Over the past three years I have been doing research on entrepreneurship. My research consists of asking entrepreneurs the following question: What is the best advice you ever received that most helped you become an effective and successful entrepreneur?
The comments have been both interesting and insightful. What I learned is great advice comes from many sources–parents, relatives, consultants, partners, mentors, teachers, and friends. The important lesson is to stay open, and listen to everyone. You never know when ‘pearls of wisdom’ may be dropped in your lap.
Here is a small sample of the "best advice” comments I received.
Ed Zimmer, Founder and President Zimmer Foundation
The best advice I ever received (from an uncle in my pre-teens) was "build your vocabulary.” I’m sure his intent was that I learn to communicate clearly and precisely. However, I later learned that advice was the secret to gaining a quick understanding of any new field, technology or discipline. Once you’ve learned its special vocabulary, you have a grasp on all of its key concepts–and as an added benefit, find yourself accepted as a "peer.”
Jennifer Gonzales, CEO, ProCharms, Inc.
The best business advice I ever got was from Craig McCaw back in the early 1990s when he owned Cellular One. He paid a personal visit to our office in Sacramento, CA, making an inspiring presentation that impacted me greatly. His self-described business philosophy was "keep it simple,” a basic idea that has been a valuable asset to me not only in business but also in everyday life. I relied heavily on that principle as we grew our business from the ground up. I think it is much more than just a philosophy...it is a way of life, and has become a big part of who I am today. Whenever something begins to spiral out of control, I go back to the beginning and remind myself to "keep it simple.” It works every time!
Lisa Druxman, Founder and CEO of Stroller Strides
The best advice I was ever given was to find something that I have a passion for. When you’re an entrepreneur, you are always working. The only way to stay driven and motivated is if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Other great advice that I was given: 1) When creating your budget, always double your expenses and halve your revenue. If it still shows a profit, you’ll be in good shape. 2) Create a logo that has no more than two colors so it won’t cost you a fortune in screen charges for letterhead, logo gear, etc. I didn’t listen to that one and still pay the price with a very colorful logo! 3) Stay very focused on why you are in this business. For me, it was 100 percent so that I could be in control of how much time I spent with my children and could work from home. I wanted to be a mom first and foremost but couldn’t accomplish that in any other job. When I start to get pulled in many directions for the business, I go back to that reason for being in it and the rest just falls in to place. And last but not least, the best advice I was ever given came from my parents. They told me that I could be anything and do anything that I ever wanted if I would just work hard at it. And they were right!
Ira Bryck, Director, UMass Family Business Center
In a previous life chapter, I co-operated my family’s fourth generation children’s wear store with my parents [oldest in the nation (the store, not the parents)]. As Yogi Berra would say, I learned a lot just from watching. My father taught me at a young age (3) that customer satisfaction was all about listening–discover what the customer really wants and deliver it. But often customers don’t really know what they want. The best they might come up with as an explanation is: "I’ll know it when I see it.” So you really have to tune in to that customer, to unearth his taste, her fear, what they are really looking to accomplish by choosing the designer label over the identical but unbranded suit, the simple but elegant Christening dress over the flashy but inexpensive one. Customer satisfaction relies on your customer empathy at that point, so that the "wow” you deliver might be that you understand that buyer more than she understands herself. On the other hand, my mother had an expression: "If everyone leaves with something, you’re over-stocked.” She knew that though we needed to be wide and deep in inventory, we made 80 percent of our sales on 20 percent of our items, and we could go out of business trying to please everyone. If we’re all things to all people, we’re really nothing to anybody. Though I no longer sell suits and dresses, and my current business is delivering "knowledge, experience, honesty and wisdom” to business owning families, hardly a day passes that I don’t implement those lessons from my mom and dad.
Michael Jansma, Founder and President of GEMaffair.com
The best advice I ever received was from my college finance teacher. My class was having a discussion about the significance of company profits. We were learning about the practicality or commonality of companies existing while not making money. This was baffling to me.
"Cash flow is always the factor that determines whether or not a company can exist, regardless of profits,” he said. "The lifeblood of business,” he further explained.
He stated that cash flow played the same role as the blood in our bodies. No blood, no life. He provided us with many real life examples, showing us companies who for years spent previous years’ profits, leveraged employee retirement funds, borrowed money from banks and vendors, and remained in business, despite having no profit. Eventually, many of these companies turned around and became profitable. He also showed us real life examples of companies where profits were exorbitant, yet lack of cash flow killed the company. Extending credit to customers and having huge accounts receivables eventually drove the company out of business. They were unable to pay their vendors and their employees.
I experienced this first hand a year ago when my company suddenly lost one of its largest vendors. We were unprepared, since we had never really sought other large sources of revenue. We had outstanding bills from vendors and not much revenue; keeping the lights on became very difficult. Suddenly, I painfully remembered my professor’s words. I did what those other companies did: I borrowed. And borrowed. And got back to work. Fortunately today, we are profitable. Managing cash flow is the top priority of my job daily.
John Jansheski, President and CEO, DenTek Oral Care
The best advice I ever received in business is: There is no such thing as a free lunch. Tom Elliott was the President of Washington Fish & Oyster and also my one of my mentors. Mr. Elliott afforded my burgeoning company the use of his Telex machine to communicate with Korea. When our manufacturer’s quote for freight "prepaid,” which means Freight On Board delivered to my warehouse, noted that the cost for FOB shipping would be "free,” Tom warned me that when you are in business, there are very few things a company does not pay for one way or another. I received this eminent advice from Tom in 1984, and it has served our company well for over two decades. "No free lunch” prompts us to look at every deal and examine it for hidden costs and charges and make sure we are getting the best possible price for goods and services.
Ryan P. M. Allis,CEO, Broadwick Corp
I would say that the best advice I have ever received is to have a bias toward action. I see many prospective entrepreneurs who have an idea but never get moving on it. They spend months perfecting their business plans but can never make the break and take the first steps. In trying to help young entrepreneurs get over this hurdle, I like to relate an anecdote. Imagine you are at your friend’s house and want to get back to your house four miles away. You can either stay at your friend’s house until all the traffic lights along the way are green and then leave, or you can start now. Although you’ll run into a few stops along the way, you’ll make it to your destination a lot quicker than if you waited for everything to be perfect before you began your journey. Have a bias toward action and get going. You may not know all the steps or the problems and challenges you’ll run into just yet, but that is okay. As you progress toward your goal, you will continue faster and faster up the learning curve. You’ll build momentum and as you move forward you’ll gain new knowledge and just as important, build new relationships that will be very important in helping you reach your end vision. As the momentum turns into exponential snowballing, your new knowledge and new contacts will create new possibilities and opportunities, allowing you, with continued persistence, to reach your business goals.
Entrepreneurs are very busy people. Getting them to answer a 24-question survey can be problematic. Doing research by just asking one question can be an effective way to collect data. Great advice about what it takes to be an effective and successful entrepreneur can come from many different sources. Bottom line–be curious and be open. What is the best advice you ever received about teaching entrepreneurship? Pass it on so others can benefit.
Paul Thornton’s latest book is Leadership-Best Advice I Ever Got. His e-mail address is PThornton@stcc.edu.