The Dirty (Half) Dozen – Six Lessons Learned as an Entrepreneur After One Year

On August 1, 2016, Arpeggio Advisors turned 1 year old!  It’s been quite a ride – going from advisor to entrepreneur.   From a stable job to the ultimate in insecurity.  My favorite way of describing entrepreneurship is that it’s a combination of exhilaration and terror.  One of the things that is frequently taught about entrepreneurship is to periodically pause and reflect on your accomplishments.  It keeps you motivated and reminds you that you have a track record of being capable of doing good things, especially when times are tough.  I am taking this opportunity to do my own reflecting, and contemplate the lessons I have learned, and share them with you. Maybe you’ll find them useful.  

Most of you know that I have been around and involved in entrepreneurship for years – starting in places like Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and then Atlanta, where it was almost as hard to raise capital.  I have been a teacher, coach, and mentor on entrepreneurship in Atlanta for over a decade.  I have dispensed advice in the classroom, at Office Hours, online, and almost anyplace where people would listen and not throw me out.  Now, I am in a position where I’m going find out if any of the entrepreneurship theory works in real life, and if I can actually execute on my own advice.  Here are my most important 6 lessons of taking the entrepreneurial plunge.

Lesson #1 – An MBA is nearly worthless in terms of teaching you how to successfully start and run a small company.  MBA’s are great at helping you run the Home Depots, Coca-Cola’s and Deltas of the world.  They are great at advising such companies on how they might be run better.  Most MBA programs don’t teach you how to start a company.  They don’t teach you how to incorporate (or even decide what kind of corporation to choose), how to optimize your company for tax purposes, or, especially, how to sell.  That’s not to say an MBA is not valuable.  It is.  The Fortune 500 needs you!

Lesson #2 – Technology is Life.  Technology is the great equalizer (unless  you’re Amish – then it’s the Devil).  With technology, you can make your startup look and act like a big company.  You can access tremendous amounts of information.  Most importantly, you make the most out of the limited time you have in a day.  I have two offices – one at home and one at Atlanta Tech Village.  I spent the extra money to replicate my technology in both offices, so I never have to worry about wasting time traveling back and forth between offices to use a particular printer, or computer.  If I were to get to Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead and discover I’d have to go back to my house to get the computer I’d forgotten, I’d gouge my eyes out.  For an extra $1,500 or so, I made sure I don’t have to worry about lugging computers back and forth, or that if I forget to bring it one day, I burn an hour of travel time going to get it.  My ROI on office duplication has been tremendous.  In addition, every room in my home has access to at least one computer.  No matter where I am in the house, if I need a computer, it is close at hand.  I can’t tell you how much work I get done at the margins just because I can grab a computer and fill 5-15 minutes of otherwise idle time with work, or I don’t have to contemplate the additional hassle of going to another floor to get a computer to work on.  There is always something for me to work on.  I’ve spent a few thousand dollars for that capability, but it’s easily paid for itself.  Plus, every single work file I have is in the cloud.  Accessible from anywhere.  If you’re not on the cloud, through OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or some other platform, you need to be.  Finally, I converted most of my home to a Mac platform. There were times when I’d lose a whole day troubleshooting some silly Windows issue.  I’m at the point now where I will shoot myself in the foot rather than fix someone else’s computer. Those days are gone.  It’s worth the extra expense to know that our stuff just works – and in a worst case scenario, if it doesn’t – I can bring the mac to a Genius Bar and get the problem fixed.

Lesson #3 – The most important skill in entrepreneurship is time management.  All of the above-mentioned technology tactics are designed to save time.  As an entrepreneur, it is easy to find reasons to work all the time (and I do), but you still won’t have enough time to do everything you want.  You need to make conscious choices about how you spend your time.  I choose to spend time with my family just now rather that writing this white paper.  I choose not to spend this time with my family because it’s important that I invest my time in my business, or satisfying a client.  I choose to go on vacation and then catch up on work later, and so forth.  Take it from Luke Skywalker – the most important word on your vocabulary should become “no”.  Don’t tell my 5 year old Max that!

Lesson #4 – An entrepreneurial venture is an order of magnitude harder if your family isn’t behind you.  I am fortunate to have wife (and kids) who want me to be an entrepreneur – that don’t mind the roller coaster ride.  My wife sees the income potential of my own venture and that I’m much happier calling my own shots than following someone else’s.  She wanted me to go out on my own.  She demanded it.  Not all spouses want that – they married into a situation that promised economic stability (and be under no illusions – marriage is as much an economic construct as it is a social and spiritual one), and they will feel (perhaps rightly) like they got the bait and switch when that goes away.  If your spouse isn’t on board, and you do the entrepreneurial thing, expect lots of fights, lots of sleeping on the couch, lots of arguments over money – and it will always be YOUR fault.  If you hadn’t quit your job, your family could take that vacation.  You could buy that 70″ TV.  You wouldn’t be worried about your mortgage.  And when things get tough, and you question yourself, suggestion #1 is always going to be, “why don’t you just chuck it and get a job?”  When I have moments of doubt, Cordelia says, “I have complete faith in you.  Your track record says you don’t know how to fail, but even if you do, we are all behind you 100%.”  That. Is. Gold.

I’ll share with you an anecdote that is one of my favorites.  Last December, I was 5 months into my own venture and working from my home office on a Thursday afternoon.  Alex (my then 13-year old gorilla-sized son) comes into my office and invites me to throw around the football, and I oblige.  We toss the ball around a few minutes and then he catches it, looks at me and says, “Dad – if you were still in a job, we couldn’t be doing this right now.”  This is a typical, self-absorbed teenager saying this!  I would have cried like a baby except I knew he would have ripped me for the next 20 years over it.  That is family support, and it also shows how much my family realized that I wasn’t happy working for someone else.  They got it.  I tried to shield them from my unhappiness, and because the know me so well and love me so much, they saw right through it.  That is how important family support is to the entrepreneur.

Lesson #5 – Success is not an individual sport.   In addition to my family, the success (well, maybe avoidance of catastrophic failure) I have enjoyed on this journey to date is the product of many, many people who are emotionally invested in that success.  If I tried to thank everyone individually here, I would leave someone out, and that’s not worth the risk.  Suffice to say there are a LOT of role models, mentors, and even folks that have dealt me setback that resulted in my being a more successful entrepreneur than I otherwise would have been.  My advice here is to thank those people in your life, and double down – squeeze every bit of wisdom and experience that you can out of those people in your life.

Lesson #6 – Education and information are all around you.  If an MBA is nearly worthless in terms of training you how to run a startup, there is a ton of information out there for free that I find helpful from a technical and motivational standpoint.  Blogs and podcasts have come a long way in the last 10 years, and they are no longer the realm of Dungeons & Dragons players.  Here are my favorites:

Blogs:

Divorce Discourse by Lee Rosen

Charlie Paparelli’s untitled blog

David Cummings on Startups

Podcasts

Thriveal Podcasts

EO Fire Podcast

High-Income Business Writing

YouPreneur Podcast

Success through Referrals

Breaking Down Your Business

Build Your Tribe

Mac Power Users

Shrimp Tank Podcast

These shows are very well done and, when I find myself feeling like I’m on an island, these shows have often been my companion on walks or late at night working in my office.  Maybe you’ll like these or find others – but I find these shows to be part of my extended entrepreneurial family.

This is a journey that is only just beginning.  Do I know all the answers and secrets to entrepreneurship?  No way.  In fact, in my next blog, I’ll talk about the mistakes I have made, but have lived to tell the tale…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Mike,

    I’ve finally gotten a few minutes to respond to last week’s article where I can disagree with one of your lessons learned. The fact that you made it lesson number #1 only makes it even more juicy.

    II will agree that if you are failing to use your MBA skills no matter what stage your business is in, then you have definitely wasted your money on your MBA. It’s not that the MBA was worthless, it’s that you’re just not using it. Pre-revenue? Do you have a business plan? Where did you learn to do the market analysis that led you to the conclusion your prospective business will have a fighting chance? Did you make a financial projection?

    OK, so now it’s day one. Where did you learn the motivation to keep working (that’s not only learned at B-school, but you won’t graduate without it)? You got a customer, yay! Do you intend to work with that one customer and only that one customer for the rest of your career? Oh, you intend to grow? Where did you learn the skills to manage growth? The issues of managing growth and other business issues all rely on the same skills. Having worked at the smallest startups and been responsible for the financial results of multi-billion dollar organizations I can tell you from successful experience that the fundamentals of the business issues I faced are no different at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Your stock price or company valuation does not increase unless your return exceeds your hurdle regardless of size.

    Now you’re up and running, terrific! Do you have to make decisions and choices? Of course you do. Where did you learn the elements and trade-offs of a disciplined decision process? These skills are even more important at a small business level because more of your decisions are existential and you must get them right or your business will cease to exist (sideways nod to today’s blog, but a subject for another day).

    My experience tells me the differences between a large and small business is how many zeroes. The reason imho most business fail is because they are not started by MBAs who have the right skills.

    The current MBA programs do spend a lot of time and coursework on entrepreneurialism, much more than I did 35 years ago. But we still did some. We studied why small firms plateau, the failings of entrepreneurs and why they can’t grow.

    Can this be done without an MBA? Sure, a few strong people do, but the MBA sure helps!

    I could go on and on, at least three beers worth, but dinner calls.

    Looking forward to your counters…..

    • Hi Jay,

      I suppose a couple of caveats are in order. First, my MBA was completed in 1997, and at what was then a top 20 school (Georgetown, which now bounces between #25 and #35). The Internet was in its infancy and home Internet was still dial-up. My classes didn’t cover online marketing. For example, there was no such thing as a blog then (or it used to be called a weblog). Building a website took hardcore software engineering skills. There was nothing about having to manage remote workers and virtual teams, because they didn’t exist yet either. 20 years on, I don’t know how much of this material the MBA *trains* people to execute. I’m sure all MBA programs expose their students to this material, but an MBA is a vocational degree and should/must train people to do these things on the ground.

      In terms of “timeless” skills, MBA’s (of my vintage) didn’t teach you anything about selecting a corporate form, buy-sell agreements, corporate taxation, how to build a professional network, how to sell, how to close deals.

      That having been said, my MBA was very useful in giving me the skills that I actually sell. MBAs are very good at training in corporate finance (though more is needed to become competent in business valuation). My organizational behavior training remains useful today, if not more so. One thing I’m desperate to use, but haven’t figured out was my operational management class, which was about using linear equations for optimization, but I haven’t been able to as yet.

      Maybe the answer is that I’m just a curmudgeon, and my blog post is a long-winded way of shrieking “Get of my lawn!”

      — mike

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