Thousands of you wide-eyed graduates are walking into the world with one of the weakest job markets in recent history. You have no desk waiting for you, so entrepreneurship is on your radar under the idea that if you can’t find a job, then you need to create a job. Without many of the experiences older counterparts have had after working for someone else, you might feel a little bit like you’re walking around in a dark room looking for the light switch. Now five years out of college and having had opportunities that my photojournalism and art minor unexpectedly led me to, here are five lessons I wish someone told me as I ventured off campus and ultimately on to the challenging roller coaster of starting a company.
1.) Be proactive
Whether you are working for yourself or working for someone else, you should always be looking for opportunities to exceed expectations and step up to the plate if you want to be successful. If you work for yourself, you understand that the work you put in is what you will get out of the business, so cutting corners just isn’t feasible. More importantly, being proactive will keep you from being caught off guard, which can make or break your business.
2.) Don’t be afraid to take risks
I was fortunate to step into a dream job right out of college. I had a great salary, good benefits, and split my year living between India, Southeast Asia and New York as a high level director in a rapidly growing international travel company. I learned a lot, but I felt I had reached the ceiling within the company and was getting very interested in tech while living in New York. My family and friends thought I was crazy to give that all up, settle into one place, and co-found a company. The difference though, was they didn’t understand that it was an idea I truly believed in and our team could make it happen. It was a calculated risk, not a foolish risk. Whether it is taking that first leap to start a business or changing directions, smart risks are often where businesses differentiate themselves from the competition. As an entrepreneur, you will always be testing a hypothesis and reworking it until you develop your secret sauce and you can’t be afraid to change something a few customers enjoy if a better idea will satisfy the masses. Just ask McDonalds.
3.) Understand your ethical boundaries
Working with business partners and clients will bring forward ideas that may not jive with your own. When accusations started flying against Groupon’s FTD Valentine’s Day (http://money.cnn.com/2011/02/11/pf/groupon_ftd_deal_backlash/index.htm) deal that was more expensive than their sale for regular customers, I wasn’t surprised. Smaller clients worried about costs of the daily deal model pitched us the idea of temporarily raising prices, then reducing them after the offer expired. We decided instead to work with the businesses in a manner that was fair for both of our businesses, yet remained ethical. This not only made the businesses happy, it also led us to develop Dibsie.com, a new model that we hope will level the playing field for businesses and deal seekers alike. Early in my career I was tested with requests that blurred the lines of legality. By refusing, clearly communicating why, and staying consistent, I was no longer asked to do the tasks that potentially fell outside the lines. Ultimately I became respected more for those early decisions and elevated quickly through the company, while some of my colleagues ended up being pulled down the rabbit hole.
4.) Surround yourself with people that will challenge you
Not only do you want business partners and colleagues that will complement your skill set, you also want to have people around you that you can learn from. It can be hard to get away from your work to go to events and network, but talking about your ideas and learning from others that have gone through the same struggles you are going through can be invaluable. Within our company, we have to constantly bounce ideas off one another and challenge each other on whether decisions are worth pursuing, share interesting reads, and now are even learning programming. Get out and find a mentor, talk to others with more experience, read as many business books as you can, and boil all of that information down the important parts to further develop yourself. If you feel comfortable where you are, then you probably aren’t challenging yourself enough.
5.) Have passion for what you do
I’ve heard far too many people working in jobs that they are ready to leave, but don’t know how. They are tired of the long hours and not being able to have a bigger slice of the pie. I can’t say I never had similar thoughts when I was working for someone else, but I have always found a way to do things I want to do and get paid. Ski instructing, cooking in restaurants, traveling, and photography among them. As a bonus, I learned business, product development, customer service, management and other key skills that now allow me to pursue my passion for tech. Everyone needs to pay their dues and hopes for the upside down the line, but forgets that most startups will fail, and most of those successful entrepreneurs have struggled through several failures before their big IPO. Not everyone will be a Mark Zuckerberg, but the dream can drive the passion. As a business owner, you have a little bit of flexibility, but your hours will be long, your highs will reach the clouds, but your lows will reach the darkest depths and this cycle is unfortunately all too repetitive. If you don’t have an idea that you believe in and are ready to work endless hours on, then money won’t carry you forward. You’ll have times that you’re bootstrapping off your savings, pitching investors that don’t believe in you, and if you do find investment, unless you succeed in that slight possibility of huge profitability, an exit, or IPO, you probably won’t be earning millions any day soon. If you enjoy what you do, you’ll be happy to wake up to each day’s new challenges that make entrepreneurship worth every bit of effort you put into it.
Scott Poniewaz is the co-founder of Dibs Inc., which runs CampusDibs.com, the leading college daily deal site, and Dibsie.com (private beta), a business friendly site for deal seeking consumers. His personal blog is at scottponiewaz.com or follow him on twitter: @scottpony