When I graduated from Rutgers University in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering, I immediately did what came naturally back then: I joined a large corporation, namely Westinghouse, as a marketing trainee, expecting to rise through the ranks. Nineteen months later, I switched to a much smaller company, Saddlebrook Control Systems, a distributor of industrial control equipment, hoping to find an environment that would suit my career goals. Eighteen months after that, I switched back to a large corporation, specifically General Electric, again in search of the grail.
It was on my fourth switch, however, that I found my calling. That occurred in 1993, when I left the corporate world for the entrepreneurial journey of a lifetime, creating a company dedicated to supporting the needs of other entrepreneurs. A decade ago, of course, a career with the Fortune 500, with its generous compensation and benefits packages, unparalleled perks, and the promise of a job for life, was considered the ultimate. These days, however, corporate security is gone forever, washed away in a tidal wave of downsizings and layoffs.
Instead of corporate gurus like GE's Jack Welch or Chrysler's Lee Iacocca, today's business idols are individuals who built their own companies. Indeed, Microsoft's Bill Gates, Oracle's Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, and, oh yes, that millionaire next door need no introduction. In embracing entrepreneurship, I was saying I wanted to play in today's world and by today's rules.
An increasing number of refugees from the mundane and predictable life of regular paychecks and annual raises are turning to entrepreneurship as a second career. From where I sit -- I am now president of Let's Talk Business Network Inc., a five-person New York City-based company that develops customized support communities and resources for entrepreneurs -- I am able to say that it can be done. What's more, I would argue -- passionately -- that it's worth doing if you are so inclined. In telling my story, I hope to provide insights for those aspiring to a similar transition.
In turning to entrepreneurship, I went cold turkey, quitting GE without a glimmer of an idea for a specific business of my own. I figured I would support myself by consulting until something came along. My leave-taking had been festering for a while. At Westinghouse, the division I was working for was in trouble, and those in charge didn't seem to realize that. (The 2,500-person business unit no longer exists.) At Saddlebrook, with only 35 employees, I didn't find a mentor from whom I could learn.
At GE, where I did have a terrific boss and wonderful mentor, I learned that I didn't want to make the sacrifices that he was making to advance through the ranks. He, for example, had moved his family from New York to Virginia, and he traveled most weeks from Sunday through Friday. I didn't want to be owned by an employer. Throughout my corporate career, moreover, I had long been appalled by how little I had to accomplish to receive good performance reviews. In short, I concluded that the corporate environment wasn't for me.
A Chance Encounter
Shortly after leaving GE, in a chance encounter during a train trip, I met Mitch Schlimer, the man who would become my partner and entrepreneurial mentor. As you can see, mentoring is a critical element that I have always looked for in my career, and for good reason. A veteran entrepreneur, Schlimer said he was putting together a radio talk show for entrepreneurs and that I could help with the sales and advertising.
It was then that entrepreneurship fell into place for me. At that time, I had looked at dedicating much of my life to volunteer work and helping others. In conversations with my father and close friends about how I could assist inner-city kids, they gave me a great piece of advice: Create a business and generate significant revenue, and you'll be able to help anyone you want.
From my corporate jobs, I knew I had excellent sales skills and a good understanding of marketing. And from my varied consulting assignments -- among others, I had worked on a licensing project, done sales training, and worked for an inventor tinkering with a bicycle powered with up-and-down rather than rotary movements -- I realized that Schlimer's concept was a winner. What's more, it spoke to my passion: I discovered that I wanted to learn as much as I could about entrepreneurship and technology.
Risk and Reward
I was in a heady rush to form a company of my own. I won't deny the downside. In exchange for the giddy freedom of being able to make my own decisions and define my own future, to make a difference with employees, customers, and the community, and possibly to build considerable wealth, I understood that I had to face the inevitability of risk -- maybe very high risk. Not only were we able to make all the decisions, but we had to make all of the decisions. There is no one else to rely on when it is your business.
At the most basic level, I had exchanged a steady paycheck for an erratic revenue stream. In the throes of corporate withdrawal, especially during my interlude as a consultant in a home office, I realized that I missed my peers. It had been soothing to talk about what was happening with people whose responsibilities were similar to my own.
When I joined Let's Talk Business Network, I discovered another risk: the danger of doing a job rather than building a business. In their zeal to attract and keep customers, fledgling company owners often focus on specific tasks, such as making and selling a product or service, rather than looking at the long-term mission and vision of the company. Yet, to build an enterprise that will outlive its founders -- as opposed to merely creating a job for oneself -- an entrepreneur must spend his or her energies on the big picture.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
If you are as sold as I was on leaving the salaried life for entrepreneurship, you may appreciate the following suggestions for getting started. They all worked for me.
Larry Kesslin is president of Let's Talk Business Network Inc., a New York-based developer of resources for entrepreneurs.
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