Gini Dietrich

Making the Leap from Executive to Entrepreneur

By: Gini Dietrich | March 13, 2012 | 
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In 2005, I took the plunge from climbing the corporate ladder to entrepreneurship.

It wasn’t a conscious decision. More done out of frustration with the way communication results were handled (or not handled) inside agencies.

I thought I had a better way.

I did have a better way, but it took me five years to get the business to a point that we could do things differently. To the point other business leaders would listen to something so radically different than what they were hearing from other PR/marketing/communication firms.

It wasn’t because we couldn’t prove it worked. We could. It was because I had to learn how to jump from big budgets, big funding, and lots of resources to, well, nothing.

This is a point made in a recent Forbes article, “Confessions of a Successful Entrepreneur.”

You see, I thought I had to start Arment Dietrich with the same (what I know now are) luxuries I had at the big agencies.

The people I hired had full benefits, paid for by the company. They were vested in their 401K programs. They had holidays and personal leave and time off galore.

I thought this is the way all businesses were run. But, when it came time to batten down the hatches, I had to ask my team to give up their “big company” benefits. It wasn’t fun.

It took me a long time to get the business side of things right before I could push the company toward a better way of doing things.

If you have ever considered (or find yourself considering) starting your own business, making the decision to do it is the hardest part. Nothing you read or people you talk to can help you make that decision.

But once the decision is made, there are five things you can consider as you go from executive to entrepreneur.

  1. People are excited by start-ups. If you have a clear vision, can articulate it well, and are extremely passionate about achieving it, there are many, many people who will join you in the journey. Even though I know this, I’m always surprised at what people will do when they believe in you and your vision. Give them phantom stock. Talk about what things will be like when you make it. Take care of them along the way. And your big company luxuries don’t have to be there to entice people to join you.
  2. Keep your door open. As we grow, this is the thing I hear over and over again. My team loves that our culture allows them to have direct access to me. As an executive, you shut yourself off. You have gatekeepers and direct reports and organizational charts and no one gets through the door. As an entrepreneur, everyone has to be able to get through your door.
  3. Be as generous as possible. There will always be the neighbor whose daughter needs a job or someone who wants to pick your brain because they’re about to embark upon something you’ve already done. It will be in your executive nature to shut them off and not be generous with your time. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to eventually need people’s help. And if you weren’t generous with them when they needed you, they’ll remember it.
  4. Roll up your sleeves. There is nothing worse than working to build someone’s company when they’re not willing to do the hard work. Do grunt work. Make coffee. Take out the trash. Sit in the cubicles with everyone else. Make yourself part of the team. This will go against everything you learned on your journey up the ladder, but if you shut yourself off, your turnover will be high, morale will be low, and no one will continue to be excited to help you achieve your vision.
  5. Open your mind. As an executive, it’s likely it was always your way or the highway. You didn’t have to listen to other’s ideas, nor did you have to incorporate them. As an entrepreneur, an open mind and the ability to really listen to what your team has to say may mean the difference between releasing a mediocre product and an innovative one. Listen to what your customers have to say. And incorporate their feedback.

It’s not an easy transition, particularly if you’re accustomed to the things big companies can afford. But who knows? If you can make the transition well, you may soon find yourself as one of those big companies competing with your former employer(s).

A portion of this first ran in my weekly Crain’s column.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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