I don’t know what you call the ailment that I have. I think I can best describe it by the symptoms I’ve experienced. In college, not a single professor knew my name.1 I never went to office hours. I always sat in the back of class and didn’t take notes. I never once asked for clarification on a question during a test. I went a few semesters without even buying the required textbooks. In high school I didn’t study for the SAT or even look at a practice exam before I walked in to take the real thing.
For some reason I saw these things as signs of weakness. I thought that asking for help or trying would mean that I was less smart or less capable. I guess you could say I was afraid to try. Maybe I was afraid to fail and not trying was my ever-ready excuse.
Luckily for me, my parents gave me the smartness genes to get away with these types of shenanigans, but I certainly wasn’t living up to my potential. I did passably in school, but not nearly as well as I could have done. But shining
or not, it was working for me. I got decent grades, and I got to tell myself that I was somehow tougher for doing it without trying. Unfortunately for me, in the real world you don’t get brownie points for not trying. It’s a horrible habit I wish I had never picked up.
So what’s this have to do with diving into the deep end, you’re probably not asking yourself?
Well, as college was ending, I decided to start a company. I spent my years at U of M taking special care to not foster any relationships with other budding entrepreneurs. I meticulously made sure not to join start-up groups or attend events catering to the craft. I avoided, like the plague, anyone who might serve as a mentor or advisor to a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed entrepreneur like myself.
So what did I have? Well… I assumed the first step was telling people I was starting a company, so that’s what I did.
The point is, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I knew it. Reasons may vary for others, but I imagine there are a lot of us who are drawn to entrepreneurship, but don’t feel that they belong.
I distinctly remember feeling incredulous that any person or business would ever send a check to my “business”. After all, it’s something I just made up out of thin air. I read articles in business magazines about things like cutting costs to improve ROI or managing debt ratio. These things are pretty meaningless and uninviting when you’re still not sure how you will make your first dollar.
Over my first few years starting from scratch, I’ve picked up a few tips that might be helpful to those faced with the daunting task of making something from nothing. Here they are:
Read about others' start-up experiences.
My first few months, I was never quite sure if I was even in the same ballpark as other successful entrepreneurs in their early days. I thought when you heard they were “roughing it” early on, maybe that meant flying business class
instead of first class. I learned a couple of fun tidbits from reading the blogs of some now famous entrepreneurs:
• When times were tough, Bob Parsons, founder of GoDaddy.com, offered to sell half of his first company to his friend for $5,000. His friend said no. (Bob later sold the whole company for $64 million… oops).
• When Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, hit $1,000 in his personal bank account for the first time in his adult life, he celebrated by buying new towels to replace his old, ratty ones.
• In 1952 at the age of 65, broke and living on social security, Colonel Sanders (yeah, the chicken guy) decided to start franchising his chicken recipe, which most considered an absurd idea. Legend has it that the
Colonel went restaurant-to-restaurant pitching his idea and was turned down 1,008 times before the 1,009th restaurant said yes.
These are numbers and problems I can identify with.
Take advantage of the beginning.
One of the mistakes I made at the beginning was starting with no direction. For the first two years of my “business”, I was basically thrashing around in the deep end with no direction and no strategy. My company originally sold “custom software”. It seemed to make sense to me, because that’s what I did -- develop software. Unfortunately, no one wants “custom software”, they want applications that do their taxes or a website that organizes their baseball cards or some other need-specific software.
I’m pretty sure I did not think about my business idea at all, and just decided to do what I knew. If I could do it over again, I would steal an idea I heard Kevin O’Connor, founder of DoubleClick, describe at Michigan’s
Entrepalooza. He recommended writing down 100 business ideas on note cards and pinning them up on the wall. It’s too easy to get fixated on your first idea without really critically thinking about its weaknesses. Once you have 99 other ideas posted up on the wall next to it, your first idea might not seem so glorious. If it does, then you know you’re on the right track (or you’re a bad idea thinker-upper).
Choose a niche.
I believe it’s crucial for a small start-up to have a very narrow niche. Imagine if a new small restaurant opened up in your city that offered various cuisines, including Mexican, Chinese, ice cream, sushi, Italian and sandwiches. Would you ever go there? I wouldn’t. When I’m in the mood for any of those things, I want to go to the specialist who will do a really great job at exactly what I want.
Specialization is the only prayer a small business has at competing with the big guys who have the funds to do everything. Don’t sell “sports equipment”; sell high school-branded hockey skates. Don’t sell “custom software”; offer an Internet advertising service to rental housing owners. (That’s what my company started doing exclusively in 2005 when we changed our name to RentLinx).
Work your network.
The first software I ever sold in the rental housing industry was to my former landlord, Oppenheimer Properties. I’m fairly certain the only reason they entertained the idea of working with me is that I introduced myself as “a
former tenant” instead of “some guy trying to convince you to give me money” (which is, coincidentally, how I now introduce myself to all potential clients).
In my custom software days, my clients also included a company my mom
was contracting with and an organization a former teammate owned. If you can land a few clients through your network, and do a great job for them, hopefully the referrals start rolling in.
It’s almost cliché at this point, but it’s oh so true. Successes are rarely made overnight. They’re almost always due to the unceasing pushing and striving for improvement by the business owner.
I really like the analogy used by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. He describes a flywheel that is a “massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds.” Growing your company is like getting the flywheel to spin. It’s not going to happen quickly, but with constant, even small pushes in the same
direction. Eventually, over time, it will spin faster and faster and the momentum will start working with you, instead of against you!
I’ll end with the best piece of business advice I’ve heard in the last five years. It came, of course, from the AOL away message of my college buddy, Eric Jankowski. Luckily, he was quoting Calvin Coolidge:
"Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not - nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not - unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not - the world is full
of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." -Calvin Coolidge
1 Except Professor Peter Chen, who memorized every student’s name after taking photos of each of us on the first day. Thanks, Professor Chen.