For me July 1st, 2017 marked ten years of entrepreneurship. I remember the excitement, emotion and energy of the day I drove to work ten years ago. In my minds eye I can still see specific spots on my commute where I had sudden realizations, some of which have stuck with me through the years. As I’ve looked back over the course of the last decade I recount some of the lessons learned. Some of these lessons were learned in quick succession and some took a long time to sink in. Honestly when I look back some could have, and probably should have, been learned quicker. What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list but these are some of the lessons from my experiences as an entrepreneur. These lessons have stuck with me and I wanted to share what I believe can also help you in your career or business. In no particular order here are ten of my most important lessons:
1. REVENUE: If you don’t have it you don’t have a business.
Well, you might be able to call it a business but not for very long. This was abundantly clear as I pulled up to my desk on day one. When Horizon started we had a specialty focus but on occasion we also filled a few positions outside of our area of expertise because it would pay the bills. In those early days we did whatever we needed to generate revenue and we eventually got to the point where we were able to focus specifically in our areas of specialization. I learned that if business was going to come in it didn’t just “come in”, I had to go out and get it, I had to work hard to make it come in. I was often told ‘no’ and ‘not interested’ but I kept going because, if not, we wouldn’t be around very long. In my last article, I mentioned that according to Inc Magazine 96% of businesses fail in their first 10 years and many times it’s because the revenues don’t support the business. While good expense management and cash control are also vital not having enough on the top line will kill you in much less time than 10 years, more like 10 months. How many people have great business ideas but don’t know how to generate enough on the top line to make the idea a real business? Professional selling is a skill, a process and a vital key ensuring your business lasts. Any organization that can’t sell, or doesn’t, will die.
2. MINDSET: Its got to be strong.
I mentioned above I had a few epiphanies during our early days. One I recall well was when I was driving down the #1 Hwy approaching the Willingdon exit here in Vancouver, BC and it hit me hard as I turned to leave the highway. “You work for yourself so if you don’t make it happen no one else will” and that idea has stuck with me everyday since. A sense of responsibility for making it happen, to take action. This is what peeled me out of bed on the mornings I didn’t feel like getting up but did anyway. This idea isn’t just specific to entrepreneurs either this applies to life in general, doesn’t it? If you own something you take care of it, ownership can take the form of legal ownership or it can be a state of mind. I believe we all need to shift to an ownership mentality to make great strides. After all you own your career, you own your results and you own the effort and thinking time you put into your work. Expecting, or hoping, that someone else will get the job done won’t help a business survive.
3. BOOTSTRAP: Build while you’re flying.
Today we have best in class tools, technology and exceptional people but on day one we certainly didn’t. We had to bootstrap and squeeze every dollar out to make it work. When I was at BCIT taking what was then called Entrepreneurial Studies I heard the term bootstrapping for the first time from my professor Brian Giffen. Later I became very aware of just what it meant in our first few years of business. We bootstrapped financially, in our hiring process (we didn’t have one), marketing efforts and almost every area of our business. We did what is called ‘building the plane while you’re flying’. We got enough revenues to get the business ‘in the air’ then had to keep it there by generating more revenue but also building business structure around us to facilitate growth and sustainability. We had to be smart about our choices and when we made a mistake we had to correct quickly. Had we not it would have killed us!
4. OTHERS: You won’t do it alone.
I have had amazing partners, employees, customers and family through it all. Horizon Recruitment is not what it is today because of me doing it all. I have an amazingly supportive wife, a fantastic business partner and great employees who without we wouldn’t be here. We have some very talented people who have been with us for years who have helped build. I’m also never shy to give thanks for the parents I have, the good fortune to have been born into the part of the world I live in or the fact that I’m free from health issues. I have also been incredibly fortunate to have had mentors that exposed me to ideas that I would not have figured out as early as I did if it wasn’t for them.
5. OBLIGATIONS: As a business owner you have them.
When you decide you’re ready to hire other people it comes with a set of obligations that many business owners don’t immediately realize. Like getting married or having kids comes with obligations so does employing other people. The obligations are not a negative they are actually an impetuous for growth and maturing as a business person and for your company as a whole. For example if you don’t have a well thought out training program then you are leaving the success of your new employee to luck. Hiring and hoping is a really bad strategy. Other obligations are creating a healthy company culture, setting a clear vision and ensuring your attracting the right people. Expecting employees to figure these things out on there own is like playing roulette with someone else’s career.
6. LEARNING: Do it quickly, do it often.
The ability to take disparate pieces of information, synthesis them and then create actionable plans is an absolute for an entrepreneur. In order to do that you need to be paying attention to the macro trends in business and your industry. The speed that business is changing can be dizzying and the only way I’ve discovered to stay current is to always be learning. I read a lot of blogs, books, articles, scour YouTube and talk to a lot of people in my business and outside of it too. To run a business that’s growing you always need to be learning. If your entire day is stuck in your business then there is a need to carve time out to pick your head up and focus on looking forward and around. Schedule it if need be. A good book to read on developing skills that can be used in this area is The Four Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss.
7. HIRING: It’s different than recruitment.
Perhaps this is unique to me, given the industry I live in, but its one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. I’ve spent 20 years in the recruitment industry so a huge amount of my time has been spent delivering recruitment services for our clients. It wasn’t until I became a business owner 10 years ago and started hiring people for my own business that I truly saw the complexities of making a hiring decision. A great recruitment program is one thing but nailing down your hiring process and philosophy is another and they are not the same thing. Just because you can recruit doesn’t mean you can hire effectively and just because you can hire doesn’t mean you can recruit effectively. You need both!
8. PROCESS: There is one for everything.
This point blends several of the points above together in that your business is a series of processes and while this may have been evident to more mature business people it wasn’t to me! I didn’t even know what process mapping was let alone how to document or reengineer them into something repeatable that could be taught. If this doesn’t resonate I’d encourage you to look into process development. How you sell, market, manage finances, hire, onboard and offboard and serve customers are all processes. If they haven’t been thought through and written down then you’re winging it. A great read on these items is The E-Myth by Michael Gerber.
9. CULTURE: It really matters.
So this is a biggy! I like to describe culture as trying to explain color, you can use all kinds of words in an attempt to elaborate but they don’t seem to do it justice until you see it. A lot of the time culture description sounds like platitudes and click bait. Culture is something you feel and see by being a part of it, watching it in action and experiencing it. You can tell someone all about going to Hawaii but until they get there and take it all in they won’t really know what its like. Creating a great culture is one of the most important things an entrepreneur needs to do and it starts with you, the entrepreneur. I learned that unless you’re prepared to model and live the culture everyday then simply using colorful words on your website and marketing paraphernalia is a waste. Culture has to extend into everything you do especially your hiring, onboarding, training then into the day to day.
10. MISSION: It can’t just be a phrase on the wall.
This last point is an extension of #9. Mission means nothing unless you model it, live it and everyone in the company understands it and is behind it. Not an easy task to do well. Ultimately it’s ensuring everyone understands where you’re going, knows what they need to do to help get there, wants to do it and is engaged in the process. Learning how to tackle this, communicate it and nurture it has been on of my biggest areas of learning especially in the last 2 years. The words in the mission are one thing but how you tell the story and create meaning and experiences with it is where the amazing things are.
So there you have it 10 of my biggest lessons as an entrepreneur. I hope you found something in here that resonates with you. Many of these can apply to a career as much as they can to running a business. I’d love to hear your lessons and encourage you to always be looking for the lessons in your experiences. It's by paying attention and looking for opportunities to get better that we all make connections and get better.