Sometimes, for a little shock value, I like to tell people I grew up in the back of a liquor store. And I did — sort of. When I was born we lived down the block from the liquor store my grandfather and uncle owned in Brooklyn, and I spent a lot of time in the stock room building castles out of liquor boxes and packing materials. We moved from Brooklyn when my dad and his father opened a men’s clothing store in Queens.
I come from a family of small business owners. So I understood, from the beginning, that people don’t work Monday to Friday from 9 to 5 and that there’s no big deal about bringing your kids to work, or even putting your kids to work. From the moment we were old enough (around 5) we kids would go to work with my dad on the Saturday before Father’s Day and during the holidays to unfold boxes. And so my exposure to business ownership started very early in life.
I started thinking about my small business upbringing this week as I was preparing to be a judge for NFTE-Los Angeles (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) in their annual business plan competition for high school students as well as speak at UCLA’s Entrepreneurs Conference.
Young people are lucky today to have so many organizations (mostly nonprofit) and institutions that are now invested in bringing entrepreneurial education and awareness to kids starting in elementary school and continuing through college. And I think it’s imperative that all of us “grown-up” entrepreneurs do or give whatever we can to help them. For some of us that may be writing a check to one of these worthy organizations. Here are a few doing good work: NFTE, Junior Achievement, DECA, SAGE, and CEO. But it’s not all about the money. Volunteer your time, give a lecture, teach a class, hire an intern, sponsor an event, be a mentor. You’re likely to learn a thing or two as well.
This brings to mind the old question: Are entrepreneurs born or can they be taught? I have always come down on the side of almost anyone can be an entrepreneur; it just takes exposure, education, and hard work. Sure, there might be people born with “entrepreneurial” traits or personalities but that doesn’t mean they actually will be able to successfully start and run a business.
So even if you believe you’re a born entrepreneur, don’t think you can coast your way to success. You can’t. You still need to have a plan. Students who study entrepreneurship are taught this; yet too many entrepreneurs think they don’t really need to write a business plan. While your business plan does not have to be a formal document (unless you’re trying to raise money), you should at minimum map out your goals and how you plan to achieve them. And then check your progress (or lack thereof) monthly to make sure you’re on the right track.
Born entrepreneur or not, you’re going to find yourself facing lots of new competitors in the coming months, so you better get ready now. As I told you several weeks ago in my column Get Your Business Ready Now for Tomorrow’s Recovery, the economy is showing signs of life, but business in America will never go back to the way it was. Of the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs in the recession, at least hundreds of thousands of them will likely start a business. Invariably some of these new entrepreneurs are going to be competing with you. The difference is they come to business with a fresh eye and a “why not?” attitude, while you might be stuck in a “that’s the way we do it” rut.
This is a good time to reexamine your business. Even if you’re doing “well enough,” chances are there are many things you can change and improve. But in order to really see the truth, you have to look at your business as if you were a newbie. What can you do differently? What are you doing right? What’s simply not working? Can you tweak something and make it better?
None of this is rocket science. Chances are when you first started your company you were more skeptical and questioned results and solutions. Then as you grew, it was all too easy to get a little complacent, whether in good times or bad.
Many of us believe the old canard, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But remember those students of entrepreneurship I mentioned earlier? One of the tenets they’re taught today — and a lesson we should all learn is — “If it ain’t broke, break it!”
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