As I’ve told a number of people before, I have had two distinct careers. I spent the first ten years of my career in the technical field, working primarily with electronic control systems. It was fun stuff. Every job was like a puzzle. But something was missing; I ultimately decided that I wanted to spend more of my time working with people rather than machines. That said, the programmer in me never completely died. I learned to think in terms of systems and process steps, which ultimately created the framework for my consulting practice.
In 2007, my career took a sharp turn. At the time, I was working as a field service technician for a manufacturer of high-speed newspaper inserting equipment. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do next, but my first taste of coaching and personal development came in the form of a weekend seminar where I got a glimpse of a different future. I’ll never forget that Sunday morning when I woke up and decided I was going to start my own business. The next day, I left my notice and my job, and three months later, I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from Pennsylvania, where I had grown up. Uncertain of what business ownership was going to look like, I did the only thing I could think to do: I went out and met as many people as I could.
I’m going to be blunt here: things did not go well. I ran out of cash and hit rock bottom financially. Needless to say, I do not recommend quitting your job without a plan, unless you have a solid track record starting businesses and you already have a clear idea of how to replace your job income.
While I don’t recommend doing what I did, I was fortunate enough to learn a lot in the process of fumbling my way through starting a business. I worked with a wide variety of companies and industries, and in the process, I became more and more clear about my personal competitive advantage. More importantly, I learned some important lessons about the realities of entrepreneurship that I hope will benefit my clients over the years to come. I’m going to list these lessons in prioritized order.
1. Self-development is not a luxury.
Changing patterns of thinking is harder and more complex than I realized 15 years ago, but in many ways, the challenge gets a lot easier when you learn to recognize its true nature. Most thinking occurs unconsciously; which means that when we pledge to change our behavior, we will forget our promise soon after. We all need to be reminded of our commitments as often as possible, because otherwise, we will revert to our old familiar patterns despite the best of intentions. It’s human nature. That’s why we all need external accountability and visual symbols in our field of view that we will see and touch often. I use alarms on my phone to remind myself of the things I need to do each day, an app to remind me to drink water, and a host of other automated systems to bug me about the things I will forget. I moved the coffee kettle down to the kitchen (out of my office) to remind myself that I don’t want to drink coffee nonstop all day. If we want to change patterns of thinking, habit change is absolutely essential.
2. The value of an opportunity is the relationship and the education.
Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, advocates “working to learn” instead of working for money. I read that book in 2002, and at the time I didn’t fully grasp what Kiyosaki meant. He tells the story of how he worked full-time as a copying machine salesman for Xerox before starting his real estate investing business, emphasizing the value of learning how to sell. I have come to appreciate that there are a lot of opportunities that don’t necessarily pay top dollar right out of the gate, but that’s not always a bad thing if you can get paid to learn a new skill, and more importantly, cultivate a new business relationship. You never know what doors might open down the road. I allowed myself to be short-sighted in the earlier years, turning away opportunities that might have been great, because I was too narrowly focused on immediate cash payment and didn’t see the big picture.
3. Cash flow comes first; following your dream comes second.
I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t follow up the preceding bullet point by emphasizing that, in all of the excitement, it’s important not to lose sight of the bottom line. Taking on projects for the sake of building relationships and education is fine, as long as there is revenue coming in to keep the lights on. That’s why it’s important not to quit your day job until you know how to make money from self-employment. If you have never been self-employed before, recognize now that you will have a whole new set of skills to learn. When there’s no boss to force you to clock in every day, it can be easy to justify a lot of unproductive activity. Mastery of time management and generating cash flow requires practice. You aren’t going to do it perfectly the first month. So make sure that you have enough financial cushion, and if you feel overwhelmed or don’t know what to do, ask for help.
4. Practice asking for what you need and offering to help when you can.
Business is a series of negotiations. We are always making asks and offers, whether money is involved or not. Relationships are not “quid pro quo” and favors do not flow equally in both directions with perfect symmetry. Sometimes, we need to be willing to ask someone to do something for us, knowing that we cannot repay the favor. Other times, extending resources to others without expectation of recompense is the right thing to do. Giving and receiving are not black-and-white. Sometimes, for example, it is necessary to charge a small amount of money for a service, at a deeply discounted price. It is not wise to overextend ourselves for the sake of helping others, nor to ask others to overextend themselves for our sake. Like any other practice, we only improve at the skill of asking for what we need through trial and error.
You can’t change your thinking by reading books, listening to tapes (I’m dating myself a bit; I remember when they used to literally be cassette tapes), and going to weekend seminars. All of these things are helpful, but only within their proper context. Real self-development happens on the job, at the dinner table, at the bus stop, and in all of the countless day-to-day moments where life comes at us with choices. Studying is only useful to the extent that we apply what we study. But we all need to read and study regularly. I have observed that I feel the strongest resistance to learning the very subjects I most need to learn.
I decided to move into coaching, in a nutshell, because everything I’ve laid out here is easier said than done. I’ve only scratched the surface in this short blog post, and there are many more layers to the onion. Regardless of how you go about building your dream, just recognize that the sooner you ask for help, the more quickly you will make progress. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to explore the possibility of working with me.