While the young business grad was outwardly enthusiastic, I sensed an undercurrent of fear. With bright eyes and animated hands, she had spent 10 minutes describing her plans and goals. However, I could tell that--staring into the abyss of her adult life--she was a bit uneasy about her future.
She was right to be a little afraid. When carving a niche in the world of business and entrepreneurship, academic knowledge is rarely enough to guarantee success. To actually compete and win--particularly as an entrepreneur--you'll need some additional skills.
I'd like to share three I picked up along the way.
We've all heard of the "fight or flight" response. There's a third F-word (no, not that one) that often accompanies career fear: "freeze."
When faced with an uncertain future, many people choose to do nothing. They worry and whittle away time on meaningless make-work. They'll tell everyone about their great plans, but will spin and spit and do almost anything other than take positive steps to move their lives forward.
The simple truth is that every monumental endeavor can only be achieved in increments. In business, perseverance means leaning forward, walking one foot after the other into the chill entrepreneurial wind until you've reached your milestones and eventually achieved your goal.
Many people fail because they give up at the first sign of difficulty. On the other hand, almost every success story includes an element of endurance and determination. I'm no exception: I landed in Hawaii in the mid-1980s, down and out and in need of a job. A radio station news director rightly rebuffed me because I could hardly pronounce the names of the streets. Rather than complain or criticize, I bought a Hawaiian dictionary, promised myself I would learn five words a day, and worked like mad. Three years later, I was managing that radio station--and overseeing the guy who'd earlier turned me away.
- Bonus tip: If you promise yourself to do at least one thing every day to further your plans, at the end of a year you will have made almost 400 positive steps to achieving your goals.
When someone says, "You don't need to reinvent the wheel," what they're really saying is, "The wheel already exists--and it may be just fine as it is." It's good advice.
While there may be an opportunity for improvement in every corner of the business world, that's not the same as saying that all corners need improving. Every industry has history. Study it. Understanding and respecting what has come before will help you identify core strengths, recognize new opportunities, and avoid a rehash of old failures.
The best single piece of management advice I ever got was over a cup of coffee with one of my company's directors, billionaire developer and speedboat racer Tom Gentry. He told me, "Make the right hiring decisions in the first place, and a lot of other decisions never have to be made." That gem has saved me a lot of grief over the years.
- Bonus tip: Seek out the stories of the veterans, the founders, and the ground-breakers. Take them to coffee and take notes. You won't be replaying their stories in your life's plan, but you will benefit by understanding their experiences, missteps, and successes.
Of course, you've got to be ready when "opportunity knocks." In tough economic times, however, you could be waiting a long time for that tap on the door. You're much better off making your own opportunity with a little bit of personal innovation.
Innovation is a specialized form of creativity in which the creation is both new and useful. Sending a birthday cake to the CEO of the company you want to partner with might be creative, but it's not likely to succeed. To be productively innovative in that situation, you must come up with a new idea or method that will also work to further your goal of getting the deal.
Here's a case in point: Back in the early '90s, my production company wanted a business-oriented radio network to syndicate our new technology feature. Believe it or not, back then some people still didn't believe technology news was important to business. Rather than pitch the network CEO with a couple of generic pieces, we produced a special series highlighting technologies that could directly benefit his company. As we played them for him, his eyes lit up--and because he got the idea, we got the contract. (We later learned the network actually purchased one of the software packages we profiled in the demo.)
- Bonus tip: Ask yourself, "What are this person's needs, beyond the obvious business deal?" Then, figure out how you can fill those needs in a creative and innovative fashion.
Of course, there are hundreds of other helpful skills for entrepreneurs; no single one will be a magic carpet to success. These three, however, will help any would-be entrepreneur get started in the right direction.