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What to Know Before You Go

You Are On Your Own

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One of the hardest things about starting a company is that you are on your own. Who can you turn to for help and advice with challenges?  You can’t talk to employees, who, upon hearing there is only a month’s worth of cash left in the bank, will immediately start sending out resumes. It’s hard to be totally upfront with investors, who you will probably ask for more money down the road.  As great as mentors can be, most issues would take too long to get them fully up to speed. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution. Isolation and complete responsibility are the burdens in the life of the CEO and entrepreneur. The best you can do is to minimize your isolation as much as possible. Surround yourself with highly capable and intelligent people who can help shoulder the load. Keep a journal that you use to organize your thoughts over time. Keep in close contact with your advisory board, which can help with key strategic decisions.  Consider joining an organization like Vistage, which hosts roundtables with other CEOs that can act as a sounding board.  Usually small things like this can go a long way to help reduce the pressure and keep you on track.

Lifestyle or Scale?

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Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of businesses – lifestyle and scalable.  A lifestyle business is meant to help the founder live a certain kind of life.  These businesses won’t become big, and usually revolve around a passion or hobby of the founder.  Scalable businesses, on the other hand, are created with the intention of becoming as big as possible – often $100 million in sales or greater.  These are usually the high-flying tech companies that you read about in the paper.

Neither kind of business is inherently superior – entrepreneurs with small lifestyle businesses can be just as happy (if not happier) than large, scalable businesses.  To know which is right for you, you have to know what you want out of life.  What will be most fulfilling for you?  Do you want the recognition, stress, and long work hours that go along with building a big business?  Or would you rather spend your hours turning your hobby into your profession, making decent money along the way?

Then make sure that your business aligns with your desired outcomes.  If you want to build a scalable business, don’t start a company with lifestyle potential, and vice versa.

Your Three Hats

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It’s easy to get frustrated working for someone else. You probably do the work better than your employer, which begs the question – why not go out on your own?  As tempting as this may be, know what you’re getting into before you jump ship.  Regardless of the industry, there are three distinct hats that every business owner must wear: technician, manager, an entrepreneur.  The technician is the person who does the work of the business.  In an architecture firm, for example, the technician is the person who creates the blueprints.  The second two hats are usually overlooked by aspiring business owners.  The manager runs the business on a day-to-day basis. This is mostly mind-numbing busywork that everyone hates to do.  The third hat is the entrepreneur who innovates and drives sales.

You have to wear all three hats when you run your own business.  Ironically, there’s often so much work for the manager and entrepreneur that the technical work that you love to do gets pushed aside.  Before you take the plunge, realize what’s required to build the business.  When push comes to shove, you might be happier as a technician.

Young at Heart

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Think you’re too old to start a business? Think again – average age of an entrepreneur is 39 years old. The Kauffman Foundation study that documented this average age also found that entrepreneurial activity is consistent across all ages. Contrary to the 20-something entrepreneurs that the mass media glorifies, people of all ages, educations, and backgrounds start businesses. Look no further than Colonel Sanders who started Kentucky Fried Chicken at the age of 65 with an investment from the Social Security Administration – his first benefits check.

No, you don’t need to be young to start a business. You don’t need to be well-off, either.  Think about the legions of immigrants who came to America, didn’t speak English, and didn’t have a penny, yet became wildly successful. While your physical age and resources don’t matter, your emotional age and resourcefulness do. You have to be young at heart to start a company because it takes boundless energy and dedication.  If you can’t put in the effort, you’re better off starting a new hobby instead. As good as Colonel Sanders’ chicken was, he got rejected more than 1,000 times before he signed his first franchisee. Now that’s young at heart.

Startups are Boring

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Entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. The press loves to write about high-profile entrepreneurs and the latest acquisitions or IPOs.  Unfortunately, $100 million IPOs, private jets, and celebrity parties are not the life of the typical entrepreneur.  To the contrary, startups are boring.  98% of the work done in a startup is monotonous and painstaking.

Part of the reason for this misconception is that the ideation phase is the most exciting time of a startup’s life.  When you’re first starting out, the sky is the limit.  Reality doesn’t matter because you’re just dreaming. Do you have customers? Who knows, and who cares? “Don’t bother me with details.”  It’s after the the initial ideation phase that startups get boring.  This is when the struggle begins.  This is when it gets hard, and the real entrepreneurs come out.

Startups aren’t all sunshine and rainbows, so don’t get fooled by the media. Reporters are great at selling fantasies, but real entrepreneurs don’t live in fantasyland.  Be ready to do the grunge work before you turn your life upside down and try to become the next rock star entrepreneur.