When we go to college, we are told to forget everything we were taught in high school. When we get a job after college – we are told to forget everything we were taught before again. And then finally, years later, when we start our own business, we realize how many things that we have learned while working for someone else – just do not apply.
Somehow, I managed to mess it all up. Sixteen years ago, while attending college, I also got a job at a small software company. I had a friend there who, contrary to me, had ideas for new ventures every other day. I wasn’t very good at coming up with new venture ideas but our adventures entertained me a lot, so I could never resist the temptation to start a new design studio, or a marketing agency, or start trading in construction materials, or whatever he had on his mind that day.
Years later, I realize how fortunate I was to get into that mix of events, all the jobs and projects on the side. I never really wanted to become an entrepreneur but having such a history, in retrospect, I don’t think I could have avoided this path.
I’m often asked by my students what is the right time for them to start their own venture or project? Looking back at my trial-and-error experience in this field, I feel like I might have thoughts to share on this subject.
But first, a question: Do we all really need to be entrepreneurs?
You might wonder if the world really needs to have so many entrepreneurs. Should you even consider taking this direction? And by the way, what does it really mean to be an entrepreneur?
Personally, I think it doesn’t matter if you’re running a multi-million dollar company or just starting a local quiz club at your college. Entrepreneurship is all about the mindset, about thinking outside of your personal needs, finding opportunities, and solving a giant puzzle on how you can help other people get what they need.
Being entrepreneurial is not about running a company. Being entrepreneurial is about taking responsibility not just for yourself, but for other people, their needs. Entrepreneurs don’t just think about how they can make their own lives better, but also how they can make a bigger impact on their families, communities, cities, countries, the entire planet.
But it all starts with you, with learning to manage your own time, resources and skills, and then finding out which of the resources and skills you possess are in demand somewhere around you.
The more you establish yourself, the more and more people you start helping the more you have to learn to grow and develop yourself, since different scales of your impact require different skills.
Being entrepreneurial is like using a training machine in the gym to grow your muscles. The more you are in the business and the more people you are able to impact – the more you are required to push yourself to become a better, more skilful person. The quality of the venture you are able to manage shows your current level of personal development.
So, yes, I strongly believe we should all strive to be more entrepreneurial, and in the process become better human beings.
But do I need to have a formal business education to start a business?
Here is my story. My first major was economics and management. For five years I have studied legal forms of business, Porter’s five forces, umbrella branding, cows, stars and dogs. We were doing complex imaginary business plan calculations that I could never recall the next day. Neither during the course of studies, not shortly after, had I any interest or motivation to start a business. Not only was formal economic theory extremely boring, but I could not force myself to apply it, even under my own terms. Everything connected to business became boring to me.
Last year, a friend of mine and I launched a YouTube channel where we interview entrepreneurs on their motivation and first steps in business. Surprisingly, as far as we know – we haven’t had anyone with a business degree in our show yet.
What they all have in common, though, is knowledge and experience in the market they are working in, familiarity with the psychology of the people they were serving, and a set of entrepreneurship-critical soft-skills. And that, I think, is a lot more important that understanding formal economic theory.
If you can find a real solution for a problem that thousands (or better yet, millions) of people have – trust me, the market will excuse your business inexperience. History has many examples of this. But if you can’t solve a real need – there is no knowledge of business nor economic theory that can help you.
Can you be entrepreneurial and work for someone else at the same time?
First of all, I would say that for me, personally, there wasn’t a big difference between working for someone and having my own business. If you think that having your own business is easy because you don’t have to report to anyone or listen to someone else orders I have bad news for you.
When you run your own business, you are responsible for all of your actions, and you answer to your business partners, clients, investors, colleagues and co-founders. It is your responsibility to listen to them carefully, communicate your personal value, act, and then report on the results.
So, if you think you can’t work for someone else because you don’t fit in, or if you think you are “unemployable” now and things will get easier once you start your own business – you might be in trouble. Once you start growing and working with clients, customers, and partners, you will have the same set of problems all over again.
Yes, you CAN learn to be entrepreneurial and work for someone else at the same time.
Have an idea for a new viral marketing campaign that will help your company? Know how to improve corporate Facebook profile to get more followers and are ready to help? Want to volunteer for a new overtime project that you believe can improve your company’s customer service?
Take responsibility, commit to the end, over-deliver, repeat again and again for better results. If you do this consistently, you will soon find yourself surrounded by bigger opportunities and bigger budgets, resources will come to you and people will become available for you. This is how you start being entrepreneurial while working for someone else.
So is it better to learn how to be entrepreneurial on your own or in someone else company?
I would say it’s definitely easier to learn how to be entrepreneurial while working in someone else company. You have better leverage. You can get a reputation for being result-oriented and trustworthy much faster. You will get exposed to more people. You can get help much easier. You can find resources more efficiently.
What sort of traits you might want to develop to be more entrepreneurial when working for someone else?
During the last sixteen years of my professional life, I have employed around one hundred people and had several hundred interviews. There is no one single set of qualities suitable for all positions, but generally as a manager or a co-founder, I expect my future colleagues to be mini-entrepreneurs with high decision-making abilities. People who will not limit their job to what’s expected from them, people who will find opportunities and proactively move my company towards its vision.
I’m a big believer in the soft-skills over hard-skills concept. We are living in a world with an abundance of information and accelerated learning. It’s not a problem to learn specific “technical” abilities that are formally required by a job, but becoming a better person – that’s a much harder task.
So if you are at the beginning of your career, here are the top five entrepreneurship-critical soft-skills I would suggest as a priority for you to develop:
- Empathy and listening
- Communication: speaking and negotiation
- Making snap decisions, acting on them, and being result-oriented
- Loyalty, being committed and determined
- Teamwork and social confidence
What sort of company is the best to work in to become more entrepreneurial?
First, search for companies that are neither too small or too big. You should be able to make an impact with your work, not just be a tiny cog in a monstrous mechanism. This will enable you to see your own results, measure your progress, and understand which sorts of actions create which sorts of outcome in the company. Working in medium-size companies is optimal for getting introduced to decision-makers fairly easily – and people making the decisions are crucially important for when you start showing your work and creating more opportunities.
You should still be able to work in widely distributed teams that might not all fit into one meeting room. You need this practice to get better at your communication skills. Communication skills should be of the utmost importance to you. The majority of our work these days is communication, and those of us who fail in it will fail delivering results. I remember speaking to the head of Google Russia several years ago. I asked him what sort of people Google was looking for. He said that what’s most important is excellent communication skills, since without them people just won’t be able to handle their work. Communication coincidentally is a top skill for entrepreneurs. Marketing, sales, account management, and support are all about the art of communication.
You might want (at least some of the time) to be as close as possible to the customers of your company. Ideally, this would be through marketing, sales, account management, or even customer support. This will let you see the other point view on your work. You will learn to understand your client’s psychology and how the way you serve them reflects in their buying habits and loyalty to your company. At the same time, this will force you to learn everything about the industry, this particular market segment, and the product or service your company provides.
When choosing your first job with an idea to become more entrepreneurial, be sure to respect the clients of your future employer wholeheartedly. Trust me, if you dislike the people your prospective company is serving, you will never be able to show the best of yourself. Consider your company’s outside exposure. Will you be able to deal with its clients and extend your own personal network?
And the last and probably most important thing a big aspect of your employer selection process should be your direct superior. Evaluate them as your potential mentors. Are they interested not only in your professional, but also personal growth (which we have just learned is essential for your work)? Your direct superior at your first job position will likely influence you a lot more than you can imagine. They are likely to be more important than the company itself. Choose wisely.
Let’s sum it all up
When it comes down to asking yourself whether you want to go work for someone else or start your own venture I’m a big believer in the concept of starting to work for someone else first, learning as much as possible about core soft skills, and only then transferring it all into your own project. In the context of the right workplace (which we defined in the previous paragraphs) you will learn faster, get a chance to be involved in higher scale projects, understand markets and buyer’s psychology better, get more contacts and extend your own personal network, and finally, have much higher odds of finding great mentors.
Stay there as long as you can deliver your maximum performance. Build your reputation, grow your network and exposure. As soon as you realize you can make a bigger impact than your current employer can offer, ask yourself if you can achieve this impact with your current company. And if the answer is a definite “no” consider moving on to your own venture. Expect it to be challenging, but it will be worth it if you do it right.