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Five things it takes to run a successful start-up (and be happy)

By Michael Weeks
Lecturer of Business

16 May 2022

 

Lessons from an entrepreneur – what I wish I knew before I started

I wanted to write this article for you if you’re a budding entrepreneur who wants to be in charge of your own destiny. Maybe you’re craving that feeling of creating something from nothing. Or perhaps you just want that sense of freedom: taking holidays when you like, doing only what you love and dialling your earnings up and down as much money as you please.

The problem that most of us find is that while some of these things are possible, they don’t come for free. Self-employment only allows us the opportunity to have these things: it is not bestowed upon us for making the (terrifying but exciting) leap from the warmth of a stable income.

In fact, through speaking to hundreds of entrepreneurs over the last 5-10 years, I see that 90% of them become shackled to the very thing they wanted to be free from. They leave a job and then create themselves a new one – only this one doesn’t come with pensions, sick pay and other benefits. Most don’t even realise until they are in deep. They work late nights, at weekends, and feel guilty for trying to switch off and feel their schedule dictated by clients – that is not what they signed up for!

So my first and most fundamental piece of advice is this:

From day one, start taking steps towards making yourself obsolete.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Most of us set up a business because we feel we are a great at something and have a specific skill set that puts us light-years ahead of what other people can provide. So, we continue to hone our craft. We make a name for ourselves, and the clients come flooding in (by the way this is no easy feat, so if you’ve reached this point then I have incredible admiration for you).

Perhaps we do this for a year, two years, maybe even three, and then decide that we want some time off to recharge the batteries and go on that trip we’ve been promising for months. But then we check our diary only to find we’ve become a victim of our own success. We have no one to take over the operational stuff (let alone the endless ‘miscellaneous’ stuff which comes from just running a business).

And then it hits us: people don’t want the business… they want US! We’ve created a dependency that has become so great that when a customer can’t have us, they get upset.

So scrambling around we cancel our leave, we ignore feeling run down, and we let down those closest to us because we can’t possibly ruin the reputation we have worked so hard to achieve. This cycle may happen over and over again until eventually, resentment starts to set in. “How dare they be upset with me; do they not know the sacrifices I am making?”

This is an critical point in the journey – a fork in the road if you like. It’s the time when we must make the decision to simply power on (as most do); or be part of the small percentage of people who will stop, take stock and realise that this is a cycle they do not want to be stuck in.

If you want to take that latter route – and be not just successful but happy in what you are doing – my advice to you is this:

1. First, focus on attracting people better than you

It takes a lot to accept that you are not the only expert in the field and that to thrive, you must steer your attention towards swallowing your pride and bringing in people who are (or have the potential) to do what you do times ten.

2. Start creating a playbook of how you do things straight away

Take this bit seriously. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day ‘busyness’ of business. Put down on paper how you do things, what works, what doesn’t and continually reflect on how you can make things better. There will always be a time when you cannot be depended upon – do others know exactly how to do things like you do?

3. Get people to buy into the business, not just you

There’s no denying that people buy into people, but you cannot be relied upon as an individual all the time. Take the time to develop the right culture around you and get everyone to buy into it at an intimate level (whether that be clients or your staff). If you do this right, you can get just as powerful a buy-in, if not more so.

4. Understand that earning the benefits which come with running your own business requires discipline and a lot of hard work

Don’t assume these benefits will come for free (or even cheaply). You need to really work your socks off to create something from nothing and even harder if you want it to succeed for a long time. But on the flip side, you need to make every effort to make sure you don’t become a martyr of your own success. Follow this advice consistently and you won’t become too ‘zoomed-in’ and forget why you started this in the first place.

5. Finally: recognise that being great at something doesn’t always mean you should run a business

This is a tough question you have to ask yourself – especially before you start out. You may be truly exceptional at something, but that doesn't mean you should set up your own. Sometimes you can be great at a specific skill and still find yourself in a good position. Self-employment requires so many additional facets that it's unlikely you are good at all of them. Being an entrepreneur can be thankless at times, and there’s no room for ego.

Good luck on your journey wherever you may be. If you are already an entrepreneur or thinking of becoming one, then hats off to you. Get it right, with the correct balance between yourself and the business, and the journey will be challenging, insightful, tiring and exhilarating. Hopefully, you’ll also wake up every morning with that incredible feeling of knowing the limitless potential of being able to change the world in your own special way.

By Michael Weeks, Lecturer of Business at Teesside University and founder of three start-up businesses.

If you would like to engage with the Teesside University International Business School on any of these issues, please get in touch via TUBSBusiness@tees.ac.uk.