It all started for me when I was 28 years old and hated who I was working for at a job I was getting paid $50,000 a year doing. I had a brand new son at home, a half-finished home remodel and was the sole provider for my pregnant wife and our son — yes, the worst possible time to start a business. But I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have anyone telling me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, so I did.
I had no education, no business training, and no money. None of the advantages that so many people will tell say is needed to achieve success in life. That was more than twenty years ago, and if I had to go through it again? If I had to live through the stress, the decade of 18 hour days, never having any money, without the smallest clue of what I was doing? I would do it again in a heartbeat!
It has been simultaneously the most challenging, and the most rewarding a thing I have ever done short of raising my family. The risks were massive, with me putting in everything I had, including 100% equity loans on my house three times in the first eight years to keep the business afloat. But the risk has come with its own rewards. It has changed my life, and the lives of my family, in a way that will impact future generations. Coming from a poor background, with eight brothers and sisters and a family legacy of being poverty, I was destined to a life of digging holes and doing dishes.
But I wanted more out of life but just didn’t know how to go after it. I was not trained to be an entrepreneur; hell I didn’t even know what that was! I had no idea what a mortgage was, interest rates, credit cards, banking, leases, payables, receivables, selling, managing, relationships…I had zero skills or information about the outside world.
I went to a crappy inner-city high school at the height of the crack epidemic, so violence was a way of life. I had seen multiple murders and suicides by the time I was 21, so my idea of “normal” was obviously much different than many people. I certainly did not have any prospects as I went through school. I didn’t have a guidance counselor telling me what my options were; no parents giving me instructions and direction; no other family, teachers or friends telling me to get an education or to go to college; and there was certainly no one telling me I could be a success. On my own at 17, living in a seedy $25 a night skid-row hotel with one bathroom per floor that I mostly shared with hookers and heroin addicts. Obviously, I wasn’t seeing a lot of options ahead of me.
But I had one skill that could overcome all of this. A power that could pull me out of the life I found myself in and put me on the path to success. That made me invincible and gave me the capability to do extraordinary and unimaginable things. That skill: Work Ethic!
Unstoppable, unquestionable, straight forward, no questions asked, put my head down and crush everything in my way work ethic! It probably saved my life, and absolutely was critical in the success I have had in life and business.
So you can see that starting a business was the furthest thing in my mind. Undeterred by my past, when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. It was then that my journey as a business owner began. And what a start it was! First, I didn’t get a paycheck for the first six months, and I supplemented my income for the first two years by working on the business from 6 AM to 6 PM and then refereeing basketball games for $20 an hour from 7 PM until midnight Monday through Friday. On the weekends I would do as many as 18 games, taking whatever they would give me. And I never said no to covering other games whenever I could. That kept the lights on at home, and my family fed…barely.
The challenges of starting a business are massive, the learning curve steep, and the stress can be overwhelming. Throw in a good dose of loneliness, helplessness, and a perception of having no options, and you have the worst parts of a startup. That’s the downside, but like everything in life, anything hard earned is so much more valuable. The sense of accomplishment when you make that first sale, hire that first employee, earn that first profit, is as satisfying a feeling as you can experience in life.
Starting from zero, over the last 20 years, I have owned 12 businesses that have generated over $450 million in revenue, and have had experiences and learned lessons the hard way…by earning them!
The following are ten things critical items anyone considering starting a business needs to know. Clearly there are more than ten, but I think these ten are the most important based on my experience:
1. There is never a good time to start!
I can guarantee you this is the case. As simple as it sounds, you have just to get out and do it. I don’t believe that there is an easy way, i.e., setting aside two years of living expenses or making sure other parts of your life are in order, to start a business. Sure these things would be beautiful, the problem is that you will wait for your whole life before ever starting and by then it will be too late. I have friends that have been telling me for 20 years that they are tired of working for other people and are going to make a move and start their own business, and they are still working for others and always telling me it’s going to happen.
2. Risk is a good, critical part of the process!
You cannot minimize, or plan for, all the risk. It is the risk that drives you to perform that is unimaginable without the driving force of risk. Yes, you want to try and minimize the risk as much as you can, but you cannot reduce the impact having that risk, be it mouths to feed at home or merely self-preservation, has on you. You will battle with thoughts of failure, you will be scared that you will lose and be left with living with regret over that loss. However, and this is a mistake I think a lot of fledgling business owners make, you cannot let this downside risk control the decision-making process. If any of us did, then none of us would ever go out and start anything.
3. This ain’t easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart!
Starting a business from scratch is high on the list of the hardest things to do in life. It will be the hardest decision you will ever make, while simultaneously have the possibility of being the most significant opportunity. You just don’t know how it will turn out, and you cannot forecast success, and all the planning in the world won’t change that. I’m not saying that you don’t do your homework, spend time preparing, and come up with a plan. I am saying that you cannot let the unknown freeze your decision making…because it will!
4. Find a mentor or support group!
Particularly important I think is finding someone to give you advice, someone who has been there before and has done what you’re attempting to do. For me, that meant joining a CEO group right after I started, and my group was made up of CEOs of other businesses that were on average 10 to 15 years older than me. We would meet once a month and talk about each other’s companies and primarily function as a sounding board for ideas or issues or problems. In my first year, I probably did not say 20 words as I sat and soaked up as much information about how business works from these men who had done it before me. That education was invaluable, and some of the best money I ever spent was in that group.
To this day, we still get together. The difference is that I am now the guy that has a ton of experience to pass along. I also realized that even though I sat for the first year and mainly listened, I was also providing something to the older guys. Because when I have the opportunity to help new business owners in the same way, it reminds me of what I went through building my own companies over the years. And all of those lessons that I had learned are reinforced as I pass the knowledge along to others. I did not realize at the time that they were getting as much from me as I was from them! Finding a specific person or a group to give you advice will provide you with a significant advantage over going it alone.
5. Research and Read!
You can literally learn everything you need to know from the internet, books, and magazines. I have been a subscriber to Forbes and Fortune since before I understood a single word of what I was reading. These magazines have been required reading for me ever since and a great source of information and mainly, inspiration. As a voracious reader, who only reads non-fiction, I have learned tremendously from reading biographies of many of the leaders that came before us. My favorite? Washington, A Life by David McCullough. Do not underestimate the power of reading and the impact it can have on your business.
6. It’s a grind!
Are you ready to work 15 hours a day for six days a week to realize your dream? The critical aspect of building and running a successful business is work ethic. I know it sounds cliché, but that is because it is true. Owning your own business means you have to outwork everyone with whom you are competing. It’s not about who the smartest person is; many times it comes down to who’s willing to put in the time. I have worked 15 hours a day, six days a week for 20 years and have mostly loved every minute of it. It has been a significant advantage for me and can be for you.
7. It’s lonely!
Are you able to handle the isolation and loneliness that comes with being a business owner? If you are someone that needs to hear others tell you that you’re doing a good job or pat you on the back, being the boss is not for you. Being a business owner is a lonely position at times, mainly when those times are bad. I am a supremely confident person by nature and am not one that needs to hear “good job” from others.
8. It can crush your spirit!
How are you emotionally? A business will throw you curveballs that you cannot imagine, and there is no money to be made in getting excited. You will get your heart broken; can you handle that while continuing to push forward? I never get too high, and I never get too low, and that allows me to make informed and lucid decisions in every scenario while also allowing me to communicate effectively with my managers and employees.
9. I don’t give a f*** what people think!
Do you care what people think of you? If this is you, do not go into business for yourself. One of my best qualities when it comes to operating a business is that I legitimately do not care what anyone thinks. If you do, it will be that much more difficult for you to make decisions or not feel the pressure from them. Outside influences from family and friends are deadly, even when they are well intended.
10. Do you have a foundation?
If you have a family at home, are they a stable support system? My wife is an absolute animal when it comes to supporting what I have done over the last 20 years. She has been a critical piece towards my success by making sure everything was taken care of on the home front while I was taking care of the business side. She was outstanding about bringing the kids to me for lunch or dinner and never put pressure on me or made me feel guilty for having to do it.
This foundation is critical and you don’t have to sacrifice your life!
I have three kids, and even though I worked as long and as hard as I did, I never missed one of their events. This belief that you have to sacrifice spending time with your family is a complete myth. I concentrated on quality time over quantity, and regardless of my day or how bad the business was going, I made sure to leave in time to get to sporting events and recitals. I may have had to go back to work, but I never missed one. This one really comes down to work ethic. Are you willing to break off from the business and then go back once the event is over? It’s so easy to call it a day or to justify because of the kids not getting back to work.
These are just some of the things that go into owning a business that I believe many people don’t think about or simply cannot fathom. Having said all this, I would absolutely do it all over again. I have no regrets and have enjoyed everything about being responsible for my security and the future and well-being of my family and my employees. When you work for somebody else, regardless of the experience, you are at risk of their decision-making. And while 9 to 5 jobs work for most people, the thought of doing the same thing day in and day out held no attraction for me. Just thinking about it right now makes me want to shoot myself in the face.
For me, the payoff has been tremendous, and while having achieved an unexpected level of success is a great achievement, having lived a life on my terms is the ultimate payoff. I provide this insight humbly and understand that everybody has their own experiences and opinions, and these are merely mine. But if I were working a regular job right now, at age 50, I would quit that job immediately. For me, life is all about being uncomfortable and managing risk.
When I was a kid, we would go to the local swimming pool. Like most pools in those days, they had a shallow end, a deep end, a low diving board, and the high dive. The high dive terrified me as a young kid, I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and when I finally had the guts to climb up to the top and walk out to the edge, I was terrified. I remember looking down at the water far below and wishing I was anywhere but up there. Turning around wasn’t an option, as the ladder was full of kids waiting for their turn. So I stood there, sure I was going to die, and after a while, I threw myself in the water!
And something amazing happened! Not only did I not die, but by the end of the day, I was attempting flips and cannon balls and head-first dives. Sometimes my jumps were successful; sometimes, I did a belly flop and lost my breath, and my skin turned red. Either way, I was invigorated and wanted to go back up, the thought of the unknown driving me to do it again and again.
That’s how I describe starting your own business. Climb up that ladder, walk to the edge, look over the edge knowing you are facing a certain death…and jump!