By Linda Descano, CFA, President & CEO, Women & Co.
Over a year ago, I began my quest to find answers to my two most pressing entrepreneurial questions: What does it really take for an entrepreneur to be successful? And what does it take for a business owner to be the best of the best?
My conversations have taken me across the country: I've traveled from New York and Boston to Portland and San Diego, to Chicago and Dallas, to Miami and Washington, DC, and to Philadelphia, where I was invited to deliver a keynote address at the National Association of Women Business Owners 2012 Leadership Conference. I've spoken with business owners from different industries in all stages of business growth. And, I've spoken with a number of Women & Co. readers, maybe even you!
To commemorate the end of my "virtual listening tour," I have distilled my insights, wit, and wisdom into the following eight cardinal rules for enterprising entrepreneurs:
1. Work on your business, not just in your business. When you are surrounded by your own business day in and day out, it's important to take a step back and make sure you are handling all aspects of the business. Time and time again, I heard stories from entrepreneurs about how they were so focused on their product or service that they overlooked something important in their business' finances, in the fine print in legal documents, or in the marketplace. Their lesson learned? Make sure you understand the "business of being in business," which means to invest your time and energy on the management side of running a business. And, while you definitely should tap experts in accounting, finance, and the law, you need to educate yourself on those issues so that you can provide appropriate oversight. Paying attention to the little things is important. After all, your reputation and livelihood are at stake!
2. Keep your personal and business wallets separate. The old adage that business and pleasure don't mix also holds true when it comes to your business' finances. So, make sure you set up separate accounts for your business. It is better for your business and essential for financial clarity. And, when you set up your business account, make sure you handle your business finances with intent. That is, handle your finances in an organized ― not haphazard ― way. When it comes to money, keep your financial pockets deep enough to get you through the tough times. Have some in savings and a credit line available. You want to be well positioned financially at all times.
3. Form an advisory board. Most of the business owners that I have talked with have advisory boards -- and they view their board as essential to their success. I find that most business owners formed their board to complement their "weak areas" and provide an ongoing, structured means of soliciting feedback. Some, in fact, formed their advisory board before they had even printed their first business card! An advisory board can help validate your plans and provide you with new insight. And, you have a core group of people who truly know your business. It's like having your very own sales team. To be effective, make sure your advisory board is made up on people who have different disciplines and life experiences. You want a variety of backgrounds.
4. Network with intent. Networking is an important activity whether you are a business owner or corporate executive. However, it is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs. Successful business owners -- the best of the best -- view attending functions and joining business organizations as part of the job. Networking is more than just for forming connections -- it also helps you build awareness for your business. But, there's another, less talked about, business reason. Entrepreneurship has inevitable moments of loneliness and challenge. The stronger your personal and professional networks -- the easier it will be to deal with decisions and challenges.
5. Find your business Iowa. So what does Iowa have to do with your business? Indulge me and I will explain. In her book, Take the Lead, Betsy Myers shared how a relentless focus on "winning Iowa" by the 2008 Obama for President campaign brought clarity to an organization "under siege" and provided a strategic "filter" for deciding what to do as well as what not to do. You have to have focus to succeed. This is something the best of the best do very well. Think about it. Every day, at work and at home, we weigh competing demands and opportunities. It's not only difficult but can be overwhelming at times. Sound familiar? Try having a focusing question to create clarity. For the Obama campaign, it was "Will this help us win Iowa?" Then, it becomes easier to make trade-offs. Keep distractions at bay. Keep your eye on the ball. Find your Iowa.
6. Remember that not all money is created equal. This advice came from business veterans as well as people running early stage start-ups. You need to know when and how to raise capital, (both equity and debt), and how to wisely put your money to work on things that adds value. You should be spending as much time researching what investors and lenders want as you spend understanding what your customers want. Understand the approach that angel investors take versus mezzanine debt investors. The more you know, the better positioned you will be to tap the capital markets and make the appropriate asks. Money is a tool. Make sure you understand how to use it.
7. Plan, plan, and then plan some more. Most business owners spend a lot of time planning before they take the plunge and start a business. That makes sense. But, the need to plan doesn't stop when you business is up and running. You need to still need to plan for business cycles, life events, retirement, and more.
8. Evolve and adapt to thrive! The reality is that to survive, to thrive, and to be the best of the best, you need to keep moving and changing. In my travels, I have found that the best of the best are always doing research and speaking to customers, partners, and more. They leverage all types of resources to stay inspired and bring a fresh perspective to their work. A great business starts with a solid business plan and a clear picture of what you bring to the market and what problem you are solving for your client or customer. Then, a great business keeps evolving and adapting.
Women & Co., a service of Citi, is the go-to personal finance source for women. By providing financial content, commentary and community, Women & Co.'s mission is to get women thinking and talking about personal finance. Founded in 2000, Women & Co. is one of the longest running personal finance websites dedicated to helping women strengthen their financial futures.