The last thing I did before going to bed last night was check my email. Would there be a response to my proposal? Of course not. But there’s always hope for tomorrow. Now some of you may be wondering, “Who the heck responds to proposals in the middle of the night?” The answer, naturally, is other entrepreneurs.
As a journalist who covered growth companies for more than 12 years, I figured I knew something about running a business. (A short pause for the jeers and catcalls to die away.) But as you’ve probably guessed, entrepreneurial life has tossed more than a few surprises my way.
Here, I’ve listed the immutable laws of entrepreneurship. At least, the ones I’ve learned so far:
- the 40-hour workweek is not your friend. There is no way to do everything you need to get done between 9 and 5-especially since most of the people you deal with in big corporations only work from 10 to 4 (and take a lunch, too). Fortunately, the entrepreneur has two secret weapons that competitors in big business usually shun: Saturday and Sunday.
- Everyone is looking for something new. But no one has any money for anything new.
- All the people you meet at a networking function are trying to sell you something. Most of it you probably don’t need or want.
- The phone doesn’t ring by itself. I’ve tried willing it, but at best that only gets me another call from the guy who wants to clean my chimney. No, you have to make your own calls if you want the phone to ring.
- At any given time, everyone you want to contact is in a meeting.
- Basic courtesy is deader than Sir John A. Macdonald. No one returns phone calls anymore. (Even if they’re the ones who called you first.)
- Allies are like employees: hard to find, hard to live without. Unlike most readers of PROFIT, who have paid staff, I have only strategic partners and occasional allies. Just like employees, however, partners and allies have to be carefully selected, painstakingly trained and occasionally weeded out. But once in a while, they make magic happen.
- Opportunities are all around you. But telling the difference between an “opportunity” and a genuine source of revenue-that’s hard.
- And here’s the irony of it all: most of the people you meet at large corporations dream of working for themselves.
So how does one survive in this fulfilling but rigorous life called entrepreneurship? Here are five lessons I’ve learned about succeeding in small business:
- You have to know what your market wants. It’s not just a matter of what kind of work you want to do, or what organizations you wish to work with. It’s what the market is most prepared to buy. This sounds too obvious to mention, but it’s an essential distinction you have to make. I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs with intriguing products and services who are struggling to survive because they’re trying to sell what they want instead of marketing to actual customers. (This is a common affliction. They say there’s a sign in the new product lab at Dell that says, “Think like a customer.” Nearby is another sign: “You are not the customer.”)
- Get yourself a peer group. I’ve joined two monthly “mastermind” groups (at which peers tell war stories and share ideas) and a professional association. I’m still not good at asking for help. Luckily, I’ve met some fine people who don’t wait to be asked.
- Trust in karma. I’m not normally a touchy-feely guy. But there’s an uncanny serendipity governing entrepreneurship. You can direct-mail your 100 best customers and get no response-and then suddenly a new client will fall into your lap. I have worked and sweated and worked for business that never materialized, and then had amazing pieces of luck come my way or unexpected referrals from people I’d almost forgotten. There’s a karmic flow to it all-and you must keep it going. Speak well of others. Never burn a bridge. Help people solve problems. The positive energy you put into your relationships will come back to you in the form of unanticipated opportunities and “friends of friends.”
- Be brave. Courage is not a characteristic that I used to associate with day-to-day business, but now I know better. It takes courage to walk away from a contract when you and your client are heading down different paths. I have learned to talk uncharacteristically tough when my bills weren’t being paid. I have told clients when I think they are making mistakes-and, yes, I have even admitted to a few of my own. It isn’t easy, but it’s essential to properly serving your client and being able to sleep at night (after checking your e-mail, of course).
- Give it away. When I meet other entrepreneurs, I can easily get passionate about their businesses. I’ve given away scores of valuable ideas and strategies designed to help them improve some aspect of their businesses. It’s not meant to be a marketing tactic, but it actually works. When you jump into an issue with passion and generosity, you become the kind of partner your prospects are looking for. When you’re selling one to one, passion is your best weapon.