I started my first business, cutting grass, at 17 years old with my future wife; no money, my dad’s lawn mower and transporting it around in the trunk of my mom’s car. By the time I sold it at 19 years old, I had a staff of 13 and lots of equipment.
My next business I started at 24 years old with next to no money. Fast-forward 20 years when I sold it, it had become the largest on-demand digital book printing facility in Canada.
In that time, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced every facet of business. From growing a 2 person start up to a very large business with a staff of over 100 people. To re-inventing my company twice and at the worst having to lay off half of my staff in less than 12 months for survival before turning it around.
Two years ago I launched Picaboo Yearbooks, which started with just two of us and is now a staff and sales force of over 100 people.
I’ve been fortunate to experience such diverse situations. It’s been an incredible journey both professionally and personally.
My post today is about “If I Knew Then, What I Know Now. My 5 Business Tips”
These 5 tips may surprise you. They have nothing to do with tactics on how to manage and grow your business.
They are guiding principals. I like to think of them as a compass that will help you on your journey as you grow your business and over come challenges you face along the way.
These 5 tips have everything to do with helping you grow personally and enjoying the journey and adventure you began when you started your business.
I’ve found that these lessons learned always gave me the right perspective and confidence to succeed in business, relationships and non-business interests and hobbies.
Here are 5 lessons I wish I knew, and to my knowledge they do not teach at business school.
And here are those 5 lessons I wish I knew …
· Education is Over-rated
· Be Emotional
· Never Make a Mistake
· Put Your Staff and Customers Second
· Fake it till you make it
Education is Over-rated.
Starting a business is a big decision and can be intimidating. There is so much to know and there are infinite situations you could be faced with. Here’s a secret; even those who studied years and perhaps even have their M.B.A’s are just as scared as anyone when they start a business. There is no guarantee no matter how smart you are that you will succeed. In fact having a formal education can be a negative because can set boundaries on one’s thinking that may not exist.
In my opinion the attributes you need to grow your business is “an unrelenting desire and passion to succeed” and good old-fashioned “common sense” and “confidence in yourself”. Business schools can’t teach that, they only teach principals and tactics.
For example, I have no formal business training. I went to an exclusive boys high school, one where everyone was expected to go on to College or University. I didn’t. My friends at the time not only though I was foolish and even made fun of me, in fact, my grade twelve yearbook picture included the text “Goal - off to build Cut Rite Lawns Empire, Fate – Cutting grass for the City”.
Undeterred I went right into the workforce working 5 years for someone before starting my own business. In that time I learned 4 critical and timeless principals that I use to this day daily. They were how to communicate, collaborate, critically think and be creative.
My effectiveness was measured in “real world” results, not the grading of a paper.
Fast forward to my 10-year High School Reunion. I was reluctant to go, even though I was relatively successful running my own business by this point.
The reason was I painfully remembered the pot shots and ribbing I took from my classmates about not following the path of post secondary education.
I ended up going. I was shocked at the conversations I had with my old classmates. More than a few said that over the years they had thought about me and my decision to go directly into the workforce and wished they had done the same. They explained those following four years seemed like just an extension of high school and once they entered the workforce they realized they had a lot to learn. They felt my decision gave me a career jump-start.
Fast forward to today. I launched Picaboo Yearbooks. I’m the President. I work with some of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with, highly educated, many from Ivy League colleges.
Yet here I am leading the company and I only have a high school education and I make no apologizes for it. In fact, in some way my journey is a bit intimidating to some. They ask how someone with no formal business education could make it to the highest level of business, especially in this day and age.
I like to joke with them that I bypassed college ball and when right into the NBA.
My point is that none of you should be intimidated that you don’t have the formal skill sets to succeed in your business. It’s not necessary. What is necessary is again, “an unrelenting desire and passion to succeed” and good old fashioned “common sense” and “confidence in yourself”.
Everything else you can learn.
People think business is no place for personal feelings; that you need to take personal feelings out of business decision making.
Business is much more than financial success, that’s just one measurement. It’s an important one for survival, but there even a greater benefit you can achieve than making lots of money.
These benefits can also be achieved even in the unfortunate event that your business fails.
To me it’s about personal growth and becoming a better person day after day, year after year, decade after decade.
How do you grow personally through business? You monitor your internal feelings and reflect on them.
For example, we have all been in circumstances where we are communicating with someone or face a challenge and become emotionally distraught, or perhaps angry. Sometimes we can go into the red zone internally and depending on your personality, on one extreme you may hold it in, on the other extreme you may explode.
You need to look forward to these situations. These are the situations that if you’re open to it will make you grow as a person and the more you grow as a person the more you will be able to handle day to day business challenges you face.
For example, when I got into business I thought I knew it all. I lacked patience. As a young person I’d get frustrated with people that didn’t get it, or disagreed. As boss I’d often be a bull in a China shop and push forward.
The same could happen when I was dealing with customers. There could be situations where there were differences of opinions. I’d feel my emotions starting to bubble up.
During these moments that caused emotional bubbling it would change my state of mind. I would become negative, perform lots of self-justification talk and have negative conversation with my wife about my day. These types of emotions would at times wear me down and I’d question myself at times if running my own business was worth the hassle?
I can’t remember when or how I had this epiphany one day, but fully recognized that the emotions I was feeling were a reflection of my issues, not the other persons.
When put in those types of circumstances that would cause emotional feelings I’d start to ask myself “what is YOUR problem? As opposed to “what is THEIR problem?”
This was a huge turning point in my personal growth development.
My perspective on these situations totally changed. I started to welcome these types of situations as they would give me things that I need to address internally”. My conversations with my wife and confidants would be primarily focused on introspective reflection.
Each time these emotionally charged circumstances presented themselves I’d focus on resolving the reasons I was having those feelings.
I started becoming a better person.
More patient, more open to ideas, more non-judgmental, more focused on tasks and goals than personalities. I started to become more peaceful inside and I’d like to think wise.
Of course we are not perfect and never will be. We are a constant work in process and I still have emotional feelings given circumstances, albeit less than I used to and I still look forward to understanding why I do and addressing them.
An unexpected upside is identifying and addressing the root cause of these emotions have carried over to my personal life. I’d like to think I’m a better father, son, husband, brother and friend than I otherwise would have been.
You can’t always control the market and whether on not you succeed or fail. But you can grow personally from your business experiences.
If given the choice, as strange as this may sound, if given the choice between failing in business and personal growth, I’d prefer to fail in business. Growing as a person is much more fulfilling and the best part is it is totally in your control.
Never Make a Mistake
It’s so important to stay positive and look at every circumstance you face positively.
It’s any easy thing to do when things are going well. It’s when things don’t go well that it’s most difficult.
As business owners our first reaction is to immediately look to the negative and determine “What in the decision making went wrong?” and it definitely makes sense to do this.
The key is not to dwell what went wrong as a mistake. Instead you need to look at it as a “learning opportunity”. I don’t even like using the word mistake.
Now I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes; we do. If we are given clear instructions from a customer, boss or whoever and we don’t follow them that could be deemed a mistake.
Or if we had our “learning opportunity” and have the exact same “learning opportunity” again, than that could be defined as a mistake because you’ve already gained the knowledge to know better the second time around.
The key principal is to stay positive. Even in situations or a task that you made a mistake, I’m sure you make many positive decisions or had many positive experiences. These are the items you need to dwell on.
For example, everything in business strategy is an educated guess. I don’t care who you are, your experience, your background or knowledge, business strategy is theory until it’s proven.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had “learning opportunities” when determining strategy. More often than not my initial strategy is not correct. However, as I go down the path I adjust my path based on my learning. I don’t deem these learning’s as mistakes, that’s a “glass is half empty approach”. It’s the kind of philosophy that creates ulcers.
Eventually, hopefully, you will determine an effective strategy and when you do, you need to celebrate the journey. Without a doubt there will be many more positives than negatives if you look for them.
I like to use the example of a rock climber. They have a goal “to get to the top of the cliff”. They don’t start knowing exactly how they are going to do it. They are constantly making mid-course adjustments along the way. When they get to the top there’s no doubt an overwhelming sense of euphoria and accomplishment. They focus on the success and will reflect back on some of the things they learnt along the way. Even celebrating those learning’s because they over came.
Now imagine if they dealt with it in the opposite fashion. Where every move they made that didn’t work and caused them to readjust the called a mistake and beat up on themselves? How horrible of an experience would that be. I’m sure by the time they got to the top they would be more relieved it’s over rather than celebrating the fact that they made it to the top.
In short, think of yourself as a businessperson rock climber. Stay positive and focus on enjoying the learning opportunities that you learnt along the way.
Put Your Staff and Customers Second
It’s so easy to start a business and in short order it becomes all-consuming with the pressure to succeed.
Let’s face it - your business is a reflection of yourself. It’s also very exciting when you start a business. Everything is new. You’ve been thinking about it for some time and it’s somewhat romantic.
You dream about how successful you will be, things you can do with the money you make, perhaps travel, or purchase those things you always wanted or save for retirement and the list goes on and on.
It is oh so easy to get caught into the work-aholic trap. It’s most likely going to happen if you have a high desire and passion to succeed.
Typically we all start our business with no or very few customers. There is tremendous pressure to get sales in the door and when you do get a customer you don’t want to let them down. It’s not uncommon that we under estimate how much time will be involved and put pressure on ourselves to meet the tight deadlines causing you to work as many hours in the day that are required with complete focus.
Or you start becoming successful and take on more work than you can handle and there are only so many hours in the day.
If you’re fortunate to be in a situation where you are in high demand you need to decide your next step and whether you main the current size or grow it with employees.
If you have employees one of the first learning opportunities one faces is following the belief that you must work harder than your employees and lead by example.
You also feel that this is your baby and no one can do as good as a job as you. It’s very easy to micro manage, especially if you’ve never started a business or managed people before.
I’ve seen many a business owner get caught into these flawed philosophies of having to work harder than their staff or that no one can do the job as good at them. I’ve been caught in it myself. It sounds good on paper but it’s really a slippery slope towards burnout and failure.
The reality is to succeed you need to maintain perspective. There will always be those times that you have to put in the extra hours that might include all nighters, those are usually caused from awesome “learning opportunities”, but it’s not sustainable.
I realize this is easier said than done.
To do it, it takes COURAGE.
Courage to say no. Courage to stay back. Courage to put yourself first. It’s not easy.
I could go into many strategies on how to do this and there is no silver bullet. Each of us is different with circumstances that may require unique strategies.
The key is putting limits on yourself. Early in my career I realized that the crazy hours I was putting in wasn’t a positive, it was a negative. I would look at others that were successful and saw them working 8 hours and taking an hour for lunch and rarely working weekends.
Here I was getting to work at 6 am and working until 7 pm or later and taking work home. Then I’d go in for some hours on the weekend to catch up with paperwork. I did this for years.
Eventually one day I had an epiphany. I realized I was a lousy businessperson and manager. I couldn’t get my work done like others in regular working hours. I wasn’t working smart, I was working hard. Albeit I was succeeding it was a great personal expense. I was burnt out often and more often than now had a poor perspective.
Eventually it went from the romance and fun of owning a business to drudgery and I felt like a rat on a wheel. I was jealous of my employees that went home after a workday and spent time doing what they enjoyed and spending time with family and friends evenings and weekends.
They did look at me as an example, but it wasn’t an example of admiration, it was an example of what they don’t want to do.
What I’ve found over the years is employees want to work for successful people, both personally and professionally. You know you are a great boss if your staff is jealous of your lifestyle.
The example you want to set is showing them that you can leave early, that you can take your family on vacation, essentially that you have it all. Who among us doesn’t want to work for a successful person? The upside is those successful bosses do so by empowering their employees to do the job, which gives the employee great job satisfaction when someone is not looing over their shoulder.
I can tell you that this too is a constant struggle to not burn ones self out. If your lucky and your business is fun, it’s very easy to burn yourself out as well.
In my circumstance I do the following:
· Try to work 8 hours a day and no more than 10.
· Try to not work weekends and only 3 hours on the weekend if I have to.
· I work only my fingers. My staff laughs at me because all I do is point, the joke is that if I break my finger I’ll have to go on work mans compensation. I don’t dirty my hands. I don’t roll up the sleeves and pitch in. I lead. I don’t ask them to do my job setting strategy and dealing with constant business challenges and problems, so they shouldn’t expect me to do their job.
· I have a lock box for my Laptop and Cell Phones. I put them into it after 8 pm and only my wife knows the combination. I often have wait for her to wake up before I can start work. It was my idea.
· I have a life and interests outside of work, in my case it’s Ironman Triathlons, and also make sure I find ways to be engaged with my family. Such as travel, or going to movies, or out for dinner.
· I exercise & Eat Healthy Regularly.
· I enjoy a cocktail or treat myself when I need to.
Fake it till you make it
Before anyone starts a business they visualize what it will be like. Although there is always fear, most of the feelings and thoughts that push you over the edge are positive.
You imagine what it will be like. You imagine things like how fun and rewarding it will be to be your own boss. You imagine how great it will be pursuing something you love, something you are passionate about. You imagine how great it will be making more money and all the things you are going to do with it.
Essentially before you even got started you visualized your future.
Then you get started and starting a business is scary. There are lots of unknowns. There are a lot of things you need to learn. You have very few or no customers.
All of a sudden you go from this idyllic situation of what you want to do in your business in your mind to the reality that can be scary.
Customers and employees can sense fear or lack of confidence.
Early in my career I lost many a sale because I was nervous about whether we could deliver or I spoke too much and talked myself out of a sale. Customers intuitively sensed my lack of confidence or panic.
Then I learned a lesson from one of my customers. A wise older gentleman with one of the most successful magazine publishing businesses in the United States. He lived in a 24 room apartment on Fifth Avenue, a Summer house in the Hamptons, had 2 Butlers and a Chauffer that would drive him the 4 blocks to work in one of his two Rolls Royce’s.
I was 27 years old and he was in his early 70’s. For some reason he liked me and took me under his wing.
One day I came to visit and he took me to lunch at his private table at the famed 21 club in NYC.
During lunch he told me his story. He was born very poor and only had a 6thgrade education. When he decided to start his publishing business he had very little money, he was boot strapping it.
But he told me the day he opened his doors he convinced himself he was the most successful publisher in NYC. He didn’t even have a customer and he was completely and utterly convinced he was the most successful with all his heart.
In every dealing he had he approached it as he would if he was the most successful publisher in NYC. He exuded confidence and success.
It didn’t stop at just exuding confidence in his business dealing; it included everything.
Even though he had very limited resources, he would travel and stay at the best hotels. The type of hotels that the most successful publisher in NYC would stay. He would set up customer lunches at the most expensive restuarants. He wore custom tailored suits. He bought expensive jewelry.
To put it simply, he appeared to be the most successful publisher in NYC and the reality was he was near broke.
Yet he told me that when you believe something with all your heart and you live in that world as if it is real, it will eventually become real and in his case it did.
In a relatively short period of time he arguably became one of the most success publishers in NYC.
I figured if a man with a grade 6 education, from a dirt-poor family and starting a business with very little money proved this philosophy worked for him, could it work for me?
At that point, I was a very small business and struggling with about a staff of 10 employees. Making payroll was often a challenge.
I hadn’t yet learned the 5 lessons I’m sharing with you today.
So I committed myself to trying it. What did I have to lose?
For it to work he told me I had to be “all in”. There was no halfway or it wouldn’t work.
Taking his advice I “brainwashed” myself to become one of the most successful graphic arts business of our kind in North America.
In only 7 years after that decision my company was recognized as one of the Top 100 graphic arts facilities of it’s type with near 100 employees and extremely profitable.
How’d I do it? I had convinced myself my vision of success was a reality. I exuded confidence with customers. I bought my first ever $1000 custom tailored suit. I started flying business class. I started staying at better hotels. I rented full size cars.
I also ran my company as I would if I was one of the most successful graphic arts company. I increased employee benefits. I started paying my staff slightly more than the industry norm. I supported employee social initiatives and I raised the bar on quality and convinced my staff that working at my company they had reached the pinnacle of their careers. They had made the big leagues. I did that by bringing in printing related work for prestigious companies across North America.
I was located in the small and very cold city of Winnipeg and I convinced companies from across the U.S. like Disney, Pixar, Random House, Scholastic, Aspen Magazine, Honda, AT&T, HP and many other companies to send their high quality work 1000’s of miles to a different country.
The advice of “Fake it until you make it” worked. Still does. Whether you want to be a large business or just run a successful small one.
It just requires you to believe in yourself. To believe that what you promise you will deliver on. To exude the confidence that people WANT to deal with you because they feel something special.
It’s all about believing in yourself, your plan and your vision.
So there they are, the 5 business lessons I wish I knew then, that I know now.
Without question these 5 are cornerstones to my success.
As a fellow entrepreneur I want to congratulate all those who decided to take the plunge and start your own business. It takes a great deal of courage and commitment to do so and I hope some or all of my lessons “learned the hard way” may help you in your business and personal journey.