Image provided by: Barkhamsted School
As an economics major and the son of a business school professor, I’ve been immersed in theoretical business for much of my life. Oligopolies, Game Theory, and Competitive Advantage have been popular topics of conversation at the Petri household’s dinner table since I was in a high-chair.
But what I’ve discovered in the past 5 or so years working at a handful of small companies and consulting with a dozen or so more, is that their challenges and solutions are strikingly different from the ones encountered in the classroom. Here are five lessons I’ve learned about entrepreneurship that you’d never find in a business school curriculum:
1. You don’t have to be perfect to make money.
Most entrepreneurship case studies go something like this: Superstar CEO comes up with a fantastic and totally original idea, assembles a crack team with awesome experience in just the right field, builds the perfect product and go-to-market strategy to tackle the problem, and dominates the market.
That story can be an intimidating precedent for an entrepreneur to try to break through, and it’s also a completely unrealistic hurdle for success. In fact, deeply flawed companies succeed every day, just by being the first mover, by selling more aggressively than their competition, or by having maybe one or two of the advantages that our case study had. While it’s great to strive for perfection, your company doesn’t have to be a well-oiled machine from day one to make money. You’re certain to make mistakes, and the best entrepreneurs learn quickly from them and adapt.
2. Nobody does just one thing.
Large companies have a fairly predictable workload and enough scale to plug pieces into fairly narrow roles. At a small company, no matter how specific your title, you’ll find yourself fulfilling many different activities they didn’t tell you about in the interview, some beneath your experience level and some considerably above. There’s a different problem every day, and if you’re not prepared to roll with the punches, critical issues will fall through the cracks.
3. There is such a thing as being too thorough.
From a very early age, we’re all engrained with the idea that you can fail at something by not spending enough time on it. In an entrepreneurial setting, however, you’re just as likely to fail by spending too much time on something. You’re a valuable commodity, and if you excessively polish one product feature, sales pitch, or marketing asset, you’re neglecting the other million things standing between your company and success.
4. It’s as much about who as about what.
Academia, on the whole, tends to overrate ideas and underrate people. In a b-school class, the professor will take pains to judge your paper on the quality of the material, rather than their opinion of you as a person. In business, a potential client, partner, or employee makes no such promise. They may flunk you on your clothes, your hair, your handshake, or your mannerisms, and feel no obligation to explain why. Ideas are still important, but personal relationships and charisma are equally so. If you have no interest in selling yourself, you might be better suited for a bigger company.
5. Never underestimate blocking and tackling.
Along the same lines, Business school’s strategy-centric approach tends to take execution for granted. At an early stage company, there are no established best practices to fall back on or experienced managers to show people the ropes. Peoples’ day-to-day responsibilities shift rapidly, and it’s easy to let seemingly easy things — like responding to a support ticket in a timely fashion — fall through the cracks because the systems or management structure aren’t in place to make sure they get done. Execution of everyday tasks isn’t the most exciting or glamorous topic. There probably isn’t a single b-school class in the world dedicated to teaching it. But if you’re working for a small company, you’d better develop a healthy respect for its impact and importance. Coming up with the idea is the easy part.
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