My company is approaching its tenth anniversary. This important milestone has prompted me to look back at my decade as an entrepreneur. Founding and running a company has been the ride of my life, but it has had its fair share of ups and down. In retrospect, I would have done a few things differently if I had known better. Here are some things I’d wish I’d known earlier.
It won’t be easy
Entrepreneurs are over optimistic by nature. Actually, it’s by necessity, because being an entrepreneur is one of the hardest jobs there is, and the failure rate is very high. Here’s an example: my current company is my third attempt at entrepreneurship. Despite a lot of work, thinking, and planning, my previous two ventures failed. The first attempt fizzled and the second attempt never got off the ground. Another problem is that your friends and family are not always as supportive of your business as you’d like. In my case, most of them thought that I was crazy to quit a job with a good salary and benefits so that I could focus on my third venture. But I was itching to start something, so I went for it and never looked back. The main lesson I learned is that for certain decisions – actually most decisions – you have to follow your instincts and do what you think is best. This does not mean that you should ignore advice. Just remember that, in the end, it’s your life and, therefore, it’s your call.
Your business plan may not work
During our first couple of years, nothing went according to plan. Sales and marketing efforts did not go as expected: there were operational issues, and two early clients tried to defraud us. You get the gist. I now realize that this sort of difficulty is par for the course. For entrepreneurs, nothing ever goes according to plan, and few businesses follow the orderly path that was laid out in their business plan. At that point, we decided to drop the business plan and create a new one with more realistic market information. We also decided to expand our horizons and open an office in Canada – by far the best business decision we ever made – and it was not in the original plan. The main lesson, then, was to remain flexible. If something’s not working, change it or fix it. Don’t stick to your plan just because you spent a lot of time working on it.
It may take a while to achieve profitability
We often read stories in the media about star entrepreneurs who grew their companies quickly and achieved massive profitability very quickly. Unfortunately, this scenario is the exception. Most companies take longer than expected to achieve profitability, and failing to plan for this reality can spell disaster. We almost had this problem ourselves. Fortunately, however, we were well capitalized, so we rode through it until we were profitable. The main lesson here has been to always give a project a generous, but reasonable, amount of time to prove itself. Assume that it will take double the time/effort to become profitable.
You will become a salesperson, whether you like it or not
When I started the company, I was uncomfortable selling our services. Our solutions were excellent, but I was uncomfortable selling them. It just wasn’t my thing. As a CEO, you won’t have the luxury of avoiding the sales aspect of the business. Whether you like it or not, you are in sales. There is no way around it. I tried to learn how to sell by reading books on sales techniques and by taking classes through two very well-known programs. Unfortunately, they didn’t work for me. The books were full of high-pressure sales tactics designed to turn normal people into true “sales-weasels.” And the classes just didn’t do it for me. I’ll have to admit that I learned how to sell by simple trial and error. I just went for it and kept changing my approach until I found something that worked. Now, I am comfortable selling.
You will need to master public speaking
Like most people, I feared public speaking. I had often stumbled through public speaking engagements but had never done a good job – and never gave this a second thought until I started my first company. Being an entrepreneur and a CEO requires that you communicate well and that you speak effectively in public. I wish I’d learned this lesson in college, but I didn’t. My college’s public speaking class had a reputation for being harsh, chewing up students, and lowering their GPAs by a full letter grade. Like most students, I steered clear of that class. That was a mistake. I fixed this mistake by joining my local Toastmasters club. They have been around forever, a testament to the fact that their methods work. They are very affordable and offer a program that can help you become an effective public speaker.
You will need to master giving presentations
Just like selling and public speaking, giving good presentations is one of the keys to success for an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, most schools don’t teach how to give effective presentations. As a result, most CEOs give uninspiring presentations full of PowerPoint slides crammed with useless details. Learning how to give an effective presentation is a difficult skill to master–not because the actual technique is hard but because finding someone who can teach how to give good presentations is hard. You can search online for classes and hope to find a good one. Actually, Dale Carnegie Training has a well-known class. In my case, however, I learned how to give presentations from a former manager who excelled at presentations and motivating people. He was kind enough to share some of his secrets, which I have used ever since. The main lesson from this experience is that learning how to give good presentations earlier in my business career would have benefitted both my career and my company.
Marco Terry is the managing director of Commercial Capital LLC and author of the College Startups Series, a resource for helping college student entrepreneurs.