). Team that aspiration with our lack of patience, and we have that all-American desire to detour off the well-trodden road of hard work and skip past Go, collecting our $200 to boot.

The problem with the GRQ myth is that, while amusing when blatant, it's dangerous when veiled. Even those who have figured out that Las Vegas is nothing more than a money pit can fall prey to whispered business leads, promises of shortcuts to wealth or hints of stock market guarantees.

Don't confuse entrepreneurship with a slot machine. Life as an entrepreneur is not all about money, it's certainly not all about getting rich, and rarely does success happen overnight. Unbeknownst to his admiring public, Stephen Gordon, founder of the latest and hottest chain of home decor stores, opened his first Restoration Hardware Inc. in 1980. Although he now oversees 41 stores, which pull in annual sales of $100 million, Gordon deliberately kept his business small for many years. His early goal was not growth; he didn't start his national expansion until the early '90s. Quick? Easy? Says Gordon, "All but the extreme deviations from the norm point to the fact that with great ideas, incredible dedication, long hours, many years and a modicum of talent, you might, in fact, `get rich.' "

Sometimes in business you become cash poor, wondering how you're going to cover next week's paychecks. Sometimes you go slowly, nervously twiddling your thumbs as clients make their decisions. It's about perseverance, patience and, yes, hard work. If you consider these to be bad words, think about going to work for someone else--quick.

This is not a game, nor is it a race. Take a breath. Figure out what you really want to do. Roll the dice and go around the board like everyone else--just a little more strategically--collecting properties, building houses, trading up for hotels, reveling in those moments of Boardwalk glory.

Myth #2

If you build it, they will come.

Reality: Thanks, Kevin Costner. Your field of dreams has birthed an ideological nightmare for many entrepreneurs who have come up with an idea and opened their doors, fully expecting customers to come flocking . . . just because.

Little do these entrepreneurs know that all the precious time they've spent building their companies is just the beginning of their endeavors. Now comes the real work: planning, timing, strategizing and more.

Business writers already know this. Consider some of the book titles on the shelves today: Visionary Selling, Innovation Management, and The Leadership Engine.

"Entrepreneurship takes more than just spontaneous improvisation," says Gene Kahn, founder and president of Cascadian Farm Inc., an organic food company based in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. "I've improved as an entrepreneur over time by shifting the business away from a completely improvisational culture to a planned culture. We're a company that has been growing at approximately 50 percent per year for quite some time, and we need controls in place to maintain our sanity and stay afloat."

Myth #3

You have to be born an entrepreneur.

Reality: Somehow, people have believed that certain humans are born with something ingrained in their DNA that sets them apart from the rest of the worker bees. This myth manifests itself in such comments as "Oh, I wasn't born with that entrepreneurial spirit," or "Well, sure, she's a success in business--she's a natural."

Following this same line of un-reasoning, many believe there's one certain path that leads to entrepreneurship. But small business isn't like Fortune 500 life--you don't get your undergraduate degree, then your MBA, then methodically climb the rungs from assistant to executive. The path to entrepreneurship typically takes many detours, many turns. Sometimes the most successful entrepreneurs are the most unlikely ones.

When Kahn founded Cascadian Farm 26 years ago, he could have been voted most unlikely to succeed. An English literature graduate student with a fancy for Chaucer, Kahn decided to get "back to the land" and moved to the rural North Cascade area of Washington. Becoming an entrepreneur "was the furthest thing from my mind," he says. "In fact, I had an absolute anti-business bias. I moved to isolate myself from aspects of American society--certainly from business, which I perceived to be a large part of the problem with American society."

Learning to survive as a farmer, however, soon became fairly boring, says Kahn. "Now that I was burning kerosene lamps and making my own soap, what else was I going to do? I needed to be challenged," he says. "The notion of interdependence, of working to change the agriculture, became far more interesting to me. My desire for isolation gave way to an interest in working on social and political issues. I began to market products."

For Kahn, entrepreneurship was a means to an end. Although he's obviously not your typical entrepreneur, he scoffs at the idea that there is any typical entrepreneur. "There are as many different types of entrepreneurs in business today as there are people," Kahn says. "You can't make a generalization like everyone's a Donald Trump or everyone's a Gandhi. Today, you've got everything in between."

Born an entrepreneur? "It's a silly notion," says Kahn. "I can't imagine anyone believing entrepreneurship is somehow genetic. It's something you consciously choose. You don't fall into it like you fall in love. You make a lifestyle choice, and that's what I did. [Entrepreneurship] was the best way I found to achieve my goals."

Myth #4

"I'll have all this free time . . ."

Reality: Could it be that people still believe entrepreneurs lead lives of leisure? Could the unrealistic ideals (It's fun! It's freedom!) still be breeding in the minds of disgruntled corporate workers? A Generation Xer was recently quoted in Time magazine as saying, "Having your own business means not worrying about what some head guy in Dallas thinks. No matter how much money you make for them, you are still just an x. And you can be x-ed off. With my own business, I could come in at 7 a.m. and leave at noon to play golf."

That quote makes a real entrepreneur do one of two things: laugh hysterically or cringe. "My schedule has been and remains extremely full and busy," says Gordon. "My reality includes 10-hour workdays and usually at least one weekend day. As CEO, my days revolve around all facets of the business, from architectural review and real estate site selection decisions to operational issues--visual presentation decisions along with a major emphasis on merchandise and product direction." Whew!

There is some truth, says Gordon, to the "more freedom" aspect of the myth. "Running a business does, in fact, mean having more freedom," he says. "But this includes the freedom to fail. Responsibility and control clearly rest with one person: you. Therefore, with the freedom comes the burden. When starting a new venture, you may take a long weekend off, go on vacations and exercise more control over your time, but a vacation is never really a vacation because the enterprise never shuts down."

By attracting talented employees who manage the business competently, Gordon is finally able to take a breather, if not a noontime break for the links. "My business life is no more or less hectic than when I started the store [18] years ago," he says. "The one major positive impact is that when I go on vacation, I truly let the company proceed while I likewise proceed with `vacating.' "

Myth #5

The government is against you.

Reality: Meet Jere Glover. And just try to hate him. We dare you. He's a rare one in life--even rarer in the government. Glover is a nice guy. Fortunately and indubitably, he's also on your side. The head of the SBA's Office of Advocacy does just what Webster's says an advocate should do: He pleads another's cause. "Usually, small-business owners come to us because they've heard we're the part of the government that will help them," Glover says. "They're often desperate--a rule or regulation or law is about to adversely affect their business. We analyze it and try to do whatever we can to help."

Glover doesn't categorically deny the government can, at times, be your arch enemy. But when the line is drawn, the Office of Advocacy has proven its small-business blood is thicker than government water. In fact, the office recently demonstrated its ability to play hardball, filing an amicus brief in a government proceeding. "We went to court on behalf of small business against another federal agency," says Glover. "It's the first time the office has ever done that."

Although Glover is a government icon, he is no dispenser of red tape. He has slaved over numerous environmental rules and regulations to try to reduce the burden on small business. "I don't think government officials are against small business. They just have other priorities or don't understand it," Glover says. "Our job is basically to help them understand the implications of what they're doing and how they impact small business." So go ahead--ask what your government can do for you.

Myth #6

It gets easier.

Reality: Life with Restoration Hardware continues to get more challenging, says Gordon. "Many people may be able to craft an easier existence," he says. "I've yet to understand how they do it."

We've yet to understand how anyone could think that after a few years of "paying your dues," entrepreneurs get to suddenly hit cruise control. The sentiment is as silly as runners expecting a marathon to get easier by the 24th mile.

Bruce FaBrizio recalls the day when the concept behind Sunshine Makers Inc. started: He and his father saw a person die in a chemical accident. In 1975, they started the business to develop a safer alternative to toxic cleaners. "We had this Don Quixote mentality, that we were going to go out and fight the windmills of environmental terrorism, that we were going to do whatever it took to make a difference," says FaBrizio of Simple Green, the nontoxic cleaning formula that is now a household name. "We worked around the clock from the minute we started the business. You begin scratching and clawing, and you have this vision that one day you'll go through this door of vindication and the business will run smoothly on an 8-to-5 schedule."

FaBrizio's father died pursuing this vision; FaBrizio keeps pushing. "Business, like life, seems to have these five-year cycles. Every five years, you get jarred into trying to crawl over the next wall that's more steep, more treacherous, more difficult and more challenging than the last," he says. "It's almost a preordained destiny that you're going to run into this wall--that your very success will become your nemesis."

The way over these walls is also the toughest mental battle most entrepreneurs will face: to delegate or not to delegate? "People who come on board and do projects in their area of expertise better than you can allow you to spread your wings and become a real competitor. As difficult as it is to [let go,] I find it's the only way of truly competing successfully at this lightning speed," says FaBrizio. "We have to work faster, smarter, longer. We almost have tag-team wrestling going on in our building--where you hand off the torch at 7 p.m. on Friday and the next guy picks it up and works through the weekend--so we can have better, faster information than our competition on Monday morning."

As a result, work weeks at Huntington Harbour, California-based Sunshine Makers are more successful, though certainly not shorter. "Life doesn't get easier--it gets more efficient, more competitive," FaBrizio says. "You have to enjoy the battle. There's always going to be the heartache of the people who can't go along--who don't have the strength, the courage or the intestinal fortitude for the battle. That doesn't make them bad people or me a bad person because I'm fanatical about my dream. This is just the life I've chosen."

Myth #7

It's all about the bottom line.

Reality: Keeping the numbers at the bottom of your spreadsheet nice and plump is "necessary, but not sufficient," says Kahn. "It's helpful because it's what drives the business forward. But it certainly can't just be about the bottom line. You have to give meaning and purpose to the business and inspire employees as well."

The beauty of entrepreneurship is that it's your prerogative to tweak the bottom line a bit. "If we decide to educate kids about the environment and put 1 percent of our sales each year into a not-for-profit foundation, a giant conglomeration would say `You could have spent that money in television and driven your brand up another two points,' " says FaBrizio. "We don't have to answer to those analysts, that quarterly statement. We only have to answer to ourselves."

How do FaBrizio's Don Quixote dreams mix with the cold, hard bottom line? "What I dreamt of 20 years ago--to clean up the world--has grown exponentially," he says. "I now have offices in Auckland, New Zealand; Chicago; Honolulu; Paris; Sydney, Australia; and Zurich, Switzerland. At some point, there's a light that goes on that says `We're going to make a difference.' So the dream becomes reality, and then it's all about how much of it you can actually handle. You decide where you want to get off, because there is absolutely no finish line."

It's not that these entrepreneurs don't think the bottom line is important. It's just that their bottom line is much more than a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet, more than red or black or zeros or points. It's about the environment and people's quality of life. Ultimately, it's about bringing their own brand of truth to the world. "After I'm gone, my dream will continue and the product will endure," says FaBrizio. "The truthfulness of proving that we're different from everything else on the shelf provides a wonderful sense, a bittersweet victory that you could never put a price on."

Contact Sources

Cascadian Farm Inc., (800) 624-4123, http://www.cfarm.com

Restoration Hardware Inc., cathrynr@restorationhardware.com

SBA Office of Advocacy, fax: (202) 205-6928, http://www.sba.gov/advo

Sunshine Makers Inc., (562) 795-6000, http://www.simplegreen.com