There’s no such thing as a “self-made” business owner. The mere notion of the self-made man — someone who came from nothing, had a big idea, exploited it entirely on his own, and now has it all — is mostly an American myth.
Sure, successful entrepreneurs and business owners are smart, opportunistic, perceptive, and adept at assimilating information. Yet in advising a number of them for over 40 years, and having been an entrepreneur myself for just as long, I can confidently say that none succeeded on their own. All, instead, had “MBAs” — mentors, believers, and advocates.
So if you’re about to strike out on your own, know that you’ll need MBAs, too. Here’s why.
I owe at least 80 percent of my success to two great mentors — my father and my older brother. My father was a lawyer and a judge. Before his untimely passing, at 60, when I was just a teenager, I had the good fortune to watch him at work.
On the bench, my father never failed to dispense common-sense justice. Whether he was facing a nude sunbather or a shoplifting youngster, he meted out justice in equal proportion, always balancing the law with everyday reason. Similarly, in his legal practice, he was indefatigable in serving people, whether they were “paying clients” (as he called them) or not. I heard him say countless times that if a client asked him to push a nickel across town with his nose, then that’s what he’d do.
I learned many invaluable lessons from my father’s mentoring and lived example — most notably, the value of justice, fairness, common sense, service, and hard, tireless work. His morals and ideals, in fact, became part of my own DNA.
My brother, Mike, 13 years older and also an attorney, became my mentor after our father’s death. His mentoring style, while rooted in love, was heavy-handed, with a drill sergeant-like precision (and usually the salty language to match). When I was away at college, our phone calls often ended like this: “You want to get into law school? You better get your [expletive] grades up.”
Mike was the managing partner of a large Cincinnati law firm. His adroit handling of his hard-nosed corporate clients, together with his adept maneuvering of his partners’ mercurial personalities, made his advice and mentorship incredibly valuable.
I spoke to Mike almost daily, from the time I started my accounting practice in 1984 until his death, at 58, in 2001. And to this day, not a week goes by that I don’t find myself repeating his mantra: “Nothing in business defies logic.”
So if you don’t already have a mentor in mind, start today to seek one out. Find a person, probably older, who is experienced and successful, and who you trust and respect. Also, look for a truth-teller. You want someone unafraid to give it to you straight.
“Learning is finding out that you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers.” — Richard Bach
Being a successful entrepreneur requires taking your prospects and customers on a journey that, with time, steady relationship building, and earned trust, culminates in them becoming believers. But you can’t do that without first believing in yourself — your talent and abilities, your product or service, your value, and more.
This can be hard at the start, however, because you lack a tangible track record to point people to. This means that you’ve got to tell a story that suspends their doubt or unease. And to spin this yarn, here again, you have to actually buy it yourself. Otherwise, why should anyone else?
It may seem counterintuitive, but when I first started my accounting practice, I found it much easier than later on — when I’d built an appreciably more established firm — to tell my story. Albeit really brief and clunky, it worked. In fact, I went on to double my earnings in just my second year.
So even if you’re not a natural-born salesperson, and few are, you must be able to tell your story and “sell” yourself in order to create believers. The good news is it’s easier than you might think, especially if you don’t overanalyze things, keep it real, and get out of your own way.
Believers may be great, but advocates are even better. What’s more, when you nurture and serve your believers well, they almost always become advocates. Given that their faith in you was rewarded, they enjoy converting others to believe, too. This kind of evangelism often turbocharges a new business, resulting in so-called hockey-stick growth, where revenue shoots up sharply in a curve shaped like a hockey stick.
Now, if all this talk about mentors, believers, and advocates sounds like too much work, that’s okay. Perhaps striking out on your own isn’t for you. As a matter of fact, I’ve come to learn that while some people may be great agents, they aren’t cut out to be principals. Likewise, the opposite is also true: Great principles generally make for poor agents. Consider a longtime client of mine, who I’ll call Tim.
A free-range entrepreneur
For background, Tim had run his own, successful advertising agency for almost 20 years. But due to a combination of challenges in the business and what he thought was a terrific outside opportunity, he was lured into taking an executive-level position at a big-time, publicly held company.
Tim began work at his new company at a corporate retreat at The Greenbrier, the famed luxury resort located in West Virginia. He even traveled to the event with the company’s CEO, just the two of them, in the CEO’s top-of-the-line Mercedes.
According to Tim, the five-hour ride to The Greenbrier went swimmingly. The CEO repeatedly extolled Tim’s experience and entrepreneurial chops, remarking over and over again that he was the perfect person to lead the company’s marketing and advertising teams through some critical new initiatives. Suffice it to say, Tim was like a kid on a sugar rush. And — spoiler alert — that’s exactly what it turned out to be. His high was startlingly short-lived, with a “crash” in mere hours.
After a brief afternoon session, the executive team gathered for dinner, followed by cocktails and cigars on a private patio. It was then that Tim saw a totally different side to the CEO, who was behaving more like a long-reigning monarch (Louis XIV came to mind) than a collegial corporate leader. Worse, the other execs were going along, acting like tools of the boss, without brains or backbone. The longer the evening went on, the more horrified Tim became. It was a gut punch if there ever was one.
Later, Tim told me that he effectively quit at that moment. He did, though, manage to show up and dutifully lead his team, which under the CEO would become a long and excruciating 18 months.
Tim’s lesson, while painful, was that it was nearly impossible for him to execute someone else’s demands and directives, let alone operate at their whims. As he puts it, he is “a free-range entrepreneur.” Yes, he quit a seemingly ideal job, with a big title, lavish pay and perks, and the cachet of working for a renowned, NYSE-listed company. But the fact was he couldn’t force himself to perform on demand.
To be clear, it’s neither good nor bad to be an agent or a principal. Yet one thing’s for sure, the membrane between the two is pretty much impermeable. Thus, before you take the leap into entrepreneurship, be sure to consider your personality, temperament, and optimal working style.
All of this to say, if you’re feeling ready to be an entrepreneur or business owner, remember that you’ll need MBAs. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the “self-made” people who came before you.