The Path to Entrepreneurship

The Path to Entrepreneurship and 10 Bits of Business Advice
By Lisa Akinseye

To frame my advice for new entrepreneurs, I will give you a brief background. My parents were self-employed, owning movie theatres, and later restaurants and bars. Entrepreneurship was all I’d ever known. By the time I was 8, I was expected to do basic janitorial duties between shows—emptying garbage, cleaning out the auditorium, stocking the concession stand and (ewww) cleaning out the ashtrays between the theatre seats—in days long before Indoor Clean Air Acts!

The greatest business lesson my father taught me was that I should never ask an employee to do
something that I wouldn’t do myself if no one else was there to do the task. If that meant cleaning toilets or a fryer grease trap, the work had to get done. I learned early on never to belittle anyone, that all work has value. Without employees, there wouldn’t be owners, and that not everyone is meant to be a leader—after all, it’s the followers that support the work we choose to do.

I too, am a serial entrepreneur. I established my first business in 1991. For many years, I enjoyed the predictability of guaranteed employment, and used self-employment to supplement my lifestyle. Initially, I worked in restaurant management, followed by human services work, assisting low-income individuals to becoming self-sufficient (the politically correct phrase for attempting to boost people off the welfare roles and into gainful self-employment).

I focused on aiding families to recognize skills and strengths, and helped them to morph their dreams into successful micro-enterprises. I’ll give you a tidbit of honest truth here: many of my clients had sketchy backgrounds—they’d lived in tough neighborhoods, many had done prison time or had battled addictions or the child protection system. In the end, those that were the most entrepreneurial had learned a lot from the school of hard knocks, and were street-wise and had the resiliency that it takes to become an entrepreneur. It was a matter of choosing to use the knowledge for good, rather than evil.

At one point, I combined the skills and knowledge I had gained in working with micro-enterprise development and small business financing, and started doing business-to-business (B2B) sales, working in the Minnesota state college system, selling customized advanced trainings to growing businesses. That led to becoming a Small Business Development Center Director under the SBA for five years and became a college dean of Entrepreneurship & Business. Then, after my adventures in higher education, I ended up at a job that made me realize I am at my happiest when I can help others grow their businesses—so Evolve is the glass slipper in my life—a perfect fit!

I admit I enjoy being innovative, taking chances, and guiding others to grow their businesses. I love being a cheerleader and champion when businesses succeed, and I am the first to want to help business owners re-frame their endeavors when it’s time to close, downsize, or shift priorities, knowing they’ve become resilient and will climb the entrepreneurial mountain again! I like making the collaborative connections and resource referrals.
I’m rambling about the twists and turns on the entrepreneurial path for a reason. I had someone contact me today, asking for 10 bits of business advice for college students considering entrepreneurship after education. I ended up with 11 points, so I’ll start with this before doing my list: If you’re in college, start dreaming today—it’s likely that you have little debt and few responsibilities in life to hold you back at a young age. You also have the spirit and tireless energy to work long hours and to experiment with different business models. The rest of my advice can apply to just about anyone, so here it goes, in no particular order:

1. Think of 20+ business ideas, and narrow it down to 2-3, based on other people's unbiased input (give yourself an A+ for originality, but if everyone rejects the idea, try to refine it before pitching it to others).
Accept feedback—the good and the bad! Even if others give you a thumbs up, recognize that your "brilliant" idea may not be a stunning success in the broader market. Only 1 in 5 businesses make it to the 2-year point in many industries before folding.

2. Do a lot of pre-market research—a Competitive Market Analysis (CMA). Find a mentor in the field; and think about attending trade shows, along with SCORE and SBA workshops.

3. Listen more and talk less—become a great observer—whether you’re pre-venture or mid-operation. Listen to your customers, other consumers, your family and friends, your vendors, your wholesalers and anyone else who has comments, ideas or suggestions. One of the greatest pitfalls small business owners can get into is to become mired in their own business practices, and falsely come to the conclusion that their product or service is superior to all others. Go online and look at the reviews of your business and similar businesses--what can be done differently? Is there a flaw in their product(s) that you could improve on, and take a different item to market? Always think about competitive advantage. Try to know your competition better than they know themselves! Aim for 100% customer satisfaction, and if they have something critical to say about your product, accept the feedback, "make it right", and invite the customer to praise you on your website, Yelp, or whatever, to show you are willing to correct a situation.

4. Figure out your finances—including personal credit. Learn how to establish business credit without having to provide a personal guarantee. The reality is, most businesses don't get off the ground through Kickstarter or GoFundMe type campaigns or even angel investors, for that matter. They're built through trials and tribulations, sweat equity and bootstrapping! If you think it’s going to cost “x” dollars to get the business going, have at least 1.5 times that amount before launching it. Trust me, you WILL need the contingency funds at some point in the first 6 months of operation.

5. Surround yourself with Subject Matter Experts (SME) on any elements that you lack strength in. In other words, find a good accountant and/or attorney to advise you on the best business structure for your kind of business. Find a good commercial insurance person for business liability coverage and any other coverage you may need for your type of business. Gone are the days when it was sufficient to start anything but a very small “side biz” as a sole proprietor with little legal protection!

6. Read trade mags, join Meetup and Facebook groups, do research through the James J. Hill library (business), gather data from the US Census American Community Survey and anywhere else where you can glean information.

7. Network. Whether you're in the check-out line at a retail store, walking your dog in the park, or
presenting your product/service to your local business banker or to 1000's at a trade show, make sure that your personality and belief in your business shine through. Do what it take to become known as a SME yourself—locally, or 1⁄2 way around the globe!

8. Don't go into business for the wrong reasons. One phase I've heard over and over is, "I want to work for myself/have my own business, because I don't want to answer to anyone else.” Wrong--when you have your own business, you don’t simply answer to a supervisor or manager. You answer to EVERYONE who touches your business. It would be wise to recognize early on that without THEIR business, YOU won't have a business!

9. Get in the mindset of working 24/7, but know you have to find creative ways to create your own work-life balance. If you think that you will have more free time than you did in a full-time job, you're dead wrong--plan on working twice as many hours, and often at 1/4 your previous rate of pay as you're trying to get the business off the ground. Know when and how to recognize when your dream has become stagnant, and is merely a "side hustle" or "hobby job", that can't be taken to scale. Conversely, recognize when it is ready to grow, and your personal fears of family commitments, financial instability, or timing has been holding you back. Either way, know WHEN and HOW to make the transition.

10. To succeed, take as little owner's draw as possible, and reinvest every dime in growing the business. Focus on customer service and branding first--everything from whether a human picks up the phone on every call, to having a quality logo and business card, and a customer-first attitude is critical to success.