In October we turn 20 years. As some of you know, Stardock started out as a 1-man shop. I was a college student paying my own way through school and I started my business to help pay for school until I could find a real job.
When I incorporated Stardock, I was 22 years old (I’m 42 now). I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing on business. And ultimately, I gave up trying to get a “real job” because I was having too much fun doing Stardock.
During the past 20 years, I’ve read a lot of books on business and I’ll tell you, most of them are terrible. They are fine if you’re looking to be a manager at an established company but I’ve read nothing that helps prepare someone for what it means to be an entrepreneur. So let me share with you 10 lessons I’ve learned that might be helpful to you or someone you know who’s starting their own business.
#1 It’s a lifestyle. I have never met anyone with has a successful business that they founded that can (or even wants) to turn it off when they leave the office.
#2 Loving your job forever is hard. Before founding a company, you better love what you want to do. I mean, you better really really love it because you’re going to be doing it every day for years until either [A] you close it down or [B] you sell it.
Loving your job for 20 years is no easy task. That’s why it’s important that you make your work environment suit your preferences. People who don’t like the environment you set up can leave. You can’t.
#3 You can’t do it for money. If money is your motivator, give it up now. Money is just the exhaust that comes out whatever machine you’re building. You’ll never successfully compete against people who love doing what they’re doing if your motivator is money and not love of what you’re doing.
#4 Do not hire your friends. This is one of those things that lay people say is “common sense” but when you’re actually running a company and you need people you think you can trust, the temptation to hire friends is very high. Don’t. Avoid it. Because…
#5 No one is a prophet in their own land. The friends you had outside of work once brought in will never understand the thousands of little things you have to do well to succeed and this will generate resentment and weaken your friendship.
#6 If you make money, you will get sued. Look at the Wikipedia entry of pretty much any successful entrepreneur. You will find they get sued. A lot. The rationale is always different but they always get sued. I didn’t started getting sued (and nowadays it seems like there’s always a few lawsuits going on or pending) until we started making a lot of money. If you have money, people will rationalize their way into trying to extract some from you. For us, the worst ones are patent trolls. But every industry will have its own unique form of parasites.
#7 You can create the best working environment ever. Because you have a lot of control over what kind of corporate culture develops, you can, with experience and wisdom, create an amazing place to go to work every day. The people I work with are universally awesome. I am not just saying that, I mean they’re so awesome that if you, reading this, randomly selected someone who works where I work, you would probably conclude “Yea, this is a smart, good person.” Interview the people who work at a fortune 500 company and then interview the people who work at a company run by its founder and I think you’ll find a huge gulf in general satisfaction. If not, they’re doing it wrong.
#8 You have get really good at knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s face it, most people really don’t know themselves that well. They don’t have to. Starting a company can be a very humbling experience as the school of hard knocks teaches you that you’re not really good at a lot of things you thought you were. One favorite example is that I don’t hire people where I work anymore. That’s because I like almost everyone. I am a terrible judge of character. Instead, I’ve learned to rely on people who are really really good at interviewing and hiring people. It took some very unpleasant experiences (see #4) to teach me that.
#9 You better be excellent at math. It doesn’t matter what your business does, if you personally aren’t good with numbers, stop. Stop right now. Being good at juggling numbers is one of the most unappreciated skills there is and yet it’s one of the most important prerequisites for being an entrepreneur. You have to be able to intuitively manage lots of variables to determine what is and isn’t a financially viable idea.
When people ask me what are the most important factors in our success (besides hard work and persistence) I say intuitive accounting ability. Being able to look at an idea and know whether it’s going to be profitable or not at a glance is crucial. People who can’t do that have absolutely no appreciation for that skill and yet it’s probably the biggest differentiator between a successful entrepreneur and a bankrupt one. It’s also one skill that results in #5 because it’s not obvious or appreciated.
#10 It’ll make you an optimist. I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who isn’t extremely upbeat. In fact, the longer they’re an entrepreneur the more upbeat they become.
In high school, I wrote a column called “The Cynic’s Corner”. I was, to put it mildly, a pessimist. I didn’t call myself one of course. I said I was a realist. When I started my business, I still had a pretty dark view on people and the world (I probably did better at hiring back then too). But the more I travel, the more people I meet, the more I’m convinced that human beings are good. I can even look back at my own blogs (I’ve been writing on my blog for 12+ years) and see how I’ve gradually become more optimistic when it comes to dealing with challenges and people.
So there you have it. I won’t claim that my experiences and lessons are universal. But as someone who started his business with nothing and over the past two decades has built it into something, I hope that what I’ve learned may be of use to the next-generation of would-be entrepreneurs.