When you think of entrepreneurs, you often think of guys like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or the judges on Shark Tank. Jet setting, spending money, working cool phrases into your vernacular like, “What’s the ROI on that?” or “Let me put you in touch with my assistant.” The honest truth is that those things only apply to a very small percentage of small business owners and entrepreneurs. Often, those things come after years of hard work and persistence… and maybe a well placed dose of luck.
But if there is one thing that those at the top have in common, it’s that they say all the hard work was worth it. That gives guys like me hope that the dream of financial independence, doing something you love, and making the world a better place are attainable. But what do you need to know before diving into that world and walking that road?
I don’t know a lot, but I have been plugging away at my small business for two years now, and have learned some valuable lessons. I’m not the founder of a multi-million dollar venture (yet), I didn’t court big venture capital investors (started my company with 600.00), and I don’t have suits made of fine linens. But for anyone considering this career path, some of these nuggets may prove useful, or if you are already on this path, show you that you are not alone.
1 Expect to be lonely. Even if you have a supportive spouse or business partners, it can be and often is a lonely road to walk. You will sit up at night wracking your brains on how to solve a problem, devising a plan for the next big thing, teaching yourself software that is pertinent to your business or industry, or reading market research until your eyes bleed. You will find very few people who understand your plight. You will think everyone else who is starting or running a business has it all figured out, or has it easier, or has something you don’t and that’s why he or she is more successful and their business is moving faster than yours.
Your family will ask you, “So how is business going?” and before a single word leaves your lips you will have thirteen different problems you are currently dealing with cross your mind, and then start mulling over the possible courses of action for each of those problems… before you notice they are staring at you wondering what it was they said that upset you. Of course, it’s not that they upset you; it’s just that any mention of your budding venture immediately launches you back into that world. You are alone with your thoughts at the most random, inconvenient times.
The bottom line is that you need to expect this, and you need to be comfortable with it. Starting and running a small business is not a lone wolf operation – you will absolutely NEED others’ help, but the feeling of being alone will be there more often than not.
2 It’s a lot of hard work. You should expect that starting out you will work 14-18 hour days, and as you get a hold of things that might go down to 10-12 hour days (on a good week… if you’re lucky). Oftentimes, those hours will be spent doing extremely tedious tasks, researching topics you are not particularly interested in or depending on your business – manual labor. It’s not all bad news though; I personally have taken satisfaction in that the hard work I put in directly benefits my business and my family.
You are the master of your own destiny, and how hard you work is a direct correlation to you putting food on the table and gas in the car. I once saw a quote, and I must admit I don’t remember who said it, but it went along the lines of an entrepreneur who would rather work eighty hours a week for himself than forty hours a week for someone else. I think there is a lot of truth in that, and it is a primary motivation in continuing my pursuit of the entrepreneurial dream.
3 You will fail. You will fail so often and so hard it’s not even funny. You will mess up big projects that cost you and/or your partners money. You will fail your wife and kids when you inadvertently put work before family. You will fail your loyal customers when you, someone in your company, or one of your vendors screws something up. It’s a terrible feeling, and for someone that hates failing with a passion, it can be really hard to swallow.
You need to know that you will fail in either big ways or small ways, or both before you even open the doors. Be emotionally and mentally prepared for it. The worst case scenario, is that you fail at the whole endeavor, you lose your life savings, and have to move back in with your parents for a few months (luckily that hasn’t happened to me yet, but I have come dangerously close). But then you get back on the horse, and you start over again, lessons learned in your back pocket. I personally would rather put it all on the line and risk everything, than sludge through life safely nestled in a blanket of mediocrity.
4 You will learn a lot about yourself. Now, I became painfully familiar with just what I was and was not capable of or good at when I was in the Army. I do think that my service better prepared me for small business ownership, but I still had the security of a steady paycheck, and leaders to guide, train, and mentor me.
Some of the things I have learned about myself these past two years include admitting to myself that I am generally the dumbest person in the room, I am easily distracted, and am willing to do ridiculous things in the name of my business or charity (i.e. stripping on stage at a business convention or becoming a homeless transient to raise money for Gallant Few).
Those are just a few things, but I can honestly say I am more in tune with myself now than I have ever been. It can be a bit uncomfortable coming face to face with some truths, but in order for you to advance as an entrepreneur and as a person, you need to accept them and embrace them.
5 You will need help. Even if you are at the helm, you absolutely cannot be successful on your own. You will need legal and accounting counsel. You will need good vendors, contractors, and when the time comes – employees. You will need mentors and advisors. The most important aspect of all this? You will need to listen to them. I don’t care how smart you think you are, you absolutely need that outside perspective. All these people will be vital to you and your business’s success.
I won’t even attempt to list everyone who has helped me, but I can tell you that any small amount of successes I have seen thus far has been due to others’ hard work and advice to me (you know who you are!). On top of all the people organic to your company, you will need to partner with other small businesses. This doesn’t mean hit up companies or people always asking for something, but rather offer something in return as well. At the bare minimum have a positive dialogue with them – even if they are a competitor.
A partnership is a give-and-take operation – not all take. The honest truth is that you need them to advance though. If you aren’t reaching out to other businesses, or other businesses aren’t reaching out to you (or worse, refusing to work with you), then it may be a sign of deeper problems with you or your company. The bottom line is to take a slice of humble pie and realize you can’t do this alone, so reach out to others and heed their advice.
This isn’t an all-inclusive list, and it certainly focuses on the intangible aspects of small business ownership more than the technical aspects. But if you aren’t prepared to accept or deal with the above, then you might not want to quit your day job just yet. Although some of it sounds like a lot of doom and gloom from me, the honest truth is that it is all worth it.
I would rather work with people than for people, be in control (for better or worse) of my own destiny, and if I ever do see success – I will know that I worked my ass off for it and was handed nothing on a silver platter. Oh, and I have met some really great people and had experiences I would never have dreamed of was it not for traveling this path. Best of luck and never quit!
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 9, 2014.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is a veteran of the 1st Ranger Battalion and Syracuse Recruiting Battalion, a former small business owner, the author of Violence of Action: The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror (Blackside Publishing) as well as Ranger Knowledge: The Complete Study Guide (St. Martins Press). He is also the executive producer of the award-winning documentary Nomadic Veterans, and the award winning short-narrative Prisoner of War. He is currently working on his third book as well as pursuing a career in film and television.