THE WOULD BE ENTREPRENEUR

By Dawn Norman

Five years ago my sister and I started a business. I should say now that this is not a story of venture capital and IPOs. There are no Stanford graduates anywhere near this story (they wouldn't be caught dead near it!). Also zip for the generally advised 6-9 months of operating capital. We started a mail house, or what is sometimes still called a lettershop, with $2000 in borrowed money and a labeling machine. Along the way, I have learned as much about myself as about my chosen line of work.

It is now obvious to me that the "entrepreneurial type" is what is known as a malcontent in the corporate world. We are the ones who stare balefully at the boss's office door and say, "I could do that idiot's job better than him. Why'd they hire a geology major to run a finance department anyhow?" We like to mutter this as a satisfying alternative to actual work.

This is a trap for the unwise. When you start a business you will find out, as we did, whether you actually can do the idiot's job better than he can. You will also find out if you have a talent for accounting, or sales, marketing, production, maintenance, reception, personnel, security, IT, advertising, or public relations. Better hope you do. When the advisors at those small business workshops tell you that entrepreneurs have to wear all hats, it's pretty much the same as telling a pregnant woman she'll feel some discomfort during labor and delivery.

Another unsettling truth about entrepreneurs is that we are Jekyll-Hyde personalities (or maybe it's just usI mean me). Besides our role as leader of the organization, a job requiring large amounts of vision, fortitude, zeal and momentum, we can become the slacker employee at any time, web surfing and reading up on new urban legends in our e-mail. Hey, that's only your conscience looking over your shoulder.

A friend said to me one hurried morning, "I always laugh when you say you're going to be late to work. When you work for yourself, how can you be late?" I said to her, "There are days when I do such a bad job that if I were my boss I'd fire me." Alas, Jekyll can't fire Hyde. (But it's not a good idea to let her talk to the customers.)

While wearing our maintenance engineers' hats (because we cannot afford service agreements on many of our, ahem, older models of mailing equipment), my sister and I repair our own machines. This is a splendid strategy when we can identify the source of the problem and not just its symptoms. We usually find the broken gear or slipped belt on our third try at disassembly . I freely admit that we factor in quadruple the service hours for our own repairs, but it's still a bargain at zero dollars per hour. (Salaries? We sneer at salaries, taking most of our wages as mileage expenses to save on the taxes.)

Then there are the times when mothering skills are what's needed: patching, fixing, or figurative hand-holding. It is impossible to overvalue the roll of common gray duct tape in our tool kit. And belt dressing and WD-40 are indispensable for problems that can't be fixed but merely quieted.

But these are practical matters that anyone with a little gumption can master. What about less tangible challenges, you may ask? Finding a niche, really beating the competition at its own game, holding on to your customers you've won through hard work?

Try to think of all the mistakes it is possible to make and I will tell you we have made them. Underperformed the competition, sent out vague and poorly produced marketing materials, let good leads die of neglect, you name it. We spend too much time on low-margin customers as a rule, and have even suffered a few times from a lack of cojones in grabbing the big accounts.

About now you should be asking one of two questions. One is, what is this woman doing running a business, or two, how is it possible for this story to turn out well? I have only one more pearl to impart (or perhaps it's a bit of irritating grit, I don't know). Do not allow incompetence, repeated failures, and a lack of basic business skills to crush your dreams of success. Incompetence can be overcome. Multiple failures are the very best learning exercises, and as for your business skills, well, no time like the present to hone them a bit. After all, you don't have any customers today.

I suppose I believe in amelioration. For us, it has taken five years of effort, many mistakes, and a refusal to quit. My sister and I each plunge into depression on a regular and frequent basis, but it never happens to both of us at once. Each time, one partner gets to act as coach and tell the other to buckle down, knuckle down, buck up, cheer up, and try a little harder.

When it's my turn, the tactic I like to use is to remind her that our company's gross sales have increased from 40 to 50 percent every year we've been in business (true). Of course, when you start with $10,000 in sales your first year, it still takes a while to make it. But we're getting there. And eventually, I am certain, we will become the excellent renaissance women all entrepreneurs deeply believe themselves to be.


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