Marcia Hoeck recently asked me to name the most important thing I had learned since starting my business 14 years ago. I did not have a ready answer. I have learned so much. After I struggled to give the question justice for a few minutes, Marcia kindly offered to allow me to respond later. This article is my attempt at a helpful and transparent response.
Top 6 Tips I’d Share With My Past Entrepreneurly Self
While I like to think that I’m a pretty smart guy, I have to admit that I often feel I am a slow learner. I started my business 14 years ago, for example, and I’ve only recently begun to feel that I’m getting good at running it. If I could go back 14 years to talk with my former self about what I’ve learned, these are the top 6 things I think I’d share:
- Get lots and lots of help. Starting and running a business isn’t easy, but you don’t have to figure it out all by yourself. There are millions of people that have started successful businesses, and many of them are all too happy to offer a helping hand. Attend trade shows and networking events, take people out to lunch, and join or start a peer advisory group. Ask questions. The ideas and information that you get from others, often for free, is priceless.
- The way you expect your business to be run won’t be obvious to anyone but you until you communicate it, clearly and often. It took years and a unique set of thousands of circumstances to create the collection of thoughts and ideas that guide my daily actions and expectations. Unfortunately, it also took me years to learn that I must regularly share my values, ideas, and expectations with my team, in a simple and positive way, to get the results I want.
- You cannot expect employees to always be as committed to the business as you are. It seems obvious now, but it didn’t initially occur to me that my business wouldn’t automatically become the top priority for every new employee. As the business owner, it’s up to me to create a culture and environment where employees want to help the business succeed. Believe me, that’s a lot easier to say than it is to do. However, I have found that if you are clear about your expectations from day one, and you show genuine interest and concern for each member of your team, most will leap over tall buildings to help you succeed.
- Borrowing money is giving up control. Even if the debt is unsecured, borrowers will be slaves to the payments, interest, and obligation until it’s paid back in full. I wish I had figured this out before borrowing money to fund my business, but now that I have, I am working hard to pay it all back. I wish I could convince my former self to figure out how to pay cash and avoid the endless worries over debt. I wouldn’t say “don’t borrow money,” necessarily, but I would try to force myself to think long and hard about the alternatives.
- People lie during interviews. I’m not talking little tiny white lies, here. I’m talking about big, honking, wow-I-can’t-believe-you-said-that lies. Like the guy that said that his former employer loved him and didn’t want him to leave the company, only to accidentally reveal months after being hired that his former boss was his own mother. Wow. Really? Trust, but verify.
- If it feels like something might be wrong, it probably is. So many times I’ve picked up a strange little vibe about a prospective new employee, customer, or vendor, only to forge ahead and find out later that I was right. Trust that funny feeling. Your gut reaction is probably correct.
Additional Insights Worth Knowing
Of course, there are some things that I’m glad I didn’t have a clue about when I started my business. If I had known these things, I might not have had the courage to start at all. If given the chance, however, I would absolutely encourage my former self to forge ahead. I am fully aware of all these things, after all, and I would still do it all over again (only better, I hope).
- Having a job is much, much less stressful than having a business. There’s no way around it – starting, building and running a business is hard. Very hard. Business owners think and worry about their businesses constantly. The business becomes so tightly woven into our personal lives that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the two. However, if you dream of owning a business and have deep passion for what you do, you might just find that it’s all worthwhile.
- Neither my business nor my leadership will ever be perfect. I’m only half-kidding here. As a recovering perfectionist, I can honestly say that I used to think I could build a business without problems and that I could somehow become a leader that everyone would love and follow. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. But I have learned that there is great satisfaction in building a business that works through problems and in becoming a thoughtful leader that is well-loved by some and endured by others.
- It might take many years to become an “overnight success”. When I started my business, I envisioned quick success. A few years of hard work and I’d be home free, I thought. More than a decade later, however, I was beginning to have my doubts. It was only recently that I realized that my idea of “success” had been a moving target, like the end of a rainbow. No wonder I hadn’t arrived! I now understand that, in some ways, my business was an “overnight success” years ago. In other ways, it’s an ongoing success, sustaining and fulfilling me and providing value for many others on a daily basis. And in still others, success is as elusive and far away as it’s always been.
What Would You Add?
What are the most important things you’ve learned since starting your own business? I’d love to hear about your advice for someone just starting out in comments below (or write a blog post about it and leave a link to it in comments below).
Matt Hyatt is the Founder and CEO of Rocket IT, the IT department for all kinds of organizations around Gwinnett. His award-winning firm provides both the strategy and support needed to help businesses thrive.
Matt currently serves on the Executive Board of the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce as the Vice Chair of Entrepreneurship & Small Business, is an active supporter of Gwinnett County Public Schools, and is a member of several peer groups (like Entrepreneurs’ Organization) in addition to cofounding two of his own. In 2014, Matt was awarded the Pinnacle Small Business Person of the Year.
Outside of work, Matt enjoys spending time with his wife, Maureen, and their two teenage children pursuing their shared passions for photography, travel, and food. He also regularly runs with a team in ultra-long distance relay races.