I am not a risk taker. Even as a child, I always did what teachers told me to do and listened to my parents — well, most of the time. Through college and the early part of my career at technology companies, I followed a linear and predictable path to get to the next level of management, the next promotion, the next raise.
But then I started my own business. That’s when everything changed. No risk meant no reward. I learned that sometimes, the standard rules don’t apply. Especially these:
1. Never Work With Friends and Family. The first two people I hired were my sister and my best friend’s sister. Why? My sister Lori is the most detail-oriented person I know, and Michelle was Nordstrom-trained on customer service. It’s been 15 years, and they are still with my company, kicking butt and keeping me sane. Sure, we’ve had a few disagreements, but Lori and Michelle have always been extremely committed to our success and respectful of my role as leader. We trust each other and discuss parenting tips as easily as project updates.
2. Get an MBA. As we’ve learned from Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Mark Zuckerberg, having an advanced business degree is not required for successful entrepreneurship. Leverage smart people, trust your instincts and just get out there. I gained tremendous insight by joining an angel investment group to see how other entrepreneurs positioned and marketed their companies. Professional organizations in my industry led me to successful owners whom I still tap for advice. And a CEO organization called Vistage gives me access to a braintrust of experts on any business matter.
3. Sales is the Key to Success. As the business owner, I was the primary rainmaker for years. Unfortunately, I sucked at sales. I hate asking for money. So I hired professional salespeople, and they all failed miserably. Now I understand that my customers hate being sold as much as I hate selling. They really just want someone who will share a cup of coffee and understand their pain, then come up with a solution that doesn’t require even more work. That’s all.
4. You’ve Gotta Get a Plan. For years, our team didn’t have any formal business plan, just a revenue target and a few key objectives. Of course, like a map-less Magellan, you can waste time and resources. You can even fail to notice when you do reach your goal. But spending weeks discussing and writing a comprehensive plan that few will follow isn’t productive either. Ours started simple, and it’s staying that way: One page with an annual revenue target and theme agreed upon by the entire team, followed by one or two major initiatives for each person per quarter. That’s it. When the tech market dipped in 2009, our “plan” allowed us to quickly shift gears. We eased up on major account sales and made a major investment in social media. In the end, that’s what moved our recovery along.
5. Diversify Your Client Base. Really, we’ve tried for years. But when an industry giant is your largest client and managers tell colleagues in other departments about you, who’s to complain? Word-of-mouth marketing is always a gift. Sure, we’ve worked with many other large clients, and plenty of small clients too, but our largest client is the one that keeps us in business. We work hard to earn their business again every day.
6. Never Work for Free. There are still rare occasions when we give away our services. Actually, it’s how we started this business–by connecting friends who needed marketing and PR help with friends who provided exactly that expertise. After two years we knew there was a true business opportunity. And while we do have rent, payroll, insurance, taxes and other overhead costs now, there are times when we can’t resist supporting a non-profit organization or an especially close friend.
I may still be a rule-follower at heart. I still use my turn signals and wait patiently in lines. But one of the most exciting things about being an entrepreneur is being creative and discovering what works best, even if it goes against what others recommend. That’s the beauty of being your own boss.