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The Making of an Entrepreneur

By Blake Barker

KNOW YOUR COMPETITION. I had the luxury of that year because I gave it to myself. Yes, I took a cut in pay to get it. But taking the time to master my differentiator enabled me to hit the ground running when I launched my company. Marketing, PR, sales collateral, staff "scripts," and every other form of outbound communication were defined, focused, and coordinated. From day one, our team knew what made us different and better. That was only possible through the investment of time.

Go to trade shows before starting your venture. The small investment you make in airfare and accommodations is money well spent. From that vantage point, you will be able to hone your plan and visualize industry trends that will make your business flourish.

Join industry associations before you open your doors for business. You'll gain a lot of insight about your market, your competitors, new services and products, legislative issues your industry is facing even general financial data that your venture can expect to achieve.

Finally, be sure to listen, especially to the entrepreneurs in your industry. Ask them about factors that enabled them to build their business.

STAFF TO LEAN ON. You're going to wear a lot of hats in this endeavor of yours. Hire someone who can do things better, quicker, and cheaper than you can do things yourself. You may have a lot of attributes from which to draw, but you cannot do it all. If you have someone you can depend on, make it worth that person's while and constantly sing his or her praises. There will be a day, believe it or not, that you may be sick or decide to work only six days a week rather than seven! There's no better feeling than knowing the business is being cared for as you would do yourself.

As soon as you can, also begin the transfer of trust to that individual -- it will go a long way toward helping your second-in-command make the right decisions in your absence.

One of the great things about being an executive employee, even in a startup, is having a staff to insulate executives from mundane tasks, so they can focus on strategy and execution. Phones, computers, airline tickets, furniture -- it's requested, and it arrives. There's a whole world of suppliers, relationships, and payments that others handle.

PAPER CHASE. One of the facts of an entrepreneur's life during a company's early stages is administrative work. It can overwhelm new entrepreneurs and take precious time away from business development, marketing, and other core activities, especially if the founder has to learn it all from scratch. Simply put, you'll be surprised at how much you don't know.

The day you decide you are going to start your own company is the day to commit yourself to learning what staff doesand to doing a lot of it yourself. Whom do you call for IT hardware and repair? From whom do you order office supplies? Who is the account manager at the ad or PR agency? You'll want to know, because you want to be in the thick of the operations as processes are evolving. By sitting on the sidelines, you cannot observe what works and what doesn't and now it is your job to know.

Making the transition from employeehowever "entrepreneurial"to entrepreneur isn't easy. It must be experienced first hand to be "learned." But the lessons I've garnered from the transitions I've made might help you jumpstart the process for the good of your new companyand your own sanity.

Blake Barker, 51, founded Texacan Beef & Pork, a wholesaler and retailer of specialty smoked meats and sauces based in Ashburn, Virginia, in 2002 and currently serves as president

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