Fresh out of college, I moved from Sweden to London, England, did an internship and then I set up my own business. It has been a bumpy road and I’ve learned things that no amount of college education could have prepared me for. Here are five lessons I learned by failing forward and what you can take away from it.
1. Running a business is not just about being an expert at something. It’s about running a business.
Despite having lots of extremely hardworking entrepreneurs in my family, I started out with a (I realize now) cocky “how hard can it be”-approach. I thought I knew enough to get started, especially as I had advised a few companies during my university years, and could just figure out the rest. With that approach, I struggled towards success.
I’m not trying to put you off from starting a business if you haven’t already. It’s a wonderful thing. Just be very aware of the fact that being an employee and being self-employed are two very different things. Don’t expect it all to fall into your lap or to be downloaded into your brain à la Matrix. You’re suddenly responsible for getting clients or customers. For selling. For marketing. For maintaining that website. For getting into the press. I’m all for outsourcing what isn’t your core passion and skill, but you are still responsible. That responsibility can give you highs but it will also give you lows.
How to avoid doing what I did: If you haven’t started, take a long hard look at what actual business skills it takes to run a business before you take the plunge. If you already are an entrepreneur, are all the parts of the machinery running smoothly? Are you updating your skills regularly?
2. Don’t think you have to be something you’re not
At college studying business, the number of people wearing suits in the classroom doubled every term. I didn’t reflect on dress code when I started my own business – I just wore a suit. Yes, I looked damn sharp, but it wasn’t really “me” and I felt it (others probably did, too).
When I sat down to analyze how I presented my business, one of the first things that became clear was that it was stupid to stick to the suits “just because”. I relaxed my dress code to include smart, colorful tops instead and instantly felt more confident and at ease. It was even easier to connect with people.
It’s not just about style, it’s about being authentic. After all, it is your business, so make it work for you.
How to avoid doing what I did: Ask yourself, “Am I being and doing what is best for me and my business, or am I influenced by what I think I ‘should’?”
3. It’s okay to ask for help
I didn’t ask for help in the beginning when I started out. Set at figuring things out myself, I went through a lot more pain that was necessary just because I didn’t reach out to others. Asking for help isn’t a sign that you are weak – instead it takes strength to admit that you can’t know or do everything yourself.
The myth of the genius lone wolf entrepreneur who creates a revolutionary company or two with no help from others should remain a myth. We can’t all be like Clint Eastwood’s tough characters in all those Western movies. I’m willing to bet that even the most independent entrepreneurs admit to getting some sort of support from others.
How to avoid doing what I did: Create a support system for yourself by connecting with entrepreneurs in similar situations and those who already have done what you want to do – and use it.
4. Find a way of working that suits you
When I started out, I was painfully conscious of the fact that my business was me. If I didn’t work, no one did. There was a lot of things I wanted to get done, so I often forgot to take breaks or get a proper lunch. Not good for the brain, body or my sanity. It was when I realized that I didn’t want my everyday life to look like this that I started to choose better habits – leading to work becoming much more fun and efficient. For me, spending more time working at coffee shops with wifi and getting out for lunch made me work better.
Whenever and wherever you work best, choose habits you can keep. It might be possible to have crazy workweeks for a while, but make sure that you take care of yourself.
How to avoid doing what I did: You already know what you need to do to stay healthy. It’s just a matter of finding ways to get it into your everyday entrepreneurial life. No excuses about not having time – it will make you work better.
5. Don’t wait until with “figuring something out”
A recovering perfectionist, I always worried about the quality of my output – resulting in very little output at all! It was easier to tell myself that I’ll sleep on it, or needed to gather some more information, or needed to analyze this or that before I could make a decision. When I realized that this attitude crippled my business I chose a more proactive approach. This has resulted in me getting much more done and feeling more at ease.
Making a decision might feel uncomfortable, but you’ll thank yourself when it’s done and you can work on making things happen instead of being in limbo.
How to avoid doing what I did: Try to keep an “inbox zero” approach with decisions. Make a decision as soon as you can and be done with it, instead of having to return to an unsolved problem over and over again. This will save you not just time but energy, too.
“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing” John Powell
My entrepreneurship journey would have been a lot smoother if I would have skipped these road bumps, but then I would not have learned what I have.
Now, over to you. What has your biggest business lesson been?