The One Change That Will Make Anyone a Better Entrepreneur

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How is self-employment different from working at a large company? You get to make many more strategic decisions, which can be exhilarating. But you also make many more mistakes, which is not good unless you’re in learning mode and the mistakes aren’t disastrous. What causes these differences?

Any business requires decisions: What market should I go after? How should I create leads? Should I open an office or work from home? Is it time to make a first sales hire? Should I stress profit or growth? Should I buy a competitor? Some of these are large-company decisions and others are unique to small businesses. The big difference is that larger businesses have a bench with deep expertise held by coworkers, experts, executives, partners, and board members, as well as a piggy bank to hire paid consultants. The self-employed have only themselves, so they muddle through, making decisions that are sometimes right, other times inferior, and occasionally catastrophic.

This can be done badly or well; it’s better to do it well…

The good news is that a single change in attitude and behavior can make a big difference by improving your chances of making good decisions. The one change is this: Take the initiative of seeking out informal advice from peers, supporters, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who have the right knowledge or experience. This can be done badly or well; it’s better to do it well, which requires some learning and practice.

A core principle is that good advice must take into account your circumstances, goals, and constraints. Otherwise, it’s not advice, but principles, methods, examples, or inspirational stories, which are all great, but often aren’t enough. This principle implies that a key quality of a good advisor is a capacity and interest in listening to your situation before offering advice. Since advising is best thought of as a collaborative process, the burden is on you – as the advice seeker – to make sure that you’re well prepared to explain where you are, how you got there, where you want to go, and how the advisor can help.

Whenever you face an important decision as a self-employed entrepreneur, make it a habit to ask yourself “Do I have the knowledge and experience to deal with this problem or issue by myself, and if not, who does and could help?” Your odds will improve by making better decisions with the confidence that you’re not missing something, and you will create social engagements that make you less isolated and smooth the way for mutual aid – in either direction – in the future.

My recent book, Advice is for Winners: How to Get Advice for Better Decisions in Life and Work, examines the diverse benefits of getting advice, delves into 28 reasons why people don’t do it, and teaches the reader how to master the key phases of advice seeking. I draw on many stories, many from my own entrepreneurial experience of founding a tiny software company in 2000 with two partners, serving as its CEO for nine years, growing it into the major “pure play” vendor in its market, and being acquired by IBM in 2012.