Taking the Leap: Is it time to start your own business?

Maybe it’s the economy with its high unemployment, but lately I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are considering starting their own business. Having begun a few of my own, they ask my advice. It’s always the same: “Come on in. The water’s warm.” And when I follow that remark with, “Sharks also live in warm waters,” their countenance quickly changes. In the fifteen years of running my own businesses and learning things the hard way, I’ve been bitten by a few of those sharks.

If you’re contemplating venturing out on your own, congratulations! It can be one of the most rewarding—and challenging—adventures of your life. Before you commit to the leap, however, there are three questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Am I compelled? If you’re not saying to yourself, “I must do this,” you may not yet have the emotional fortitude for what’s to come. In my opinion, you have to be absolutely convinced that starting your own business is something you need to do. There are so many things that will go “bump in the night,” that you’ll need to rely on the confidence you once felt to get you through the tough times along with the long hours. When I left corporate America fifteen years ago, I knew I wanted to start my own business. Running an intrapreneurial business unit within the safety of a large corporation had given me a taste that I knew couldn’t be quenched with a corporate job. In fact, I knew if I had taken another job, I would have done my employer a disservice because my heart would not have been in the work at hand. Instead, like an unfaithful man on the prowl, I would be always wondering if now was the time to take the leap.
  • Have I listened? One of the best ways to know if you’re ready to take the leap is to ask others. The key here is in how you listen and respond to what they tell you. Being in business for yourself means perfecting the art of listening. You need to contemplate, then refine the products and services you deliver, based on feedback you get from the market. Why not apply those skills even before you get started with your most important allies?
    • Your family. If you’re married, and especially if you have children, these are the most important people in your life to listen to. They, perhaps even more than you, will pay the price for your adventure. You’ll need their support, especially when times get tough. And while they probably won’t be putting in time at the office, they’ll be making sacrifices right along with you, albeit without the emotional rewards that you’ll be experiencing.
    • Your friends. Friends who know you well and are willing to be candid with you can be an invaluable help in assessing your readiness for business. Be careful, however, because your friends are friends for a reason. They may not be the most objective and may be more inclined to see you only in your past or current occupation. This may limit the value of their input, especially if you’re contemplating a significant shift from your past endeavors.
    • Your forerunners. Find others that have gone out before you, especially those who’ve started businesses similar to what you are contemplating. Most entrepreneurs love to talk about how they got started in business and are eager to help others avoid swimming near the sharks they’ve seen.
  • Do I have a plan? Lack of planning was perhaps the biggest mistake I made in starting my first business. Mine was a blind leap fueled by enthusiasm and over-inflated self confidence. I so desperately wanted to run my own company (see number 1 above) that it almost didn’t matter what it was. Consequently, I had a lot of on-the-job training, and the wages to match. My take home pay for the first three months approached a whopping thirty-five cents an hour. One of the best ways to avoid those start-up costs is to do as much up-front work as possible even before you leave your current employer. Conducting research, talking to people, building a business plan, reading books, etc. are all good probes to put in the water before you leap. As J. Wallace Day once said, “It takes a fool to test how deep the water is with both feet.”

While answering these questions before you leap won’t make you shark-proof, from my experience you’ll at least be less likely to be swallowed whole by them.

If you’ve already taken the leap, what advice would you also give to those considering getting into the water?

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