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108. Ten things I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur, that I wish I knew 15 years ago

  1. Ignore friendly advice, unless it’s expert level. Unless your friends are your customers, you shouldn’t care too much about what they think about your business. They can have all sorts of ideas about what you should do. If they’re not buying from you, you need to learn to ignore those of them who have opinions, but not expertise. And they will have opinions!
  2. Play to your strengths. It’s tempting to focus on ironing out your weaknesses. It won’t make you stand out, however. It’ll just make you less horrible at something. If you can find someone who can complement you, that’s great, but even if you can’t, focus on your strengths. If you’re never on time, but are brilliant at something, people will forgive. If you’re on time, but not brilliant you’re just a normal person.
  3. Fear is often ridiculous. As an entrepreneur I’ve let fear of stupid things stop me many more times than I’ve said no to an idea becaus of real risk. On the contrary, I’ve pulled some hare-brained schemes, but have held back from some smart ones because I was afraid of things that didn’t really matter. See #1 for a classic fear.
  4. Framing is everything. Would you rather buy a 110 euro product with a 10 euro cash discount, or a 100 euro product with a 10 euro extra charge for credit cards? “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”. Refusing to learn how to frame properly is almost criminal. Anything can be reframed to be stupid, risky or worse, so make sure you take time to learn about framing.
  5. Cash flow is queen. If you don’t have good cash flow, everything suffers. Figuring out economic models for your business that make sure that you can pay bills when you need to is all-important. For a big company, getting 10.000 euro two months late may mean little. For a small startup it might mean death. I wish I’d have been much better at managing cash flow when I started 15 years ago.
  6. There is no company. This one is a bit tricky, but true. Amazon never does anything. An employee with an Amazon t-shirt on does something. A machine owned by Amazon does something. McDonalds never makes a burger. People who say they represent McDonalds make burgers. What this means is that when you put on the company hat, the company does stuff – but if you don’t, it doesn’t.
  7. Learn low-level skills. I’ve written a separate blog post on this some time ago, but it’ll stand as advice anyway. Everything you can’t do, you need to pay for – either in money, relations, time or something else. You don’t have to be good. You just have to be ok. It’ll improve speed and efficiency, when you’re small, and make you better at understanding things when you grow.
  8. Charge money and be able to walk away. I was afraid of this for a long time. What if they said no? I still am, though the sums are completely different. The thing is that you need to be able to afford to say no to be able to negotiate. Securing stability quickly and then learning how to say no is vital. It took me a long time to learn that. These days I say no a lot more, but I also am not afraid of charging money for my work.
  9. Executing matters less than selling. It’s pretty simple. If you sell something and do it badly, you’ve still sold it. You also probably learned something, so you’ll be better next time. If you don’t sell it, you don’t get to do it. Unless of course you’re giving it away (which I recommend in many cases), but at some point you have to sell something if you want to pay your rent.
  10. Have a mentor. I’ve had plenty of people who’ve given me advice. But I’ve never had a mentor. That was a big mistake. I’ve since taken on that role with others, and I can see how much I lacked it myself. The world is full of people who want to help – but you need to ask them to, before they’ll do it. And if only I’d sought out a mentor 15 years ago it might have taken me less time to learn these ten things!

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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