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.

Why Entrepreneurship?

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.

  • Know thyself. Any new undertaking calls for an honest assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses. For aspiring entrepreneurs, the major issue is whether you can cope with a great deal of risk. I promise that you will learn more about yourself through an entrepreneurial venture than any other career choice. If you do choose entrepreneurship...
  • Take advantage. These are heady days for entrepreneurs. With the company builder rather than the company person as hero, the infrastructure necessary for entrepreneurship is coming into its own. We are entering the age of the entrepreneur. On the Internet, research is only a mouse click away. Benefits such as 401(k)s and medical insurance are being packaged and made available to the self-employed. Companies desperate for workers even provide such perks as office space in exchange for a part-time commitment. Once housekeeping details are out of the way...
  • Find your niche. You're lucky if you know what type of business you want to be in. If you don't -- in other words, if you don't know what one thing you want to do -- then try several things until you find one that works for you. It must speak to your passion, or you don't have a prayer. There will be days that you want to quit, and if you are not passionate about the business, you will!Having discovered your niche...
  • Do your homework. Talk with as many entrepreneurs as you can, especially those whose businesses mirror your aspirations. Ask them about their challenges. From these discussions, build a support group that will become the framework for an advisory board for your company. No matter how smart you are, feedback from others is critical. Those entrepreneurs who reach out and build strong networks and support systems have a much greater chance of success than those who do not. Great minds do not think alike. With the chips in place...
  • Build a legacy. Throughout our first year, my partner and I talked every Saturday about how to build our company. It was our way of avoiding the trap of focusing on narrow tasks rather than the business itself. One thing we learned was that we had to supplement our skills by hiring people with complementary skills. For example, my expertise in sales and marketing composed just 25% of what we needed. Our approach has enabled us to begin to create a legacy -- an enterprise that will have a life beyond that of its founders.

Larry Kesslin is president of Let's Talk Business Network Inc., a New York-based developer of resources for entrepreneurs.

Copyright 2000 EntreWorld.org


Published on: Sep 1, 1999