The end-of-spring graduation season always brings out a variety of advice from guest speakers at universities across the nation. Though their words are intended for those just entering the workforce, many can also apply to those looking to make their own way and start a small business.

Here’s a look at several examples from recent graduation speeches.

President Barack Obama at Howard University (via Politico): “You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I’ll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes. You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing.”

Small business lesson: The president was largely speaking of social and political strategy. But strategic thinking is essential for entrepreneurs, and the initial steps of starting a small business should include serious analysis. Take this list of five basic questions of where to begin in marketing, by Greg Head of

  • “Who is your narrowly defined target customer?”
  • “In which category does your business exist?”
  • “What is your unique benefit?”
  • “Who is your real competition?”
  • “How are you clearly different from your competitors?”

“To make your tactics work better, to grow your business and bring sanity to your world, you have to decide on the single, simple answer to each of these questions and commit to not changing it for a year or two,” Head writes. “This is focus. And focus is almost always the difference between a business that grows profitably and one that never seems to gain any momentum.”

Oprah Winfrey at Johnson C. Smith University (via Yahoo): “Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure. Being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes, because failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction.”

Small business lesson: Learn from your errors, and use those lessons to navigate difficult times and challenges. As Mitch Rothschild writes for, entrepreneurs should “reframe problems into lessons.”

“When the going gets tough, we all know people who start to lament, ‘Why me?’ But playing the victim doesn’t solve problems. Tough times are going to happen. The resilient leader asks, ‘What have I learned from this experience?’ Not, ‘What have I lost?’ The lessons of past experiences only help to inform future chances to do it better next time. That’s something all successful businesses and individuals understand.”

Paul Feig at USC Film School (via USA Today): “You want to make something great, but be cool while you’re doing it so people will hire you again. Because if you screw up and you’re an [expletive], they won’t hire you again. But if you’re nice and you screw up, then they’re like, ‘Let’s give him another shot …’ It will buy you one free pass.”

Small business lesson: The director of Bridesmaids and Spy must be skilled in the art of diplomacy. A small business owner will need that ability to have give-and-take discussions with clients, peers and staff members. As Caron Beesley writes for the U.S. Small Business Administration, diplomacy “opens the door to problem-solving and respect.”

No one likes to be pressured or threatened into submission — whether it’s done bluntly or passive-aggressively,” she says. “But it’s going to happen — and the good thing is that this is your opportunity to really let your personality shine through. Handling negotiations with grace and diplomacy puts both parties at ease. … Diplomacy and poise on your part can go a long way to defusing even the trickiest negotiations and demands.”

J.K. Simmons at The University of Montana (via “ … I mean wherever you are physically present, to also be mentally, emotionally, spiritually present. And by present I mean fully engaged, not staring at your damn smartphone all the time. I’m just another curmudgeon who likes to moan about how things were better in my day — which they were. Before smarty-pants-phones.”

Small business lesson: The Oscar-winning actor went old-school on the new graduates, even emphasizing the need to be on time and to use the turn signal. While many business owners are looking to capitalize on the strengths of millennials, there can be value with old-school business methods, as Paul Angone examines for Business Insider.

“Millennials’ anthem should be ‘HYBO’ — Hustle Your Butt Off. If you make a mistake, take ownership and don’t leave until you’ve helped remedy the situation. Don’t hide behind email. Pick up the phone, knock on someone’s door, and look people in the eye. Become a real, live person in the office, not a millennial who’s addicted to their iPhone. Millennials have huge dreams of making an impact, making a profit, or most of the time, doing both. Their big dreams are not the problem; the timeline for how quickly we think those dreams should come to fruition is. Don’t chase your dreams. Plant them in the best soil you can find and then water them every day with old school values.”

Michael Bloomberg, University of Michigan (via Yahoo): “The secret to success is not rocket science. It just requires true dedication and a willingness to go the extra mile. … Let’s put it this way: I know of no Nobel Prize winner who has stopped studying.”

Small business lesson: Entrepreneurs have to be willing to put in the work, and to examine ways to expand their own horizons. In a story for, Jacqueline Whitmore emphasizes the dependability of those with a strong work ethic.

“You can be relied on to keep your promises,” she writes. “You are always on time and prepared for meetings, and deliver your work on schedule and on budget. Your reputation for reliability precedes you because you’ve proven over time that customers, clients and colleagues can trust you to do everything you say you will. In an uncertain world, your customers, colleagues and clients will appreciate the stability you embody.”

Ryan Seacrest at University of Georgia (via USA Today): “Make sure you happen to the day instead of it happening to you. But no matter the circumstances, you still only get one shot to make a day that matters.”

Small business lesson: The TV star is far from the first to make a “carpe diem” speech, but the thought behind “seize the day” certainly applies to business owners. There’s no room for a passive approach, as Cynthia Measom explores for Demand Media.

“Entrepreneurs are proactive,” Measom writes. “They have initiative and they are ready to use it to further their business. They look for opportunities to improve their company, such as implementing services or marketing products that allow their business to stand out from the competition. They are also open to opportunities that can help them expand their current business into new areas.”