School sets us up for many things, but the clear intention of all those years studying is to prepare us for a world working for "the man". The skills we learn, the way we are taught and the final interview with the career guidance people pushes us towards employment.
So why do so many of us eschew all of this and decide to work for ourselves?
This is the story of John, who's name I've changed by the way. He explains what made him move from employment into self-employment and it has a few cautionary words along the way.
John was an average student. He didn't excel at anything while at school, but he didn't bomb any subjects, either. He just got on with the work and passed with grades that were "OK". That's fine, he did OK and so when it came to taking his exams, he passed them all fine. Again, not outstanding.
There were hints he had itchy feet, I asked him if he'd ever done anything entrepreneurial at school: "I took over the school magazine that had been run by teachers for years and had nothing for kids; it was just homework help and 'interesting ways' to remember your times tables. Pretty dull. So, I got a few people together, and we completely re-did it."
Did the Kids Like It?
"Yes, they loved it. It was a bit anarchic because we based it on the magazines we liked. In the UK, the gaming scene was taking off. There were lots of new magazines, and we used them for inspiration, it really did look different. The teachers were shocked, it showed real flair."
However, that was it for any attempt at early business. John was told that where he lived there was a requirement for office clerks. This seemed a little bit of a let down after all those years at school, so he decided to aim higher and train to be an accountant.
"Problem was; I hated maths, so I had no numeracy skills to talk of. Everyone told me that didn't matter though. They were very wrong!"
John hated the training and also the job he got while at college. Accountancy wasn't for him; he needed to do something different, and so he left the career altogether and decided to get into the new and expanding world of computing.
This was where he first had the idea of working for himself. The main motivator was freedom. Having to get to work for 8.30, not leaving until 5, being told what to do, those things weren't his thing. "Some people may look at that and think that it shows I couldn't work for people due to my need for more stimulus, but they'd be wrong. I was fundamentally lazy."
John started reading lots of books about business and entrepreneurship, lots and of books. This was where he had his first epiphany.
"People are full of ideas on how to run a successful business and they'll try to tell you there are secrets to it, which they then list. The thing is; it's not that easy, what works in one situation, might not work elsewhere. Want to know the habits of highly effective people? You'll find there are hundreds, it's just useful and a great marketing trick to pick seven. Books aren't written for every business, only the ones that succeed. Really, all these 'secrets' books are just 'this is what worked for me'".
So Are They Completely Useless Then?
"I wouldn't say that. They're useful to realize how others behaved in certain situations and if you read enough of them then you can decant some truth and maybe work out what might work for you. But it's not all about doing one thing. The biggest beef I have with them is that a lot will say 'deal with people like this, and you'll be OK' and then tell you what to do. But all people are different, all situations aren't the same, one solution doesn't fit all."
So What Would Be Your Favorite Book on the Subject?
"How to Win Friends and Influence People is probably my favorite. It essentially says you should be nice to people, hire the best and don't be rude. That's about it!"
John continued to work for other companies into his thirties, cutting out a career in IT consultancy and working for some large firms. He got a nice house, a car, good holidays, the money was good. But there was something missing.
For many people the adage of "you never get rich digging someone else’s ditch" is enough to make them jump ship, but John wasn't like this. He just didn't like office politics and fancied the idea of being his own boss. He just wanted to do his own thing. There was no significant need, no great moment of clarity; it was just the act of doing something else.
"I really didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew it was a big step. I fell into web development because it looked like there was plenty of money in it, but I wasn't really looking for fame or riches, I just wanted to get up when I wanted, work in my underwear and then go out."
Why Do We Think All Entrepreneurs Are Like This?
If you've ever been to a network meeting, you'll find there are lots of people with the attitude that they're going to make it rich. They intend to make millions doing what they do. They're the types that have bought into the millionaire mindset. They seem to have drive, they seem to have verve, they seem to have determination. But are they succeeding?
Many believe that it doesn’t matter what the product or service is, they can be better than everyone else. Some are utterly deluded.
Like John, I've been in this game for a while now and I've met up with lots of people who have apparently got this "entrepreneurial mindset" and I can find no common thread. Many people at these meetings are just putting on a show. I've seen people who have been trying to become millionaires for over a decade. It apparently takes more than determination.
John has a similar experience.
"If you read enough books on how to make it, you'll find that there are some that say you should work fewer hours. In contrast, there are some that say you should work all the hours available if you want to make it big. More are quite clear in that balance is key."
Is There One Trait in Entrepreneurs That Stands Out?
"None that I can find. If someone says that all the successful people he's met have been 'this type', it's usually because that type of person happens to frequent the same places. I can go somewhere else and find you successful people who have an entirely different trait. There is no commonality between them.
Some people follow the Dale Carnegie style and try to remember people, are nice to everyone they meet and hire only the best. Others are scumbags, but you'll fund successful people from both camps. Some are lazy, some work every waking hour. There is no one trait that stands out from the people I've met, but again, maybe that's just the people I met."
Can Anyone Do It?
"Probably. I'd say anyone can work for themselves and make a good living, but I wouldn't say everyone can make it big, not by a long chalk. The thing is; you just have to pick a method that you're happy with. If you intend to work all the hours, then just stick to it. You'll probably do well. Similarly, if you are happy to hire people to do the job for you, then that might also work . Don't be told what works and what doesn't, work it out for yourself. Making mistakes is probably the best way to learn anything. " And here lies a cautionary tale. John had a bad experience with a business consultant that nearly cost him his company.
"Beware the advice of others who are giving that advice without knowing enough about you. At one time in my career I was doing quite well and I wanted some help to take it to the next level. So, someone recommended a business coach. He cost a fortune, but I thought it was worth it if he could get the returns. Unfortunately, it didn't work out like that.
After eight months, I realised that my sales were waning. My marketing wasn't working, my costs were going up. Something was wrong. I took a long hard look at what I was being 'advised' and I realized it was complete nonsense."
John was being told to increase his salary. Why? Well the business coach was preaching some really odd ideas. You see companies that do well tend to pay staff more by reward. Ergo, pay youself more and you'll do better. There's a hole in that logic.
Also, John was simply having "good news" stories from motivational books preached to him every month by the coach. Looking through paperwork and the notes, the help was simply "sell more, do more marketing, things will be OK."
So what is the answer? Why do people remain entrepreneurs in the face of all the adversity? It seems it entirely depends on the person, the marketplace and the economy. And probably a whole lot of other factors. Determination plays a role, sure, but some people are just lucky. Others have nothing but bad luck, but chutzpah and drive overcome it. And yet others simply sit on the sofa pushing buttons for a few hours before spending the rest of the day at the park.
The Moral of This Story?
It's entirely up to you. Read how others have done it, yes. Find peers, network, talk to people. But ultimately, how you'll succeed, how you'll keep at this job will be down to you and you only. And don’t fret over making mistakes. It’s OK.
And John, How's He Doing Now?
"Pretty good. Business is excellent, I love it. I might not be a millionaire, but you never know, I might get lucky, money isn't the driver, having fun and living life without an ulcer is!"
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