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National Entrepreneurship Month: What Being an Entrepreneur Means to Me

A relevant quote: 'It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard . . . is what makes it great.'
National Entrepreneurship Month: What Being an Entrepreneur Means to Me
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Entrepreneurship means different things to different people. While there’s plenty of headline-grabbing, entrepreneurial spirit in Silicon Valley, anonymous entrepreneurs on Main Street abound. Regardless of geography, entrepreneurship is a shared commitment to turning an idea into a profitable business.

Related: Around 550,000 People Become Entrepreneurs Every Month

As a result, November was designated (in 2016) National Entrepreneurship Month by Presidential Proclamation. To celebrate the tenacious and rebellious spirit of entrepreneurs, President Obama wrote, “We celebrate entrepreneurs who serve their communities and bolster our economy.”

First, let me say that it’s pretty cool to be recognized, and entrepreneurship is a great path to follow, but it's not without its bumps. So, without further ado, let me explain what entrepreneurship means to me.

Being an entrepreneur is in my blood and a way of life. It’s about becoming fully immersed into what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s a life-calling mission that gets into your bloodstream and overtakes how you think and operate. I can’t wait to go to bed at night, hurry up and sleep, and wake up in the morning to do it all over again.

If this sounds familiar to you, congratulations. You’ve got the entrepreneurial bug.

This bug is spreading fast throughout the United States, too. According to a report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), there are 27 million working-age Americans -- nearly 14 percent -- starting or running new businesses. Also, a growing number of people are considering entrepreneurship as a career option, with 51 percent of the working population expressing a belief that good opportunities exist to branch out on your own.

This is good news, not just for the economy and local communities, but for us entrepreneurs, too. It’s good to have a little competition and create a little tension. In fact, entrepreneurs thrive on being disruptive and pushing the status quo to its limit. So, bring it on!

What’s the best time to become an entrepreneur?

I travel around the country frequently and I’m often asked if there’s a "right" time to start your own business. My reply is, "No one can tell you what the right time is, except yourself."

Long gone are the days when you got out of college, went to work for the same company for 30 years and then retired. With more and more Americans looking to become entrepreneurs, there’s no perfect time (or age) to start your own business. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably failed at becoming an entrepreneur and is trying to discourage you from becoming one.  

If you have a good idea, are ready to solve a problem and aren’t risk-averse, you’re just about ready to join the entrepreneurial ranks.

I’m also asked what advice I can give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Here are the five things I offer.

Related: 3 Things You Need to Know About National Small Business Week

1. Ask yourself, 'Is this what I really want?'

If you’re unsure about leaving a steady paycheck behind the benefits and starting your very own one-man band, then entrepreneurship probably isn’t for you. There’s no shame in that, but you must do it for the right reasons.

It’s really cool to be recognized by the president, get accolades and bask in your own success, but know that it’s a very bumpy road and can get very lonely. My friend and football great, Fran Tarkenton, said to me, “Every entrepreneur has stayed up at night worrying if they will make payroll the next day.” He’s 100 percent right.

Being an entrepreneur is not a "get-rich-quick" scheme. It's called hard work because it’s hard!

Don’t get me wrong, I want to encourage entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds to be a part of this "club," but you need to make sure you want to do it because it’s what you want, not because it’s cool. Entrepreneurship is like baseball. As someone pointed out in A League of Their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard . . . is what makes it great.”

2. Learn from someone else’s failure.

Everyone spends time researching Steve Jobs’ success and reads the financial pages looking into what Elon Musk is working on, saying, "I wanna do that." All well and good, but I suggest you flip that playbook and look at it from a different perspective. For every successful entrepreneur out there, there are many more that have failed. Study them. 

Why? Because you’ll know what pitfalls to avoid when you’re ready to start your own business. Most of the mistakes entrepreneurs make are common ones that can be avoided if we have the foresight to study, not just what’s worked, but what hasn’t.

3. There’s more to entrepreneurship than just a great idea.

You have a great idea that you want to put out to market. Great! But do you know who your audience is? Do you know how you’re going to distribute it?

A great idea is just phase I of the plan. You need to come to the table with phase II and phase III and a few others in your back pocket. Your plan needs to include how you intend to reach those customers in an effective and affordable way and how will your product or service will solve a customer’s pain point.

Here’s a pro tip: You should always be in search of problems to solve and not the other way around.

4. Be patient and persistent.

Persistence is an attribute of almost every entrepreneur out there. But patience probably isn’t. I know I’m not the most patient person in the world, but it’s a skill everyone should master.

It would be a mistake for anyone to turn patience and persistence into arrogance and stubbornness. There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence; don’t cross it.

I’ve been a guest many times on MSNBC’s Your Business; I’ve been pitched a number of products and services; and I have to tell you, the ones I remember the most are those entrepreneurs who were confident and knowledgeable about what they were pitching. Those who come across as arrogant and think they’ve invented a cure for the common cold without much to back it up are quickly forgotten.

My advice: Put your toe on that line, but don’t cross it. Push the limits; don’t break the rules.

5. Ask for advice from those who are battle tested.

Know that I’m not the shy type. I’ll march up to whoever I think will give me the answers I’m looking for to move my business ahead. Once again, this isn’t about mimicking someone who’s been successful, but those who have been battle-tested and have the scars to prove it. Benefit from their experience, read books, network as often as possible, join professional groups in your industry.

Earlier, I wrote about what being an entrepreneur means to me. Despite the pitfalls, the loneliness and the incredible responsibility, I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world. Heck, I’d do this for free if I could. 

I’m also asked, “Jeff, what inspires you and keeps you motivated?” I’ll tell you what inspires me: the unsung heroes. The entrepreneur in Lincoln, Nebraska; or Macon, Georgia; or Charleston, West Virginia, whom no one talks or writes about. These are entrepreneurs who have ideas and risk everything they own to start a bike shop, a Cajun chicken place or a chocolate business. Entrepreneurs who do what they do for the love, the passion and the spirit for the service they provice.

Related: Success Secrets From Papa John: The Entrepreneur Behind a Billion-Dollar Business Who Started Out as a Dishwasher

You’ll never read about them, but they make an impact every single day. They deliver payroll, add value to their communities and provide great customer satisfaction.  That’s who inspires me this National Entrepreneurship Month.