My earliest memories of entrepreneurship take me back nearly 40 years when, as an 8-year-old, I took over my brother’s newspaper route for the Boston Globe.
The most lasting memory of that experience was trying to deliver the paper to my customers during the Blizzard of ’78. I would not let Mother Nature get in my way of delivering (literally) for my customers. With no Internet and power outages, the paper was the only source of information for people. I simply couldn’t let the customers on my route down – and I knew if I came through, my efforts would be rewarded.
The values I developed back then – perseverance in the face of adversity, focusing on customer delight, goal orientation – carried me forward though a number of ventures over the years. With this backdrop, I had the intestinal fortitude to launch Altitude in 2004.
Fast-forward 12 years since founding Altitude and today we’re working with a combination of well established companies and emerging business run by entrepreneurs, the latter of which frequently pick my brain not just on all-things marketing, but on what it takes to start a business and realize their entrepreneurial dreams.
Last month, I was able to pull all those experiences and hard earned pearls of wisdom together to share with a group of students at Lehigh University. I earned my MBA from Lehigh, so it was an honor to be invited back to campus to speak at “Entrepreneurial Thinking: A Panel Discussion” on Tuesday, March 8.
Thirty or so entrepreneurial-minded students attended the panel at Rauch Business Center to hear what myself and two other Lehigh grads – James Byszewski, managing partner, Fifth Street Capital Partners, and Briana Gardell, CEO and founder of Mezzimatic LLC – had to say about entrepreneurial thinking.
Here are a few of my favorite soundbites from the event, along with some additional thoughts behind each.
1. You can’t teach fire in the belly.
You either have it in you – the drive, the self-motivation, the goal-orientation, the desire to succeed – or you don’t. It’s something that’s likely been inside those that have it for a very long time, waiting for the right opportunity to bubble to the surface. For me, it was when I was 8 and the snow was higher than my waist and I trudged through that blizzard delivering The Globe.
But not everyone has that drive – and that’s a good thing.
Some people prefer to be directed, managed, led, given a task and shown how to do it. And those people are vital to the success of every organization – whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a classic startup. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, fire in the belly is an absolute necessity.
2. Check your ego at the door
Being a successful entrepreneur requires surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you. While you may have the vision, don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who have strengths you don’t; success often takes a team.
Ask yourself: Would you rather be wildly successful and cede some degree of decision-making? Or would you prefer to be the one to call all the shots, always be the smartest one in the room and, as a result, be marginally successful?
If you’re in the second category, good luck.
But if you’re in the first category – if you can check your ego and surround yourself with smart people who you trust to help steer the ship – you’ll have the time to work on the business. But this means you can’t always be the one making every decision – and you certainly can’t always be the only one who is right.
3. Find a way and the time to work on the business, not just in it.
If you talk to a dozen entrepreneurs, they’ll tell you stories about wearing multiple hats, doing everything and anything that needed to get done.
Now, talk to a dozen successful entrepreneurs. Their story will be different. They’ll tell you to shed a few of those hats so you can focus on working on the business – the growth plan, the vision, the higher value activities and thinking that may not seem urgent at the moment.
“But I don’t have the time.” It’s the excuse I hear the most.
Working on the business for an entrepreneur is often more about thinking than sitting at a computer doing.
I am an avid road cyclist. I do some of my best work on the business while I am out for a 30-mile ride. What goes on inside my head – thinking through the dozens of questions, hurdles, opportunities, potential paths to take, conversations I’ve recently had and conversations I need to have, deals on the table and more – those are all invaluable to the growth of the business.
Recently, I was speaking with a business owner who was struggling. I asked him about the vision for the company – how he wants to be known in the market and what he wants out of it for himself. He pulled the “I don’t have the time” line. He was too busy fulfilling orders, issuing price quotes and managing the team to focus on something as “soft” as vision.
While cycling may not be your thing, you do need to carve out time to work on the business. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you don’t find the time and space to work on the business, you’ll spend all your time putting out fires and never get around to putting together your fire prevention plan.
4. Recognizing your weakness can be your biggest strength.
Self-awareness, our ability to recognize our own strengths, weaknesses and communication styles, is critical to entrepreneurial success. And it is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Awareness of your own weaknesses, in particular, can be incredibly difficult – but the identification of these weaknesses can ultimately become your greatest strength. Knowing where you fall short enables you to find the right people with whom to surround yourself and who can help bring your vision to life. (See #2 above.)
For me, personally, I am not very patient when it comes to details. I prefer the executive summary, not a protracted discussion about how we got there.
That’s a weakness.
In my business, attention to detail is everything. So I built a team around me that are fixated on the details.
5. Learn how to listen.
This one holds true in life, business, work and being a successful entrepreneur. Resisting the urge to talk when other people are speaking is a skill that requires patience, confidence and willingness to learn. Ultimately, as an entrepreneur, what people have to say – those working with you, your customers, your partners, your competitors, your mentors, your vendors, your prospects – will help guide you to success.
I’ve been able to get good at listening over the years. To some, I’m too good at listening and it drives them a bit crazy as they want me to say something to fill the silence.
As a management, leadership and negotiating tool, I want to hear everything on someone’s mind before offering my opinion, speaking my mind or showing my cards. I remind myself of the importance of this with some non-verbal tools. I often perch my two index fingers right over my mouth.
Whatever tricks you need to come up with to remind you to keep your mouth shut, eyes focused and ears open, practice it and adopt it.
6. The ultimate entrepreneurial tool? Network, network, network.
You can have the greatest idea in the world for a business venture. You can have all the fire in the belly. You can know your weaknesses and how to listen. But that will only take you so far if people don’t know what you’re up to.
I can only image how much more efficient and how much more reach I would have had back in 2004 when I started Altitude if LinkedIn would have been the professional networking powerhouse it is today. Then, the platform was still in its fledgling stages.
I have found the platform to be a vital tool to connecting with others and to getting my message out. Use it to get introduced, float ideas, gain attention of prospects, line up potential partners and spread the word about what you are (or are thinking) about doing.
7. Find the right fit.
Whether you’re just starting your career or looking to make a move to exercise your entrepreneurial orientation, you need to find the right corporate fit. (Not everyone with an entrepreneurial spirit needs to start his or her own business.)
Some companies are entrepreneurial by virtue of where they are in their lifecycle. Startups, in general, are highly entrepreneurial and embrace that kind of thinking. Other companies have a strict hierarchical culture and may not embrace anything other than following the established way of doing business.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. The key is to know what motivates you and what work environment would be most fulfilling and then make it happen.
You can learn a lot about a company you are considering working for by looking at their “about us” page on their website, their company Facebook page, the layout of their office and the way the hiring manager answers your questions about the values of the company.