The Making of an Entrepreneur

You may think that running someone else's business qualifies you to start one of your own. Think again

By Blake Barker

The entrepreneur's life is just that -- a life. Like life, nothing you do can completely prepare you for what you face when you take on the daunting task of being the owner and president of your own company. While there may be support, you're ultimately on your own -- your money, time, and energy are personally on the line.

In my previous life as the hired president and CEO of a San Diego telecommunications startup, I thought I knew what to expect. I did everything an entrepreneur does: develop a strategic plan, hire and fire, raise capital, negotiate with suppliers and, ultimately, sell the company. I was living the startup life, with the long hours, quick decisions, and unique energy that make young companies so exciting. In my mind, I was an overachieving entrepreneur.

THOUGHTS AND ACTIONS.

  In reality, however, I was still an employee, because I hadn't founded that company. There's a line between employee and entrepreneur that's difficult to describe. It may not even exist in a physical sense. But it's real nonetheless. Like all fundamental life events -- having a child, facing the loss of a loved one -- you only know you've crossed the line when you've crossed it. In other words, becoming an entrepreneur is something that must be experienced.

After selling the start up -- esi4B, Inc. -- in 2002, I actually did launch a venture of my own, Texacan Beef & Pork, a purveyor of smoked meats and sauces based in Ashburn, Va. It wasn't my first business. Back in the 1970s, I bought the Texas telecommunications company for which I had been working as a sales manager. Three years after selling that company in 1980, I founded Airdata, an early entrant in the automated phone information market, which I also eventually sold.

Each time I've made the transition to entrepreneur, though, I've learned anew that valuable lesson about career "planning" for entrepreneurs. That said, I've also learned another equally important lesson: It's possible to prepare for entrepreneurship -- in fact, it's critical that you do. You'll first have to discard the illusion that your "entrepreneurial" experiences have already made you an entrepreneur. Then you'll need to focus on taking the concrete actions that do make the difference. What follows is a look at those.

CARVE A NICHE.

  A startup is exciting because the pace is so quick. Particularly in the technology industry, where products and players change so rapidly, quick decision-making, quick assessment, prompt resolution, and immediate follow-through on ideas are essential.

It's easy to apply the same style to starting your own business. It's also deadly. Instead, you must take the time to understand the market, the competition, and, above all, to define and reinforce your unique selling proposition. At Texacan, we wholesale and retail specialty smoked meats. Period. That's what we do. Define your business with that type of clarity. A clear statement of purpose provides you with focus as you develop your business plan; going back to it frequently will keep you from veering off course. When you talk with clients, bankers, investors, and vendors, it will enable them to easily grasp what you are all about.

One of Texacan's differentiators is the safety and consistency of the product. For me, the best way to communicate that message to potential customers is through USDA designation. It took me nearly a year to learn how the USDA works, how to get an inspector into my facility, and how to design my production process in a way to earn the USDA stamp of approval.

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 does—and 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 employee—however "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 company—and 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

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of EntreWorld.org, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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