Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend in the PR Dream Team about a full-time job versus starting a business.
She asked me two questions:
- When did I know it was time to go out on my own?
- If I were to do it again, what would I do differently?
My entrepreneurial story is a bit different than most.
I didn’t set a goal to go out on my own, achieve it, and pull the switch.
On the contrary. We had been entertaning clients for a few days and I walked them to the elevator, to send them on their way home.
As the doors opened, the CEO said to me, “If you ever decide to go out on your own, we’ll hire you.”
It was the first time I’d even thought about starting a business.
And it was before technology allowed us to easily do it.
Working from home wasn’t yet a thing, nor was wireless internet.
(Man, that makes me sound old. It wasn’t that long ago!)
But he had dangled that carrot in front of me, and I thought long and hard about it.
Sometimes it’s a Carrot Dangled in Front of You
It wasn’t really a thing in my mind.
Sure, it was flattering, but I knew next to nothing about starting a business, and I was making a lot of money with great benefits. I mean, great benefits.
My salary package was worth putting up with some of my, let’s say, challenging colleagues.
But I kept rolling his offer around in my head.
One night when I was venting to my then fiancee about work, he said, “So why don’t you take your client up on his offer to help you go out on your own?”
So I did.
I wish I could say it was some big stragetic decision, and I had saved for months—or even years—to be able to afford it.
That just wasn’t the case.
I got so frustrated at work that I finally gave my two weeks and called my client.
He stayed true to his word and they hired me with a $100,000 annual budget.
That was enough to cover my salary and benefits and get me started.
Starting a Business Became a Real Thing
Even still, I figured I would freelance for them for a year or so. Maybe even bring on one or two more clients.
I’d had lots of life changes—I got married, we bought a condo, we were settling into the city of Chicago.
So I figured I’d wait for all that turmoil to end and then I’d go back and get a big VP job at an agency.
That was 13 years ago.
Rather than going for that big VP job, I ended up hiring an intern—who happened to be my client’s niece.
I taught her everything I could about communications, and she taught me about designer jeans and Starbucks lattes.
(For real. I was very sheltered. She provided me lots of great life lessons.)
And then I hired a few full-time employees. I offered them insurance and 401K. We had an office with desks and computers. We even had a reception area—and a receptionist!
It was a real business that was a little too naive to have any success.
We grew it to its first million dollars in revenue in our second year.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
I Wish I’d Known These Things Before Starting a Business
But things didn’t always go swimmingly well.
We had the Great Recession in there—and I had no idea how to run a business, top of that.
I knew how to do communiations for big brands, but that was the extent of it.
So when my friend asked yesterday what I would do differently, I said, “Get some business experience.”
I have it now, of course, but it was an incredibly expensive and slow way to learn.
On top of that, I would add these 20 things I wish I’d known before starting a business.
- Managing people is hard. Leading them is even harder.
- Lots of people will want to work with you, but not everyone will want to pay for it.
- When you build your business, you’ll stop doing your craft and start running the business.
- Your job will turn into setting the strategy, constantly communicating the vision, managing the culture, protecting the brand, training, developing, coaching, and mentoring your team, making rain, and networking every day.
- There is no such thing as work/life balance. Your life is the business and your business is your life.
- You will need to learn to separate business from personal.
- Entrepreneurs think they are kings of the hill and set unrealistic goals…because they truly believe they can achieve them. Most companies only grow 10-15 percent per year. Don’t set 30-40 percent revenue growth goals in one year.
- Start with the end in mind: What is your succession plan?
- Find an organization where YOU can get professional development. Of course, I have a Mastermind here where you can hang out with other PR firm owners, and we have the PR Dream Team. I also would check out Vistage, EO, and YPO.
- Read as many business books as you can handle.
- You’re going to spend more time than you like, or could imagine, on financials. Even if you hire someone to do them for you, you still need a really good understanding of them, what they mean, and how they can change.
- Debt is not a bad thing if it’s managed well and used for growth. Learn as much as you can about access to capital, lines of credit, term loans, mezzanine loans, private equity, and venture capital.
- Figure out what the highest going rate is in your industry and start there. It’s impossible to raise rates on clients who have been with you since the beginning. They’ll always want your start-up fees.
- Make time to work ON the business, not just in it.
- You will make mistakes. You will fail. If you don’t, you won’t learn and you won’t grow. Confucius says, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.”
- Learn to lose sleep over things you never thought possible…if it makes you stronger. People who say you shouldn’t get up in the middle of the night, if something is bothering you, and do something about it, aren’t business owners.
- Don’t just trust your gut, OBEY it!
- One of the hardest things you’ll do is hire people you really like and want to hang out with after work. You can’t do it. Ever.
- Aim high. As high as you can, while still being realistic.
- You are now in the business of developing and growing future CEOs.
Sometimes Naivete is Best
I think part of our success came in my naivete.
If you’re thinking about starting a business, don’t over-analyze and overthink things.
Sure, you should do your research, set some goals, and make sure you can still take care of yourself and your family.
But don’t do so much of it that it paralyzes you or creates a loftier goal than is necessary.
Sometimes what you don’t know is the best propeller toward doing things most people would never even attempt.
Do have a financial goal and do get yourself some on-the-job business training experience.
And then go forth and prosper.
You’ll have some really great years—and you’ll have some really crappy ones.
You’ll get good at saving money for the down years—and you’ll be motivated by them, as well.
The hardest part about starting a business is making the decision to do it.
The rest of it just works itself out.