A couple weeks ago I met with two young entrepreneurs who had asked me for some advice. They were passionate, driven, highly intelligent and extremely focused. During the course of our hour-long conversation, it struck me that despite the attributes listed above, their questions, attitudes and strategies almost perfectly mirrored my own from six years ago. It brought back a flood of memories about the lessons I’ve learned (some the hard way).
Here’s what I wish I had known at age 22:
- Know what you don’t know. At 22, I didn’t know shit. I could recite Shakespeare, construct a balance sheet, and crank out 15-page term papers in an afternoon on almost any topic you gave me, but I was ill-prepared for the real world. I thought I knew it all and didn’t need anyone’s advice or help. Big mistake.
- Being busy destroys your value. I used to pride myself on the amount of “stuff” I’d do. I was constantly meeting with someone and working on something. I felt extremely productive. How could I not be successful when I did so much? Unfortunately when I looked back on what I’d accomplished, it amounted to very little. Although I continue to fall back into cycles of busyness, I know a key ingredient in the recipe for success: “make haste slowly.”
- Nothing complicated ever works out. I’ve crafted a lifetime of reseller agreements, highly complex employment incentives, partnerships, and intricate business plans. None of them have been successful. Success has come from simple plans, defined roles and clear expectations. For every added layer of complication, you’ve exponentially increased your chances of failure.
- Treat everyone well. This means you should A) give people the benefit of the doubt; B) be transparent; C) never step on someone to step up; D) refrain from talking crap on anyone. We only see the surface layer of peoples’ lives. Beneath that layer lies heartache, anxiety and baggage that causes some unfortunate actions from time-to-time. Understand that when you ask someone, “how’s life?” you’re almost always going to get the answer “things are good.” That doesn’t mean all is good.
- Specialize to win. Saying you do everything is a joke that everyone gets but you. You’re not good at everything. In fact, you’re not good at most things. You’re probably excellent at one or two things. By specializing, you’ll gain credibility, focus and the right kind of business. You’ll become a go-to resource, instead of always having to hunt and kill.
- “Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.” Seth Godin says it perfectly. Life is not about gutting out every situation. It’s about identifying opportunity and a lack thereof. If your pride is all that is standing in the way of quitting, quit. The right people won’t care and the wrong people don’t matter. If you know you’re on the right path, persevere though the pain. It will be worth it.
- Profits matter. Fast growth is exciting. Creating large and growing revenues feels great. But none of it matters if you can’t turn a profit. Profits create stability and durability. Profits keep people paid and allow for focus. If your intentions are not to immediately create profits, ask yourself why.
- Service based businesses suck for young entrepreneurs. You’ll struggle with the same challenges of scalability, client whims and a constant squeeze on margins. But, you’ll also have the added problem of perceived or actual expertise. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to become excellent at a service. Intelligence and a robust education don’t make you an expert. Unlike products, services are judged on their history of success. As a young entrepreneur, you won’t have a history of success. That makes it tough to convince people to buy your service. I highly recommend that young entrepreneurs make products first, then develop service-based businesses later (if they so choose).
Brent Beshore is the CEO of AdVentures ranked #28 on the 2011 Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies in the U.S.