What is that special something that “winning” entrepreneurs possess?
The standard answer seems to be part luck, part guts, part brains and part the people they surround themselves with. Or, in mbaspeak…”right time. Right place. Right product.”
Lately, I’ve come to realize that the recipe is far different, seemingly simple, but, extremely difficult to execute.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my career working for and with entrepreneurs. Some who “get it done” and some who don’t.
The ones who do follow a pattern. A recipe that allows them to orchestrate success in the same way as a conductor does a symphony. They love the process and engage as it unfolds.
So, rather than a formula it’s a series of steps, notes on a page that blend together.
The winning entrepreneur:
(1) Checks their ego at the door
(2) Doesn’t become emotionally attached to their original idea to the extent that it outweighs sound business judgment
(3) Seeks out and listens to opinions from experts and their target market
(4) Engages in intellectual debate when challenged
(5) ACTS quickly when a suggested change of course makes sense
And, most importantly
(6) Embraces the process
Sounds simple. But, it’s not. By nature, serial entrepreneurs are egoists. They not only love their ideas, but many are in love with themselves and therefore emotionally tie themselves to their creations. Whether it be a product, a website, or a commercial, to WIN – the entrepreneur must actively engage and WANT others to better what they’ve done. Many CEOs engage in steps 3 and 4, but have never mastered 1 and 2 and therefore cannot execute on step 5. They know it all; the project is their “baby”. Who could create something better?
I’ve lived a real life example with a winning CEO. My CEO at Education Connection had been massively successful. He had started and sold several businesses – for millions of dollars. He was known in the for profit online education space as well as internet marketing industries as “the golden boy” or the “man with the midas touch”. He was incapable of creating something that was not a success. Having the opportunity to work for him and now having worked for several other CEOs, the difference is clear; he loves the process. He had said to me hundreds of times while building our business, “enjoy the journey – be present – don’t always rush to the end goal” and only now – a couple years later – do I understand what that means and why it led to his success. It’s the process outlined above.
The best ideas are those that lie ‘outside the box’. The top thinkers, innovators, and visionairies have all been considered ‘out of the box’. Similarly, those that have the appearingly ‘best’ careers are the ones who have taken the concept of ‘career’ OUT of the box.
Don’t wrap your career in a box. Don’t look at your career in a vacuum. It’s not static and if your idea of a career is static, you will become static as well.
Here’s the truth; if you’re looking for a career, you’re looking for the wrong thing.
What you should be looking for is something that makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning.
What you should be looking for is a way to continuously better yourself, continuously learn, continuously grow.
What you should always be seeking out – is your next adventure.
Certainly, that may take the form of something that turns into a career; or it may not.
Maybe what you’re looking for is to start your own business, maybe what you’re looking for is a contract – for a project that excites you, maybe you are good at several functional areas and it’s time to CHANGE what you thought was your ‘career’ path because all of the sudden, you’ve realized you’re a General Manager, but CERTAINLY you do not want to FORCE a career.
If you ignore this advice and continue to seek out a career, you will become part of the statistic that has changed so dramatically over the past decade. You will become one of the people who changes jobs an average of every year and a half, without promotion, but more importantly, without being happy.
By tying yourself into a career, you’re missing out on the most important part of your learnings; the different journey you take. The people you meet along that journey. Most importantly, your closing your mind to opportunities that may arise.
There’s probably a lot of people who will read this and think, “sounds good in theory, but I need to bring in some cash!” Of course you do – we all do. But bringing in cash and tying yourself to ONE career is NOT the same thing. Get a day job if you need the cash; but look for a day job that at least ties into something you love OR one that gives you enough free time at that “job” to work on your REAL passion – whatever that may be. A great example is Gary Vaynerchuck. He worked 12 hours / day at his retail wine shop and then built his own business at night – he worked almost every night from 8 PM – midnight. It took 2 years – but he did it. He launched his own business.
Another example is how I’ve designed my life. People ask why I consult and own my own businesses; and the reasons are very simple: 1) I don’t believe in a “career” as currently described in the marketplace 2) I haven’t yet found a job or group of individuals that meet the criteria set above; So, I take on projects and clients – I actually turn down more than I take on…and then I work on my own projects for free a couple hours / day. I have not “settled” for a job. I have figured out how to use my current skill set to continue making money. And I’ve ensured everyday is an adventure, every project is a learning opportunity, I only work for people who intrigue me, and most importantly, I enjoy my journey.
Your “career” can be anything you want it to be. Throw out the preconceived definition that so many cling to as a security blanket (definition of career) and define what a career is TO YOU!
There are blogs about time management. Increasing efficiencies. And creating a life / work balance. But I couldn’t find that many posts about “bandwidth”. I often have people tell me I have incredible bandwidth; and I always attributed that to one of two things: Either 1) Much of the work I was doing I had done previously and thus could work more quickly than a newcomer. 2) Maybe I was just “quicker” than the average Joe. Turns out, I was wrong. It was neither of these things.
This post explains how to make the most of your time; more importantly – increase your bandwidth while maintaning or bettering the quality of your work.
1. Get rid of your preconceived notions of separating ‘work’ and ‘personal life’. Whether we choose to admit it or not, every year this line becomes more blurred. With the advent and expectations that come with Blackberry’s, remote log ins, and other communication tools, people work 70% more now than they did 20 years ago. Instead of becoming annoyed and frustrated with the onslaught of technological communication tools, I found a way to use them in a way that makes me more productive. And we all know that “responding to emails immediately” rarely increases production, so this is not what I’m referring to.
2. Know when and how you produce. I’m an entrepreneur first, marketer second, and sales person 3rd. In any of these roles, three traits have set me apart; being ambitious enough to create strategically and then execute on tactics at near real time. That is “how” I produce. When do I produce? all day everyday. My least productive time in coming up with strategic ideas or plans is AT work; but I don’t have an exact time. Entrepreneurs gain business ideas and / or insights from anyone or anything. For me, an idea is usually sparked mid-conversation or while watching TV. I don’t know “why” this is, but would presume it’s because I’m an extrovert and clearly derive my motivations from other people.
3. Commit to being productive. Now that you’ve gotten rid of your preconceived notions and found out when you’re most productive, embrace the moment when a thought or idea comes to you. Don’t ignore it. Don’t say, “I’ll write it down later”. Commit to yourself that you will take advantage of your ideas and execute.
4. BE productive. Utilize the new technology. When you have an idea – type it out. Email it to yourself. Download an app like evernote. Record your thoughts an your phone. Whatever the communication medium is, use it. For me, I email myself all ideas I have. No matter how good or bad they are at the time. What may sound like a bad idea at one time may be the seed of a great idea or future business. Communicate it to yourself at the time, for later on you can build around it. For me, I have bursts of creativity, sometimes I even map out “task lists” in my head. What I do now is email them to myself. When I get to my computer, a task list, an idea, a marketing plan – whatever it is – it’s THERE. I copy and paste it into a doc, review / edit it, and the ‘hard part’ is done. I take on twice as many clients as other people I know because I commit to myself I will be productive when my brain is producing. I never put my creativity on hold.
5. Practice and embrace your productivity. When you’re in the car or at dinner, yes – this may be when you have a burst of creativity. Don’t get annoyed it’s “not the right time”. Get EXCITED. If you’re in the car, pull over. If you’re at dinner, excuse yourself and run to the restroom. The first few times, it may take you a while to get your thoughts communicated to yourself at a later time but as you do this more and more, you’ll find you’re able to send yourself an idea as well as corresponding execution plans in just 2 minutes. The faster your brain works, the more you’ll get onto paper.
I’m loyal – some may say, “too a fault” and on the surface, it may appear so. I’ve turned down opportunities that would’ve helped me grow, make more money, connect me with new and different people, provide new experiences…all because “I’m a loyal employee” (or so it would seem to the outside viewer). But I’m not a loyal employee, a loyal consultant, a loyal executive, or any other role you can place me in. I’m loyal to me. Period.
But what does “being loyal” to oneself mean? Perhaps something different for all of us; for me: I am loyal to the ethics, learnings, and morals that I believe in. And the learning that has most impacted my life and aided me in being enjoying my journey; I believe in people. The right people for me. I believe that by working for or working with the people that share similar “traditional” values, morals, or ethics, or more importantly – can educate me about new / differing morals and values – that is how I remain loyal to me.
Make a list of what is most important to you; morally, ethically, professionally, and even personally and seek out people who “fit” that list. If you are loyal to yourself and to your “list”, you will find these individuals, this ‘moral code’, personal and professional relationships, even job opportunities are not easy to find, Every opportunity, every individual, every ideology that crosses your path should be weighed against that list. And when you do find that ‘match’, embrace it. Foster it. Be patient. While there may not be a tangible ‘gain’ today, there may be one tomorrow, or 10 years from now. OR, there may never be one – but I assure you, you will build relationships that make YOU a better “you”; and that intangible gain is part of the journey. And the only part of life that matters…is the journey. And remaining loyal to the belief that the journey will get you where you want to be; wherever that may be.
So enjoy your journey, remember that everything is purposeful, and if you can remain loyal to yourself, and spend your time, effort, and love on the people who you choose to be part of your journey – who knows….lightning strikes at the oddest moments. Make sure you never give up the chance for the lighting to ignite a new journey; eventually, the journey will be one you can look back on and say, “I was loyal to me and that is all that mattered”.
I love education sales. There is nothing more gratifying than speaking with someone who genuinely is looking to better their life, having them “paint the picture” of their future, and knowing that by referring them to a degree program, you are ‘bettering’ the chances that they will get a job in the future.
For a decade I’ve been doing this, whether it be directly selling, building education businesses, call centers, training, or marketing programs. The past week I launched another business and I’ve been “back on the phones” as I don’t believe in “starting” a business without knowing your consumer. The students that I’ve spoken to have been of the highest quality and caliber I’ve ever driven to a call center; direct from television, no incentives, no discussion about money. Prospective students calling in solely because they are trying to better themselves.
And having a database of thousands of schools to refer students to used to be fantastic. I know the schools, how they work, and I know they do help people. That said, this week something has been different. While I know I am doing the ‘right’ thing by referring students to certain schools – there has been a hesitation to refer many of them. So, instead of turning them into revenue, whether it be by referring them to a school or even enrolling them myself, I’ve been searching for them. When a student calls in and says they want to go back to school online – I end up googling for community colleges near the students that have “distance learning” or “online programs” in their area. I’ve been explaining to students that there are numerous options, giving them the info about the for profit online universities, and then also giving them the information about the community colleges in their area…along with a recommendation that if the community colleges do offer the programs they are looking for, this is the “way to go” as it is less expensive and can be transferred into a bachelors degree program.
As I am fully aware of the value and quality of the online for profit programs; typically the teacher quality and curriculum is ‘better’ than a community college, I’m also flashing back on the loan repayment rates; or I should say, the lack of loan repayment rates. Over 80% of students going to school online are now in debt and about 50% of them are in default. I can’t get the picture out of my head of the spreadsheet I was given with those numbers.
While I have been perturbed with the increasing bad publicity surrounding the for profit universities; I’m seeing how it can affect those of us who believe in and support online for profit higher education. Data is data; numbers are numbers; and if someone like myself, a revenue driver to the core, is making the decision to send students to community college (if available), what will happen everywhere else?
I was lucky enough to be trained at the for profit university and I was trained to do “what is in the best interest of the student”. I was taught, “Enroll the ‘right student’, in the ‘right program’, at the ‘right time’”. We always asked if a student had a local community college that offered online education if the student needed their Associate degree. I wonder…if the online for profit colleges partnered and shared their model with the for profits for Associate degrees; and offered the matriculation into the Bachelors programs at their universities – would this be sustainable? I believe so and I believe it would be a “win/win”.
Less Revenue for the for profit school in the short term, but a higher net tuition revenue per student in the long term. Students enrolling with associate degrees AND students that have had online education experience have a higher likelihood of graduation – therefor decreasing the default rate and increasing loan repayment numbers.
Is it that simple? Or are these regulations just affecting my rationale?
A few years ago my job function was “technically” business development and operations. As with most start up environments, this was really just a title that was broad enough to encompass “anything that needs to get done”. That said, I was accountable for “marketing and sales deals” as well as devising the strategy and running the day to day operations of the company’s call center. There was not one area of the business that did not somehow effect either of these functions and as I was “employee 1″, I had a background or had worked in every other company function: building the website (design), developing the CRM (technology), driving traffic and tracking the sources/how they performed (analytics), setting up all clients and vendors (ops) just to name a few. The upside of the start up environment is the experience you get in a vast array of functional areas. The tough part is when you are told to focus in ONE or TWO areas, but you know enough about the other functions so when new employees are brought on, you are constantly working with them as well. What happens? You lose your focus.
Part of all of our journeys is to become self aware enough to recognize our faults, and choose either to fix them or use them to our advantage. At this time a few years ago my mentor sat me down and said the following,
“I assign you the project, ‘build a wall’. And you start building your wall; and it’s sturdy and beautiful – it looks like it’s going to be the perfect wall. But then, you look to your left and you look to your right and you see that your teammates have been told to build walls as well. However, their walls don’t look as good or as sturdy as yours. So, you leave your wall and you go to help them. You help them and guide them in building better walls for themselves and when their walls are done – they’re much higher quality walls than expected. You get back to finish your wall, and you’re almost done – but again you see someone who needs help on their wall; repeat performance. This time, however, when the wall is finished, you go back to your own wall and you find that the time to complete your project is almost up. You rush to build the rest of your own wall, and of course the quality suffers. When all is said and done, your team has 3 quality walls (not yours) and one semi quality wall (your wall). However, what I did not tell you is that your wall was the most important. Your wall was going to be the wall that protected the entire city and all of the other walls. I trusted you to build the most important wall because you were the most talented, the most tenacious, the most passionate; but you failed. You failed to build the wall I thought you would because you lost your focus; your passion for ‘people’ overran your passion to produce. You lost your focus.”
When my mentor told me this story, I understood. It was simple – he was telling me to focus on my tasks and stop worrying about everything going on around me. I was screwing up. What I did not realize then, that I do now – was that had I delved deeper into the story and continued a discussion, I would have realized way back then that I had a skill set that would set me on a new career path. While in a corporate environment working in one functional area, building others walls was not the ‘right’ way to perform. However, there is a whole industry of people who do nothing but “build walls” for other people. The industry is consulting. So while it took me a few years, I have realized what I’m really good at. I’m great at building other people’s walls. My “own wall” has manifested as a result of building others walls.
I think there are a lot of people who are stuck in boxes given to them by a title; who have the ability to add value in a myriad of functional areas and industries. Don’t stay in your box. Test yourself. Try building other people’s walls. It just takes one successful wall to gain the confidence to build another and then another. Eventually, you will have so many walls that you can quit your job and do nothing but creatively build other’s walls. It never gets boring; there is both short term and long term gratification; and like any famous wall – people will remember it was you who built it.
Approximately 1.5 years ago, I left the innovative company I had helped build, Education Connection. I had found a new innovative company whose mission I loved, and I wanted the experience of working with the “state university” side of the online higher education industry; so I left my comfort zone and moved across the country to Dallas, Texas. I also wanted to “prove” to myself that I could be successful without my two mentors; I felt it was time for me to “grow” on my own.
This turned out to be a necessary part of my ‘journey’ as I was able to grow, learn how to interact with a different group of executives, board members, and cultures and also afforded me to opportunity to see how different working with state universities was vs. for profit universities. I was able to ‘prove to myself’ that I could be successful without my mentors, which was good and bad. Good because it made me more confident…bad because I certainly didn’t need anymore “ego feed”.
By adding this new subset of an industry and connecting with myriads of new individuals, I was able to see one thing: I had been working for (Education Connection) the most innovative and forward thinking group in the education space.
Based on the number of consulting and job inquiries I was recieving while at the second company (post working at Education Connection), I chose to start my own company. I believed this was a way for me to work with multiple companies, multiple executives, and would provide me with an unbelievable learning experience; the ability to interact and learn from the top executives in the higher education industry.
At this juncture, I’ve worked with about ten different higher education service companies, ranging from lead generation to call centers to enrollment management companies; and multiple schools. I have learned a lot, but my biggest learning was this: The only companies that will survive the new for profit education regulations would be the ones that invested heavily and believed in their innovators. In speaking with one of the executives I enjoy working with the most, a brilliant man named John Goodwin, he made a comment I use all the time now. He said, “The companies that come out of this education congressional hearings successful will be the companies that not only listen to their innovators, but more so will be the companies that have the ability to adapt the most quickly to a changing environment.” We were going back to Darwinism.
Having worked with all of these schools and companies, there is only one company that has come forth and displayed a pro-active understanding as well as comprehensive product offering to aid the for profit schools in their quest for higher graduation rates and higher re-payback rates on their loan; that company was Education Connection.
About 5 years ago, my prior CEO and mentor Richard Capezzalli said to me, “What will happen to the for profit education industry in the next several years is going to be cataclysmic.” I vividly remember this as 1) I didn’t know the exact meaning of cataclysmic and had to run and look it up. 2) We had recently started a lead generation company, Education Connection. I thought to myself, ‘why would we have started a lead generation company if the for profit industry is going to be shaken up so badly?’
In the subsequent four years and and 11 months, I learned the reasoning behind our ‘lead generation’ company; we were building a lead gen ‘model’ to learn the best ways to market to students, but the end goal was different. We were looking for students that yielded the highest graduation rates, or net tuition revenue; not solely the lowest cost per acquisition or cost per enrollment.
So after about two years of introducing ‘innovative break through’ #1 (we were the first lead generation company) that had employed prior admissions advisors and were warm transferring leads to the for profit schools at over 10% lead to start conversions; Richard, the innovator, introduced the true reason he was confident that EdConnect could take over the industry; at first, he called it “Future Scholars” (It is now called Test Drive College).
With the goal of advising and working with students who would yield the highest graduation rate, Richard quickly went back to his days of owning and running schools. He explained to his EC management team that 2 of the main reasons students did not stay in school were 1) They were not prepared for the rigors and discipline needed for online learning and 2) Across the entirety of the ‘edu lead generation industry’, we were marketing to people who were not “academically ready”. So, logically – if we were able to find a way to ensure that the students were 1) Academically ready 2) Had the ability to experience online learning (and not just a demo, a true class), the retention and graduation rates would rise dramatically. This would not only effect graduation rates in a positive manner, but would also positively effect loan re-payback rates and minimize loan default rates. There is a direct correlation between students graduating and having a higher payback rate.
The model went live with a large test utilizing two of the large for profit universities as ‘partners’ and while it took a year to get the student retention rates back, the test was wildly successful. “What is the model?” you ask. In it’s simplest form, students take an online accredited course (they can transfer into a school) for free; hence the word, “TEST DRIVE”. In order to be one of the chosen for this free course, the student first must pass a short test (SAT questions – I believe there are 20 of them), which demonstrates the student can sustain the academic climate in a college. Once the test has been passed, the student speaks with an advisor or “gatekeeper” as we liked to call them during the testing phase; whose job is to ensure that IF the student does “adapt” and is a “fit for online learning”, they will enroll in a school post taking the free online course. The goal was to ‘weed’ students out in this free course that did not like online learning. We only worked with students who were serious and who understood the value of the degree, the financial aid process, etc.
The tests were wildly successful. The hypothesis that these students would retain and have higher graduation rates was proven (patience was certainly a virtue as it took over a year for these retention numbers to come back). The company that had been the first to see these regulations would be coming (about five years before they came), the company that quickly executed on their innovative plan, the company whose tests were successful prior to any regulatory discussion taking place – this is the company that is positioned to aid the for profits in their quest to continue to help the students who have nowhere else to go. The company that was the first to embrace their innovator was Education Connection. Will you be next?
I’ve worked in 4 start ups and been successful 4 times. I define success in a start up as the company becoming profitable as well as a “going concern” business.
While my ego would like to think I can attribute these successes to my own intellectual superiority, I have become more of a realist. There have, however, been 3 constants to these successes and now consulting for numerous start ups, I’m shocked to find the minimal time and thought that goes into what I consider the initial recipe for success.
A strategic and well thought out human resource initial plan will
1. Hiring on 4 traits
Always list these 4 criteria in order of the ‘traits possessed’ for your potential hire:
The order that will bring you a successful candidate in a start up world;
What does this mean? It means that someone who is tenacious, ambitious, has unparalleled work ethic while also having the ability to make good decisions and think ‘outside the box’ is going to be far more valuable than the “MBA who has worked in corporate America for 5 – 10 years”. Certainly, there are roles for these folks, but not in the core of your start up executive, senior, or middle level management teams.
2. Sacrifice is KEY
Offer a very minimal base salary – regardless of the role. PAY FOR SUCCESS ONLY.
When you have team members that are confident enough in their abilities that they agree to being tied directly into accountability metrics to get paid, you have people who are ‘bought in’. Take the time to develop a monthly accountability plan. It may take you a couple hours to develop the ‘right’ plan and another hour to explain it to a colleague, but it will drive millions in revenue over time; as well as cut costs.
3. CUT THE FAT
Stop hiring people who do not have the ability to act in numerous roles. Oftentimes, I see start ups where executives can play numerous roles; they can develop and drive strategy on the marketing side, but also be an operator if needed – and most times a salesperson as well. Then when it comes to hiring senior and middle management, ‘executives’ seem to think that they should each have a vertical of employees reporting to them. Forget the vertical. Find senior and middle managers who can play multiple roles as well. YOU WANT TO HIRE MINI C.E.O.s.
For example, you don’t want just a ‘director of creative’, you want a creative designer who can design, code, has an e-commerce and technology background, can manage websites, QA the site, and has the operational background to project manage anything in your marketing department. Many start ups hire 1 “director of marketing”, 1 creative designer, another technology person. Find someone with all of these skills.
Another example; do not hire a “director of sales” or “director of marketing”…Hire a “director of revenue driving operations” or a “rain maker”. Find someone who can negotiate deals and don’t only use them on the business development side; use them on the marketing team as well – to work on marketing negotiations. If the individual is “innately intelligent” and “motivated”, they will pro-actively learn about all areas of your business (motivation) and adapt their skill sets quickly based on the knowledge (Innately intelligent). Combined with creative deal making and negotiation skills, you want your ‘revenue driver’ to also have had an operational background – who needs a sales / marketing operations person? Until you’re profitable – it’s a waste.
Last week I was offered a phenomenal Chief Operating Officer role in a great start up company. I was offered a decent starting salary (for a start up venture), but more importantly – a lot of equity. Even more important, I saw that I could learn from the co-founders and I believed in the product. One would think I would be ecstatic. I was, but there was something holding me back. I couldn’t figure out why I was not jumping through the roof and accepting, so I called one of the most influential mentors I’ve had, who knows me as an employee, colleague, and personally and he had one simple question that I couldn’t answer. What is your vision for yourself?
My vision (in my mind) is simple; I already have the perfect husband – then add to the picture 2 kids, a dog, 5 bedroom house on the ocean in South Fl, and CEO of my own company. Well, that all sounds plausible in theory and I’m CEO of my own company now; although I’d like to be CEO of a $30-$40 million dollar business so we have some growing to do.
This is where my mentor gave me a dose of reality; he said, “Jamie, my wife and I speak literally every week about how she feels she’s not giving enough time to our children.” His wife is the Chief Administrative Officer for a major company, extremely bright, ambitious, and absolutely adores her children. So, they’re both fantastic parents and it would “appear” they ‘live the dream’, but it also sounds like the “having young children” and “feeling like you are doing a good job as a mother” is STILL something that can be an issue.
I’ve spoken to others whom are extremely successful in business and have fabulous children / home lives and my findings; the mother has usually taken off of work for a year or two after the baby is born or one of the parents have their own business where they keep their own hours.
So, it would appear from all “data” and “anecdotal” points that my vision is flawed…but it can’t be, right? There must be hundreds of women who have been successful in their careers and still feel like they’re giving their children enough time. Isn’t that what the feminist movement was all about?
So let’s assume, for 1 second, that I cannot be a CEO or COO of a large corporation AND be an attentive mother; then what? Do I put my “career” vision on hold for a few years? I can certainly continue to work as I’m working now and make great money and spend time with my children, but I miss having something “to build” and I miss having a “team”.
Is it possible to NOT have a vision relating to business? And if so, can I be successful without that vision?
I am confident, possibly too confident that I will succeed in whatever business endeavor I undertake. I have the experience and the track record there; so can my ‘vision’ only include things that are personal? I see myself being successful at whatever I want to do – can my vision just be broad right now? Can it be, “be successful?”