A Few Tips for the ‘Would-Be’ Entrepreneur

Contributed by Alan Rohlfing
(This is one of a series of posts focused on entrepreneurship. Check back weekly for observations on a variety of employment and self-employment topics.)
Owning your own business. For many of us in the military community, that’s the brass ring that so many of us have our sights set on, especially as we transition out of military service. About a month ago, I wrote an article in this blog titled Small Business Ownership & the Military Veteran and explored what it meant to be a small business owner. What it meant to be self-employed, an entrepreneur, a sole proprietor, or an independent contractor. I’d venture a guess that most of us know someone that set out on their own, whether that was to realize a lifelong dream or simply to put food on the table.
I’d also guess that most of us know that small business is risky, and that those of us that have some degree of training in risk management have done some research on how to mitigate that risk. Go to a bookstore (online or brick & mortar) and you’ll find the typical self-help section with bestsellers from experts on entrepreneurship. Buy a few books, get them in two days or less, and get to work on digesting the expert advice between the covers.
And there’s a lot of good advice out there, both in books and in the kind of wisdom you can tap into when you visit with a small business owner who’s willing to chat about their successes and failures. That was one of the best things about my line of work for the 5 years prior to joining the Military Connection team. As the lead entrepreneurial workshop facilitator for the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) at seven different military installations, I had the privilege of picking the brains of what seemed like hundreds of small business owners, CPAs, attorneys, and small business counselors. We talked about what worked, what didn’t work in many cases, and some of the things a soon-to-be small business owner ought to be thinking about. And here they are…
Define success. This could be the most critical of conscious thought processes. Think about how you define success, and what ‘successful’ looks like to you. Then do the same for those that you care about, especially if they’re along for the ride and they have a vested interest in that success. Although success isn’t always measured in dollars and cents, for most people that’s the first barometer they think about. How much revenue must you generate to cover your debts and obligations, and then pay you a salary? And how long will it take to get there?
Figure out your comfort level with risk. As I’ll say again and again, small business is risky. There are ways to mitigate that risk, however, like choosing a legal entity that can help shield you from liability and/or choosing an insurance policy with coverage that’s right for you. At some point, you’ll have to figure out how much risk you can live with (or sleep well at night with), cross-check that with the costs of legal representation and insurance premiums, and make some decisions. And don’t be surprised if you and the people you care most about have different comfort levels with that risk…
Build your team. Surround yourself with good people…people that are smarter than you are (about their topic of expertise, at least). In some of our entrepreneurial circles, there’s a catchy little term called BAIL. That acronym is short for Banker-Accountant-Insurance (Agent)-Lawyer. It’s catchy because folks like us immediately think that the BAIL team can keep us out of jail, but it’s much simpler than that…it boils down to the fact that those professionals have skillsets that most small business owners don’t, and it’s wise to have them on your team. Having them on your team doesn’t mean that they have to be on the payroll, but when you have a need for what they bring to the table, it’s nice to already know who you want to do business with.
Manage your brand. This isn’t just a tagline for those Marketing professionals out there. Yes, your brand may very well be the crafted image you’ve spent a lot of time and money on, but first and foremost…your brand is YOU. Whether you’re in retail or you’re an independent contractor with a skillset that’s in-demand, you are your own brand ambassador for your small business. Consider cleaning up your online image if you need to, then walk the walk.
Go local. Do your homework and connect with all those resources out there that exist in order to help you succeed. Those national organizations that work with the SBA, the USDA, and other federal agencies? They have local representation & are looking to help folks just like you. Check out the nearby colleges and universities, as well as local economic development centers. Many of the workshops and training events are free or at-cost, and you’ll also connect with a whole lot of helpful humans.
While this list is obviously not all-inclusive, there are a lot of professionals out there that think it’s a mighty fine place to start when taking inventory of why you want to be a small business owner. Be forewarned though…working on your answers to the items above won’t automatically make you feel comfortable going down the entrepreneurial path. In fact, you may find that you don’t have the stomach for it or it’s not the right time or the juice just won’t be worth the squeeze. Just know that whatever you find yourself doing, we wish you the best of luck! And try to enjoy the ride…
Do you have any experiences you’d like to share about your small business search or military-to-civilian transition? Anything that might benefit others in our military community, facing the same challenges? If so, tell us your story and email [email protected]!