Before Starting Out, Pick up the Basics on Someone Else's Dime
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From an early age, I knew that entrepreneurship was in my blood. Before hitting high school, I had already sold candy in the school yard and commandeered our home heat-sealing machine to create soda-filled packets -- just like the fruit punch-flavored pouches appearing on supermarket shelves in the late '70’s.
My own small businesses in high school and college followed, so it was a surprise to family and friends that I spent the next 20 years after that working for other business owners instead of being one.
Yet those early experiments included glimpses of success,and nothing taught me more than my misfires. What became clear, and led to my lengthy hiatus between ventures, was that no amount of passion or drive can completely substitute for certain critical skills and experience. Skills can be picked up in school or in a corporate setting, but there is only one way to gain entrepreneurial insight: Live it.
That's exactlly what I did because I was fascinated by the idea of learning on someone else’s dime and making mistakes in a lower-risk environment, rather than a business I owned. So I ran a wholesale meat company in New York. I worked at two software startups. I spent seven years as an executive at a media-buying agency. Along the way, it was the entrepreneurs at the helm of these companies, and others I was exposed to, that I have to thank for the following four lessons I learned.
1. The cost of capital includes time spent with investors … and the cost can be high.
A well-connected, helpful and encouraging board can offer immense value to a company’s leadership. But in more than one instance, I observed board members acting as tremendous distractions. They also, at times (counter-intuitively), suffocated the company's leadership and occupied up to a third of the president’s bandwidth -- directing him away from more pressing, productive business needs. The lesson learned: that a good financial deal may not be good business.
2. If you can’t articulate your vision, you don’t have one.
Many businesses struggle to get online a web site that clearly represents current offerings, as well as a glimpse of future direction. While the entrepreneur may be crystal clear in his/her mind about how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, the result may appear as more a rubric than a cohesive story to prospects, customers and employees. I can’t count the number of presentations I’ve sat through in which the entrepreneur-presenter (often during meetings with potential business partners) used industry jargon and product-speak, instead of a simple explanation of what the business did well and would do in the future.
The lesson learned: Distilling core messaging and vision down to a simple story isn’t for the faint of heart. The successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have shelved their egos and hired smart consultants to tease out and formulate the messaging.
3. Incremental progress is more valuable than delayed perfection.
An entrepreneur-client shared this pearl of wisdom with me early in my career. I had just uttered to him: “I’m almost done; give me two more days, and it will be perfect.” And this entrepreneur, out of patience with missed delivery dates, responded with this advice, along with an offer to work collaboratively to solve a problem.
Certainly, perfection is neither realistic nor attainable, but I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have delayed products getting to market, delayed hiring a potentially great employee or stifled acquisition talks -- all because there was "more analysis to consider" or the situation wasn’t "perfect." Just look at Google and other tech companies that bring products to market in beta, where they may linger for years before graduating to full release. The lesson learned: Striving for greatness is essential, but, typically, doing something is better than not moving forward at all.
4. Asking for input and listening to it isn’t the same thing.
Better not do the former if you’re not going to do the latter. Some business owners are natural collaborators and strike an impressive balance between soliciting input and making hard, unpopular decisions. I myself wasn’t a natural at this, and neither were others I’ve encountered in business. But helpful, experienced colleagues, along with good business books, helped me to understand the process.
Still, it took time to realize that while asking for input is important, you’ve also got to show that you’ve really heard the person providing the suggestions or asking the questions. As in in any relationship, even if you’re not going to take the advice, acknowledging that you’ve heard the other person -- and considered the input -- is vital to a long, productive alliance. The lesson learned: Involving employees not only makes you a supportive and better manager, but can make a company more profitable.
Overall, there are many paths to entrepreneurship, and no single approach is right. Working side by side with entrepreneurs has allowed me to see firsthand how important it is to learn from the wins and losses equally. Hopefully, the future entrepreneurs that work at my company will have many wins to reflect upon and use as models for their own businesses.