As the cliche goes, I was an accidental entrepreneur. Before I started my first business, I was on track to becoming a doctor. While in school, I did cancer cell research to help cover my tuition. One day though, an odd opportunity fell into my lap which promised an easier way out of student debt -- and I jumped at the opportunity.
Soon after, my brother and I opened up a small kiosk at the local shopping mall where we sold fluffy slippers. Though far from glamorous, it was incredibly exciting. Some people I knew believed managing a small shop was a waste of talent -- but I saw things differently. I knew this modest business of ours had huge potential and would have a lasting impact on our career and character.
During the holiday season, I found myself frequently ducking out of class early or skipping lectures entirely to manage the shop. Running a business was an entirely new concept to me, but my brother and I managed to not only keep it afloat but turn a profit. All of the sudden, we felt like anything was possible and, for me at least, the idea of becoming a doctor lost its appeal. Owning and operating a company meant I was responsible for solving a myriad of problems that could support or undermine our long-term success -- and that was something I could pour my heart into.
Early in Sir Richard Branson’s career, he teamed up with an associate, Julian Manyon, to start Student Magazine, an ambitious publication aimed at addressing many critical social issues that other media were afraid to talk about. The two turned out to be a perfect match. According to Branson, “”We both shared the belief that the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake and should be stopped.”
And so they made the Vietnam War their primary focus. Neither had any real business or reporting experience, but the two found a clever way to develop in-depth coverage about the war which would go mainstream. Manyon negotiated an arrangement with The Daily Mirror to receive enough funds to cover his expenses to do on-the-ground reporting in exchange for offering the publication access to his stories.
Despite not having any formal training, he brilliantly covered what was happening in Vietnam and has since gone on to report on other global conflicts and receive rewards for his work. Branson suggests that Manyon was successful, because he simply said “yes” to any opportunity that came his way and later learned the skills needed to fulfill those responsibilities.
For me, it felt like a huge risk to abandon cancer cell research to start a business, but it quickly proved to be just the right decision for my career. At the time, I told myself that it was only something temporary until I finished school. But as the weeks passed, it became something I was wholly passionate about. Of course, there would still be times when I had doubted my decision.
In a blog post, Jayson Demers lists seven challenges all entrepreneurs face in abandoning their former lives to build a business.
Forgoing a steady income
Dipping into personal savings
Maintaining positive cash flow
Creating sufficient product demand
Sharing responsibilities with partners and employees
Keeping up with deadlines
Adjusting to the high-stress lifestyle of running a business
Despite the uncertainty, I loved being an entrepreneur, and I no longer wanted to be a doctor. As Seth Godin says, “Medical school is great because it's certain. Not easy, but certain. If you graduate, the belief goes, you're done.”
The fact is: I never wanted my journey to end. So, I used the profits from our shop to launch a new business. Since then, I’ve built several multimillion-dollar companies including One Mall Group and Amerisleep. Now, a decade later, I’ve decided to take on a completely new challenge and will be launching a new company later in 2016. Without any prior experience in the industry I hope to enter next, I -- like Manyon -- am pursuing something I’m passionate about and am optimistic that I’ll learn whatever I need to know to be successful and build a disruptive business.
For other entrepreneurs -- either current or aspiring -- taking risks is part of the game. Although there are plenty of advantages in doing something safe or familiar, many businesses thrive when the founders and employees powering the organization readily say “yes” to new opportunities and commit to developing the skills they’ll need for the company to grow.
I’ve also been lucky to have supportive friends and family who’ve helped me stay ambitious and optimistic. So, while some things may seem risky, success isn’t entirely the result of circumstance. Instead, it is a consequence of hard work and a personal willingness to evolve.