Founding a commercial enterprise is a career destination. A serial entrepreneur once told me that it’s time to start a business when you can’t think of anything else you would rather do. These days, it may more likely be that an entrepreneur is born when he or she cannot find a more rewarding role in the economic world. Not long ago very large or just very enlightened companies invested in “intrapreneurship” programs to entice talented employees in the direction of risk, creativity, service, and resource conservation, because those were thought to characterize the best instincts of successful entrepreneurs.
That was before; this is now, and while a great many entrepreneurs are indeed risk-takers, creatives, service oriented and conservers, real entrepreneurship as a career–whatever your field of endeavor–has authentic competency requirements. A competency is simply what you need to have mastered in order to succeed at something.
I think the main things are these, but you may think otherwise. The important thing is to know who you are and what is going to happen when you try to exit your comfort zone, make it larger, or do something you simply never liked and don’t want to do. If you own the company, and you want it to give you an income, you have to do stuff you hate. You just do. And then you get good at it and you learn to like it.
Sales: You have to sell something, even if it doesn’t look like sales to the person who is going to give you money. If you decide to start a nonprofit enterprise or a social enterprise, sales is fundraising, and as the founder, you are it. If you are going to sell a product or a service, know that you don’t really get so good that those things sell themselves. That is a myth and and a story line in somebody’s ad campaign. You have to learn to sell, assertively, confidently, and daily, because it is your business and you believe in it and in yourself so strongly that others trust you and your product or service, or organization.
Finance: Once again, If you need the ATM to find out what your bank balance is, don’t start a business, really. You need some basic money management skills, an understanding of bookkeeping, and a fundamental business language that would allow you to read articles and information about demographics and economic indicators, annual reports of public companies, and the stuff your retirement plan administrator sends you. And you should understand it, or understand what you have to do to understand it better. You need a go-to financial mentor whom you trust.
Technology: You must have Excel, Word, Powerpoint, Adobe, and at minimum a layman’s grasp of file management, storage, protection, security, duplication, and sharing. And the specifics that may apply to the industry you want to join. Above all, you must understand the concept of data base management, and the use of data mining, because your enterprise will have a market, and clients.
Self-management: You have to have the ability to keep your cool when all those around you are losing theirs. Self control and resilience go hand in hand–and you need both; the ability to soothe one’s self and stay on course is critical. If you give in to each of your many whims (entrepreneurs usually have more than their fair share of whims), or fall victim to the need for a stiff drink right about the time you have to talk to your banker, where are you going to end up? Your eyes have to be on your goals and on your bottom line at all times. When things go wrong you don’t get to be indulgent; you get to be engaged in fixing whatever went wrong.
Continuous learning: I really wanted to use the word “educatable” but it may not be an actual word; if it is one, it’s hard to read. Here’s the point: you have to be able to learn from everything and everybody, sort of a learning sponge. If you are going into business because you are so set in your ways that you are unemployable, you are in trouble already. The customer or client is going to be a tougher supervisor and harsher judge than any of those who may want to mold you into their workplace culture.
Planning: Please start with a business plan. I love the Portlandia segment on “she’s making jewelry now.” YOu don’t go out and buy the raw materials or the office supplies and just start doing something without understanding a simple business model and the revenue stream you think is the enterprise’s potential. What decisions will drive or prohibit your success? The plan leads you to a better understanding of your business’s runway. And will lead your investors (even if they are friends and family) to a better understanding of why they should trust you.
Here’s a last thought. If you are going to start an enterprise, before you do it write out a one page response to each of the following questions:
1. What are your personal reasons for founding this enterprise?
2. What are your most strongly held personal values?
3. How will you loved ones be affected by your decision?
4. What is your understanding of your personal resilience, and what is the toughest challenge you have so far faced in your life?
Once you have completed this exercise, you can put away your responses and you don’t have to look at them ever again if you don’t want to. But having done the exercise, you will be in a better position to gauge your strength and conviction, and to understand what your life is likely to be as an entrepreneur. Or, you will see the flip side–you will have thought of a better alternative to entrepreneurship, for you, and maybe just for now.