Gini Dietrich

20 Secrets I Wish Someone Had Told Me BEFORE I Started a Business

By: Gini Dietrich | June 11, 2009 | 

So you want to start a business? Well, here are a few things no one tells you, but you should know!

1. We all think we want to manage people. It has the perception of hitting the pinnacle of your career when you FINALLY get to manage people. It sucks. No one tells you that. It’s not fun at all. It’s way more fun to have peers you can laugh and cry with. It truly is lonely at the top.

2. Lots of people are going to want your product or service. But a majority of them won’t be willing to pay for it. Choose very wisely who you spend your time with.

3. When you build your business and it begins to sustain itself, you no longer will do what you started the business to do: Your craft and, probably, your love and passion. Find ways that growing a business will excite you and make you passionate.

4. As a business leader, 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.

5. There is no such thing as work/life balance. Your life is the business and your business is your life.

6. 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 (and that is A LOT less this year) per year. Don’t set 30-40 percent revenue growth goals in one year.

7. Start with the end in mind: What is your succession plan?

8. Find an organization where YOU can get professional development. I belong to Vistage. Without it, I would never take time to sharpen the axe or think about things differently.

9. Read as many business books as you can handle. You’ll find you’re really energized by them.

10. 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.

11. 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. Make friends with a banker. Treat your bank as a silent partner; always be open and honest with them.

12. It’s going to be nearly impossible to separate business from personal, but you absolutely have to do it.

13. 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.

14. I love that Bill Gates goes to his house in Montana for a week every year…by himself. No television. No Internet. Just him, some books, orange soda, and nature. This is when he does his most innovative thinking every year. If you can’t/don’t want to do that, try taking a “thought” walk once a week. Find ways to clear your mind and just think.

15. 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.”

16. 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.

17. Don’t just trust your gut, OBEY it!

18. One of the hardest things you’ll go through is hiring people your own age, people you really like and want to hang out with after work. You can’t do it. Ever. The line between business and pleasure cannot be blurred with staff.

19. Aim high. As high as you can, while still being realistic.

20. You are now in the business of developing and growing future CEOs.

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.

  • Wow, Gini this is a GEM. I have to echo your call for starting with a higher rate than you are comfortable with. The sadness of how lonely it is hits me almost every day.

    Can I add a few?

    21. Communicate a lot more than you think. When you are sick of saying it, say it 5 – 10 more times. For your key messages (What value we bring, what our values are, how we will treat one another) you can’t say it too much.

    22. Everything takes longer and costs more than you think it will. Be conservative with your cash.

    23. It costs money to make money, don’t sweat the small stuff. You need to have office supplies, make business trips, buy lunches, etc. in order to succeed. Don’t try to over optimize.

    This is great, thanks Gini.

    Brad Farris

  • Great post, Gini. Right to the point.

    I’ve been in this position twice already in my life (and probably for the third time right now) and I know from experience that everything you wrote there is true.

    Particularly number 17. I always lived by that one and recommend everyone (even non-business owners) to do the same!


  • Great post Gini. Few entrepreneurs are prepared for the realities of running a business, especially one that’s in high-growth mode. When I was an employee, I was really adept at criticizing from the sidelines, thinking that I could do much better in the top job. Now, as an employer who tries to be fair and compassionate I know that, while decisions might seem arbitrary, many are talked about, even agonized over, long before they’re made. I love point 17. I can track most of my business mistakes back to not following my gut.

  • Thanks for the additions, Brad!

    Where is Tim Nagle? He disagrees with me. I want him to post his list! Tim!! Where are you??

  • tim

    Gini, you know my stance. I think instead of the 20 things people never told me….I was focusing more on the 20 solutions. So many mistakes are avoidable. I wouldn’t say I disagree, since it is YOUR list and I love you:)

  • Gini,

    These are spot on. I ran a consulting business in the 90s and would have LOVED to have this list in front of me. Every single point you made, I could think of an example in my business. The one I would add, although it probably fits in with number 10, is to stay clean and update with IRS responsibilities. I am, sadly, still dealing with that lesson hopefully learned. Would I attempt to run a business again some day? “Yes”, but I would do things much differently and would probably refer back to lists like you’ve created here. In fact, I feel that I received such an education, that I feel I almost HAVE to try again (point 15). It’s like getting a PhD and then not ever applying it.

    Thanks for this post.


  • Kat

    Great post, Gini. Agree wholeheartedly with #1,2,3.6, 13, 14, 15.
    #4 is why I prefer to subcontract vs. have employees.
    #5 is why I also became a life coach…get to practice what I preach.
    #13: Long ago I was told about “The Blink Factor.” If they don’t blink when you tell them the cost, it was too low.
    #12: I do work with friends all the time. Tried to avoid it, but would rather work with those I trust and can laugh with. #18… that’s the difference between people you collaborate with vs. staff. So I agree.
    #17 Most of all. Absolutely. My friend Jan used to say, “When’s the last time listening to your gut got you into trouble?” NEVER!
    I love Brad Farris additional points 21-23.

    You will help many with this today. Thanks, Gini!

  • Thanks for being so smart, honest and passionate about your approach to your agency and business, Gini. And for sharing your insights. I’m going to file this one under ‘I wish I thought of that’!

  • Great list, Gini! As Kevin says, SPOT ON! To speak to point 15 on failure, oh boy will you ever fail, but what a gift failure truly is. By failing we most often learn what NOT to do.

    I also fully endorse Brad’s additional points, especially the ‘over-communicate’ bit. Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ’em–again and again.

    I’d like to add that it is every leader’s duty to know themselves and what they are *really* capable of and to TAKE CARE OF THEIR OWN…take care of your staff no matter what. Allow for situations where they must really learn about themselves and how to adapt, improvise and overcome. Practice the art of unselfishness—avoid making yourself comfortable at the expense of others and be considerate and give credit to those that deserve it.

    Thanks again for this great resource!

  • Ces

    Spot on Gini! Yes, running your own business, sole proprietorship, franchise, small business, or start-up requires your undivided 24/7 focus! In terms of managing people, the most critical decision you will make will be the hiring decision. Hire slowly!

    I do believe we still have a system in place that rewards the best and brightest, so the incentive is still there to do it. My concern is that the recent trend at the highest levels will permeate the smaller businesses. The reward of creating something big, a legacy if you will is worth it all, right? #8 “sharpen the axe” … where have I heard that before??

  • Wonderfully put, Gini! While I agree with Tim that most problems in business are avoidable or at least able to be mitigated, I think starting with an accurate definition of failure up front is a lot easier than success sometimes. Some of us need to know where the pot-holes are as we steam forward full bore and having reminders like these make all the difference. I give you a LOT of credit and admire you all the more for being a smallbiz owner willing to not only take the time to put this list together, but also publishing it for the rest of us to learn from and absorb. Like Louise says, we all like to criticize from the sidelines but it’s a whole other story altogether once cross the threshold into the big office. It looks like #17 tops all of our lists and I agree with Brad in over-communicating. Nothing is more important than proactively setting expectations, especially when the expectation is unexpected.

    Great post, Gini!

  • Len

    How timely! Just today someone asked me why I don’t go and start my own thing. Well…there’s a lot to learn and know before jumping into it. Amazing List. Thanks


  • Brigite

    I love this list, Gini. I’d be really interested to see you do a series on entrepreneurship. I think there’s a large market out there (now more than ever) that would love some straight talk about lessons learned in starting your own business.

  • Brad Back

    Gini–well put. This should be published in Success magazine. I mean it—really strong. Plus…I didn’t know you had an axe…


  • True everywhere in the world! Thanks for the great reminder,

  • Brigitte, you spelled your name wrong here! LOL! A series on entrepreneurship. I will give that some thought!

    Brad, you are alive?? Want to be my agent? Get me published in Success?

    Thomas, great to see you here…all the way from Brazil!

  • Great list. I plan to link to it!

  • Wonderful article! And yes, I wish I knew what it took long before I put everything on-the-line thinking that I was an Entrepreneur. I wasn’t…but necessity has forced me to become one. Oh well, no use crying over spilled mild (and wasted time).

  • This was a great article and right on point. I have learned some of these as I have come along in the business and some I found out about ahead of time. Try to do as much research as possible and keep adapting to change.

    MIX IT UP Magazine
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  • Great list, thanks! As a former entrepreneur who just might be doing it a second time, this was invaluable. When you’re immersed in the day to day, it’s so easy to lose sight of some of these principles.

    What I found most interesting though, was that 5 and 12 contradicted themselves in some ways, and I do believe it’s the way the world is going. One things I have been learning to do is flow easily *between* the business and personal, and not worry so much when they overlap. Think about this for a minute: Can you act professionally with someone at all times and still be friends with them?

  • Jamie Sandford


    This is a good start for a great set of entrepreneurial mantras. I think most of your points here are solid, but I do have to take issue with point #18, as some others have commented on as well. It seems that maybe what strikes people the most about the statement is the binary implication of the concept of being “friends” with your employees. Your comment would lead one to believe that you either are, or are not, friends with your employees, but I’d like to challenge you to consider a vague gray area the @LisaHickey alluded to in her post.

    Mark Wiskup recently blogged that “The Best Bosses Know This to be True: Your Employees Aren’t Your Friends” ( I couldn’t disagree more. This paints a bleak picture of the workplace, one in which we are occupying more and more time today. With this mindset, the set of people that you surround yourself with become nothing more than emotionless pawns that must be kept at arm’s length. The consequence, Wiskup purports, is that your communications become less powerful, less efficient and subsequently less productive as a result of having a stronger relationship with your employees. Additionally, he states that you can be “friendly without ever being a friend”, which is true. Think of any neighbor you run into on the street that you see occasionally – you may not want to be their best friend, but you do act cordially and smile as much as necessary to make the relationship continue without additional progress.

    However, in the workplace, I think that you can be friends with your employees and still have their respect, be productive, and make work a more enjoyable experience. We’re with these people 8+ hours of the day. That’s usually more lucidity than you spend with a spouse, kids or significant other in your day. Why, as humans, would we want to create an environment that intentionally deprives us of being the socially aware and emotionally conscious beings that we are? We’re designed to create bonds, have relationships and establish connections. It makes sense to incorporate this aspect of our human nature. From this primal standpoint, why do we do it: to bring us closer to other like-minded people. To establish a connection with another person who provides us with a comfort that they will reciprocate our actions. Trust, respect, dignity. Don’t we want these from an employee too?

    The argument that the exchange of money nullifies the ability to have a friendship with an employee is also way too broad-brushed in nature. What’s the common element with your employees and why are they there? Possibly money, advancement, both. So what other units of measure can we substitute in “out of office” friendships to make this equate to the work environment? Why do your friends outside of work want to be with you? Your personality? The neighborhood you all happen to live in? The hobbies you share? Now what happens when one of those “situational friendship” elements is changed? What happens to the friendship you once had with that person?

    If you’ve been single and had other single friends who then get married, in most cases, doesn’t your relationship change to some degree? Maybe you don’t talk as much; maybe you completely lose touch; but maybe you never skip a beat and the situation does not change the friendship. But if it the friendship does start to cool, do you wish that this relationship had never happened at all? Most likely not, because for a period of time in your lives when you had a great deal in common, your “situational friendship” provided your days with enjoyment. Why, then, can we not see our employees as situational friendships that may or may not be hampered by a change in the “situation” at some point in the future? Compensation is just another situation that keeps us together with our employees. The outcome of the change in this situation could be just the same as any other I have mentioned.

    In a recent meeting with roughly 20 other supervisors and managers of varying degrees of experienced, I posed the very question of the ability to be friends with your subordinates and asked whether or not it was fair to say that you could not do it “ever”. The majority of the room voiced the opinion that it was completely acceptable to be friends with your employees. One even went so far as to say that having been promoted recently to a position over her former peers actually has fostered a better relationship with her former peers as her new subordinates. Why? Because the friendship that they had established as peers laid a foundation for trust in her new role. These were some of her best employees due to the fact that the friendship was the safety net that caused her employees to not want to let her down. The friendship was the stiff skeleton of the structure that could not be compromised that allowed her employees to understand her need to manage the group. They wanted to do what was right in order for her to succeed as their friend and their manager.

    Now all of this does come with a few footnotes to squelch the absolutes that may seem prevalent in this post. In any manager/subordinate relationship, there are lines which shouldn’t be crossed and those are the ones which put the organization at risk. We don’t need to pursue that line of thinking further. Also, I don’t need to try to be friends with employees at work that I wouldn’t want to be friends with outside of work. Forced subordinate friendships never seem to develop to great depths and the authenticity of the relationship can most likely be felt by both parties involved anyway. As a result, you may find yourself wanting to be friends with some subordinates and not others. This does have the potential to go awry and cause dissention and distrust within the team. I would offer that a manager should avoid creating a situation of implying that the strength of one friendship is any greater than another.

    These issues, however, should not preclude us from being friends with our employees at work. We rely on them and them on us. It’s symbiotic and the basis for friendship at its most basic level – to quote Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “friend: “one attached to another by affection or esteem”. Let us not forget that in our pursuit of happiness, it’s perfectly acceptable to find it along the way. Experiencing the journey with someone you consider even a “situational friend” might just help make the pursuit as rich as the destination.

  • I have some additional comments:

    1. A few people have pointed out that #5 and #12 are contradictory. What I mean in #12 is that you can’t take things personally, such as when a high-performing employee leaves. I spent the first years of the business getting my feelings hurt every time someone left. I took it personally. Last year, I realized it had nothing to do with ME. It had everything to do with what that person wanted from life and a career (or, in some cases, not a career).

    2. I love the people I work with. I love every, single one of them. We are a close-knit organization and we are friends with one another. The hardest part I have with running a business is that I can’t go out drinking with them on a Friday night or getting my feelings hurt when they go to lunch together or hang out on weekends. Even though (I think) everyone that is here today is here because they believe in ME and MY vision, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want me to see them drunk after hours. I respect that. But that doesn’t mean that social activities we do have (i.e. wine:thirty every week) is stiff or not fun. We have a blast together. I just know where the line is.

    3. I am a true entrepreneur. I have a vision. I am very strategic. I no longer want to work in the business; I want to work on the business. I am not a process or structure person. So what does that tell me? It says I need someone to run the business (always) who can provide process, structure, and operations so I don’t have to do it. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to mentor or lead my staff. That is EXACTLY what I want to do. I just don’t want to do manage from a micro level, in terms of HR. I want to lead. I’ll let someone else manage.

  • Great post Gini. It’s especially helpful for me as I get more and more involved each day in helping my Dad run Barcelona Creative, instead of just being an employee. I see some of our roles intertwining and changing and it’s a bit scary sometimes that he puts so much faith in my. If someone would have asked me years ago when I went to work for my father’s business what involvement I’ve have a few years down the road, I would not have guessed it’s where I’m at today. But it’s been an incredible learning experience and now I really enjoy find ways to help this place grow and change. So reading that everyone struggles sometimes is somewhat comforting because now more than ever I feel I agree with so many of your points and am experiencing some of the same issues as time goes by. I look forward to the expanding discussion.


  • Hey, nice tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a glass of beer to the person from that chat who told me to go to your blog 🙂
    p.s. Year One is already on the Internet and you can watch it for free.

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  • You just won a fan!

  • So many truths in here, Gini. Especially about balance. It’s not so much about balance as setting boundaries and priorities. There’s never enough time for anything. And trusting your gut–can’t beat it. I kick myself every time I don’t follow it.

    I think the other advice I’d give is to be selective about who you do business with, even in the beginning. You’ll be excited about anyone and everyone who wants to work with you–trust your gut, pay attention to red flags and really think about your brand. And contracts. Everything in writing, even with friends.

    The other thing about business and personal is that you have to realize that you ARE your brand. Any time you are in public, you are a representative of your business, even in social situations. You have to be “on” all the time. I really underestimated that.

    Thanks for dispensing such grounded, sage advice on a regular basis.

    • I really like the point you make about being “on” all the time. It’s sooooo true. And, if you tend to be introverted, it takes a lot out of you!

      • Yes! I mistakenly planned two days of back-to-back meetings yesterday and Monday, and I was just physically exhausted and completely overstimulated.

  • And another one that applies in every aspect of business–be kind to the little people. Remember their names and keep in touch. They may turn into future clients, collaborators or business partners.

  • I usually hate these posts and totally disagree with at least a couple of points, but this list is pretty well spot-on with my experience (and since I agree with you, you must be right…).

    Seriously good points. Thanks.

  • I’m just ‘restarting’ a business and this post has reminded me what to do and not to do plus a couple of extra tips. Thank you, great work.

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