When I started mentoring entrepreneurs and startups a few years ago, I anticipated that I would get mostly tough technical questions, but instead I more often hear things like "Where do I start?" I find that the basics are actually the hardest to answer, just like your parents found out when they first tried to fill you in on the "facts of life" a long time ago.
Most entrepreneurs are not born with the knowledge to run a successful business, so the right place to start is some business training in school, or some practical work experience in a business of your interest, prior to starting your own company. Jumping into a business area you don't know, because you see a chance for big money, is a surefire path to disaster.
I also found a wealth of books are available to address the basic facts of business life, like one I just finished by Bill McBean, aptly named The Facts of Business Life, based on his 40 years running large and small businesses. Bill does a great job of outlining the key facts as follows:
- If you don't lead, no one will follow. Good business leadership begins with defining both the direction and the destination of your company. That's where you start. From there you need to hone a whole set of skills to survive and prosper, including effective communication, leadership under pressure, and constant adaptation to change.
- If you don't control it, you don't own it. Control in business requires teamwork, which occurs in successful companies when team members, products, and processes work in unison. You have to define the key tasks that must be handled every day, and institute the proper controls to make sure they happen effectively and consistently.
- Protecting your company's assets should be your first priority. Assets include the obvious equipment, accounts receivable, and cash. Maybe more importantly, your long-term survivability is tied to intellectual property, like trade secrets and patents, as well as other less tangible items like your customer base, your experience, and your skills.
- Planning is about preparing for the future, not predicting it. Planning is not just an early-stage activity, but must be an ongoing activity, based on current accurate information as well as educated guesses on future changes. Planning should keep you focused on what's important, and prepare you for what lies ahead.
- If you don't market your business, you won't have one. Marketing and advertising are business realties. Word-of-mouth and viral are not long-term solutions. It doesn't matter how good your product or service is if most of your potential customers don't know about it. With 150,000 new websites per day, customers won't find you by accident.
- The marketplace is a war zone. Every company has competitors, or there is no market for what you offer. Successful entrepreneurs know they have to fight not only to win market share, but to retain it as well. Past success is no guarantee of future success, and the only way to remain successful is to maintain a fighting mentality.
- You don't just have to know the business you're in, you have to know business. Understanding one's industry is necessary but not sufficient to be successful. Many businesses fail simply because they ignore or do poorly one or more of the basic aspects of every business, like accounting, finance, personnel, or business law.
In business, as with people, there is a life cycle of birth, constant maturing, change, and rebirth. Entrepreneurs are ultimately responsible for guiding their business through this life cycle, rather than getting suck in any one stage. This means the entrepreneur has to focus correctly not only on what is important, but also on when it's important.
Before you start building a business, you really do need to know the basic concepts of leadership, management, and operations, and you need to know how these areas change as a business goes through its life cycle. These are the "street smarts" that many entrepreneurs try to acquire by fast talk and bravado. That's a painful and expensive way to learn any facts of life.
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