In 1994 I had more hair and less weight. I was struggling with a new baby (and two more on the way) and all the other stress of being a young husband and father. So naturally, I quit my job and started a business. Seems logical, right? Fast forward twenty years, the kids have made it to college with no arrests (so far), and the business is still going. It's been challenging, rewarding, stressful, fun, not-fun and not at all romantic. I've made many mistakes as a business owner, but luckily I've managed to change with the times. How so?
I now watch what I say. The world has changed a lot in just 20 years. I, like many of today's managers, have adapted to our people's different races, cultures, sexual orientations or even someone's physical appearance (you got a tattoo where?). I don't ask, I don't tell, I don't comment. Because I've learned that my comments are not only irrelevant but definitely not funny and are more than likely just plain ignorant. I've learned that getting the job done is the most important thing of all. So I keep my trap shut.
I have different communication skills. In 1994 there was the phone. Today's business owner must be prepared to write long emails, tweet in less than 140 characters, post on Facebook, update on LinkedIn, speak to groups of hopeful employees or prospective customers and be comfortable appearing on a Skype call, his company's YouTube channel or sitting down for an interview with the local TV station. It's a multi-media world and we must able to communicate our messages to our communities, wherever they are and whatever platform they choose to hear it. Whether or not we've got something relevant to say is besides the point.
I am on call 24/7 and totally mobile. There is no such thing as "out of office" anymore. I am expected to respond to emails, texts, tweets and calls within minutes of receiving. I get them on my phone, tablet and laptop and a wireless connection is everywhere. In 1994 I would literally make calls from outside payphones at gas stations (Remember? They had extra long cords). In 1994 I had my weekends mostly free. Those days are long gone.
I travel more. Even with all the social media and online communications customers still expect to see me. Geez...talk about demanding! So now I'm frequently jumping on planes, staying at a Marriott Courtyard (breakfast included!), eating dinner at a Bennigan's (the Irish Tower O'Rings is awesome...talk about progress!) and be home the next day. This is easier, cheaper and safer today than it was 20 years ago. So I find myself doing that more often.
I'm virtual. In 1994 we had an office with computers and desks and a phone system. Today we don't. We closed that down years ago and everyone works from their homes. All of our applications are managed by someone else. Our phone system is hosted. I pay monthly for all my services. My people are Skyping and chatting and using online collaboration tools to share files and data and track projects and invoice and submit expenses and just to get work done. None of this was possible back then. I'm not saying it's the greatest setup in the world or that Yahoo's Marissa Meyer would agree. But it's definitely kept my overhead low.
My work is coming from different places. In 1994 we had a telemarketer. Our leads came through calls and maybe a referral from a partner. Today we're getting our leads online. Retailers and restaurants are using services like Groupon and Foursquare to attract new customers. There was no mobile back then, let alone mobile ad spending. I'm attracting new clients from all over the world, and thanks to remote technologies we're actually able to do work for them too.
There is less paper. We're still cutting checks, but not as many we did in 1994. We take credit cards from many customers and eat the fee. We don't send paper invoices any more. I have a fax machine but it's more of a copier. We archive everything on DropBox, keep our customer files on our hosted customer relationship management system and will be moving to a mobile e-signature system sometime soon.
Yet there are more people. That's because things are more specialized than they were in 1994. I use people to help me with my social media, my marketing, my taxes, my bookkeeping, my payroll, my collections (now there's one thing that HASN'T changed, unfortunately) my C++ development, my C Sharp development, SQL integrations, website coding, reputation management, etc. etc. . Today I need people who know Microsoft networks, Google searches and Apple devices. I need people to help me evaluate new products, respond to customer requests and do training in various specialties.
And I rely on people from far flung places. Thanks to the Internet I can now get that help from qualified people no matter where they are. My social media assistant lives in Manhattan, my marketing support lives in Maryland, my phone system is hosted in California, my developers are in Ukraine (at least I hope they still are) and my entire company's database is hosted on a server God-knows-where.
I have more data. I've got years of customer interactions, gigabytes of scanned documents, analytics from Google, metrics from my marketing service, blogs about the economy, tweets about technology, alerts about the Phillies (lost again), photos from a client, updates from my high school friends (still drunk and stupid) and an email from LinkedIn every day telling me that a guy I once met at a conference in 2007 has recently changed jobs. Not sure what to do about all this data, but I'm sure someone will figure this out for me someday.
What about you? Are you still running your business the same way you did 20 years ago? I hope not. Because if you are, it won't be for very long.
A version of this column previously appeared on Entrepreneur.com.
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