Today we have the pleasure of hearing from an entrepreneur who, along with his brother, has taken the role of innovative thinker to another level. Rich Sloan, co-author of Startup Nation, was kind enough to chat with me the other day, so that I might offer my readers some insight into the entrpreneurial process - as covered in his book. As the book blurb says, Rich and Jeff Sloan are "America's leading entrepreneurial experts." In their book they "reveal the secrets to building a blockbuster business." The next level they're operating from - to help others struggling to make sense of doing business in the new millennium - can be found at their Startup Nation website , where they have blogs, podcasts, forums and more.
Here's a hint at the good stuff in the book - and why I think it's a must read for ALL entrepreneurial spirits...
I need to say a few things about the book design and layout, first. As a publisher myself, I am often frustrated by cover designs that just don’t reflect the content of a book. Your cover engages the viewer and invites her in to learn some valuable things about becoming a business owner in today’s overgrown landscape of great ideas. I especially like the OPEN FOR BUSINESS sign, and the fact that you and your brother, Jeff, are hanging it.
Meanwhile, your page layout also gets high marks. Again, few new authors think of things like page layout. Obviously, you and your brother, or your publishers, are in-tune with the needs of the average reader. A book such as this requires careful attention, because many people will be eager to read ahead…and lose much of the great advice you offer. Your page layout makes it easy to cheat – but, to then return and digest what the reader might have missed. Great job, all the way around.
Now, let’s talk about the secrets you and Jeff reveal…
Yvonne: One particular part of your story that fascinated me was the Life Plan. I’ve heard talk about developing this from some smart CEOs here in my local Rochester, NY area…but no one explained it as well as you do. Can you share the concept with my readers?
Rich: Jeff and I wanted to live our lives a certain way. We recognized that entrepreneurship would give us control over our lives. Self-assessment is an all important task – figuring out where you are in life, currently, and then – where you want to be. If you can build a Life Plan, you can then build your business according to the Life Plan. Actually, writing our book helped us formalize our Life Plan. Writing things down gave us insight into what we wanted to accomplish.
Yvonne: You have a lot of stories in this book. Personally, I think stories are the best way of communicating – and I expect you have dozens of stories that didn’t make the book. So, how did you choose the specific stories that did make the book? Can you tell us one that didn’t?
Rich: I agree that stories are the best way to connect to an audience – stories help people absorb information. We have so many stories, we could never have fit them all in the book. What we did was identify key elements we wanted to talk about, and we chose our stories based on the companies who illustrated the key essence of what we were writing about. Truth is, most business books can be dry how-to manuals. We wanted Startup Nation to be engaging as well as informative. The stories that didn't make this issue, might show up in the next, or on the website. Stay in touch, and you'll hear more.
Yvonne: Be honest – how hard is it working with a relative, especially a relative as close as a brother?? I’ve heard tell that hiring a relative is the WORST thing a new business owner can do.
Rich: The fact of the matter is that the majority of businesses are family businesses. I don’t remember where that statistic comes from, but I am confident stating it. Husbands and wives frequently go into business together, especially today. For us, we treat our relationship as a way to challenge one another. There is a strong sense of respect between us. Now, I’m not saying that occasionally there haven’t been a lot of swear words and flying fists between us – but, our commitment is too strong to let things get out of control. We find that we complement each other – when one of us is too tired, the other one brings energy to the table. When I’m discouraged, Jeff remains optimistic. There’s a balance.
Yvonne: You and Jeff had exceptional parents. In my experience, many entrepreneurs have one parent that’s supportive and/or creative, and one that isn’t. Sometimes, the one that isn’t supportive dominates one’s life. So much so, that I believe many would-be entrepreneurs give up on their life’s dream to satisfy a parent. What advice do you have for the eager entrepreneur that is getting a lot of, “Why would you do that?” from a parent?
Rich: First of all, if the fire burns brightly enough, I believe a true entrepreneur will find a way. You have to have unwavering passion for what you’re doing. But, I want to add that it’s sometimes a good thing to listen to the naysayers. They just might help a budding entrepreneur stop and consider the obstacles – with a clearer eye. Try to look at it as constructive criticism- or, as a way to keep you from buying into your own hype. Often, when we’re passionate about something, we’re also emotionally attached to it. The danger is buying into your own hype, without looking at it with a critical eye. Naysayers just might be providing constructive criticism. So, be passionate, but keep your mind open to criticism.
Yvonne: As I was reading, I felt as if I could feel your enthusiasm and excitement – for each project you were working on, at any given time. I know for a fact that in real life, there are bleak moments, black Mondays, and heavy weekends…that threaten to derail even the most enthusiastic among us. The old “stick to it” advice is okay – but, what else can you offer? What would you say to someone who has hit a brick wall – run out of money – and is on the verge of – success, but for the want of a few moments or a few dollars? How does one hold on in the face of overwhelming adversity?
Rich: Life – and business – is full of problems. If you’re hitting a ‘brick wall’ here’s my advice: you can leave the bricks standing in your way, as a wall…or, you can take them down, one at a time, and create a sidewalk that guides you to a solution. The reality is – to be an entrepreneur; you have to be a serious problem solver.
Yvonne: Creating a brand is such an important part of business success, as you and Jeff note about midway through the book – or is it? I’ve talked to professionals who say branding is dead. Seriously. According to them, the customer decides the brand. It isn’t about being an IBM or a Xerox or a Nike and telling others who YOU are. It’s about giving customers what they want. And, … in this bigger than life world of citizen journalism, via blogs, the customers make the brand. What do you say?
Rich: A brand is very important to a company. It’s a forward facing touch point. Think of it this way – your brand is more than a name or a logo. It’s how you use color, it’s tone of voice, it’s the selection of images and the language you use to convey your company’s products or services. We all agree that the customer is king – that’s a given. But, the value in a brand is in its consistent message – used to create a compelling reason for clients to think positively about you and to take action. A brand is useless if it doesn’t resonate internally – all of your employees need to exude the brand – the internal culture of your business needs to reflect all the elements of your brand. Right now, the whole branding thing is fun and trendy. It's certainly not dead.
Yvonne: Another part of your book that I found helpful is Chapter Six, “Finding the Funding That’s “Just Right.” I was prepared to be disappointed – so many books on starting a business just gloss over the funding part, but…you gave details that even I hadn’t been aware of. Your ‘quick tip’ on p. 190 is extremely valuable, “Whatever you do, always try to avoid raising money when you have to.” Yet, isn’t that what everyone does? How can we avoid it? If we’re truly in start-up mode, we don’t necessarily know when we’re going to need the money. It kind of creeps up on us – or, am I wrong?
Rich: Trying to find funding when you’re in crisis mode is just too stressful. Entreprenuers need to expect the unexpected – especially when it comes to money. That means, when things are going along nicely, you should be thinking ahead to that time in the business when you’re going to need cash. Be ahead of the curve. Don’t think that because you’re doing fine now, you’ll always be fine. Have a plan for approaching funding, when you don’t need it. Not when you’re desperate.
Yvonne: Should someone with a really, really – really – great idea, just forge ahead, despite friends and family saying, “What, are you crazy?” Is gut instinct better than advice from those around you?
Rich: It certainly helps to have a resourceful nature, but, my advice is not to worry about people giving you the cross-eyed stare. Truth is, instinct can be taught. You can learn to have greater awareness…which some people call ‘instinct.’ The best way to accomplish this is to have LOTS of data. Learn everything you can about your idea. Be on top of the very fast-paced movement of what’s hot and what’s not.
Yvonne: What three things do most new businesses do to sabotage their success – wittingly or unwittingly, in your opinion?
Rich: Most new companies are guilty of not paying enough attention to cash flow, as we talked about earlier. Be proactive with that. Second, many new companies assume that creating awareness is an event in time, rather than a long-term commitment. And, too many companies are guilty of hoarding their idea – keeping it all for themselves, instead of learning to build partnerships. It’s possible to achieve your dreams by creating an equity interest in your company. It’s NOT necessary to go it entirely on your own. So, I would say too many companies forget to be aware of their cashflow, they think marketing is an event - when it's really a strategy, and they aren't willing to partner - they think they'll 'lose' control if they share their good ideas with others.
Yvonne: Explain the concept of an Exit Strategy. Should all businesses have one?
Rich: Let’s say that at some given point in time an owner may want to move on to a new business venture, or activity. There should be a plan in place for that to happen. That’s an exit strategy. It doesn’t have to be selling the business or leaving the company. Maybe it’s just the realization that you want to reduce your involvement – in part, or in total. This goes back to your Life Plan. What’s the ultimate goal in your Life Plan? You should have an exit strategy for achieving that.
Yvonne: How would you like readers to contact you? What should they do if they would like to be on Startup Nation?
Rich: I encourage folks to go to StartupNation.com and become a member of our forums. Contact information is available there. We're very supportive of entrepreneurs. Startup Nation is a place to reach out and connect, not just with us - but with other entrepreneurs.
Yvonne: One last thing – you and Jeff were just young’uns when you started your first business. You credit your Mom and Dad with teaching you to think creatively and to never give up – but, I sensed more. Do you think it’s possible to be BORN with a gene that dictates your creative success? Do those of us who refuse to let Fate dictate our lives, have a better chance at survival in your Startup Nation?
Rich: It’s interesting that you should ask this question. There’s a shared curiosity at work, there. Everyone wants to know the answer to that question. Truth is, certain people are predisposed to become entrepreneurs. Or, they’re in a position that helps them develop the capability, and they grab the opportunity. Still others find themselves so immersed in a hobby, let’s say, that they decide to turn it into a business. And, there are a whole lot of other folks who just won’t do it, for one reason or another. They may be intimidated by the work involved, or find the process of being their own boss too confusing. And – still others are born to follow, instead of create and lead. That’s just life.
This interview is merely the tip of the iceberg - the bottom rung of the ladder, the meadow at the foot of the mountain. I know you're all on your way up that slippery slope, or that wobbly ladder, and some are staring up that mountain wondering, "How do I get to the top?" My advice, start with Jeff's and Rich's book. Read the book. Then, visit the website. You will feel empowered.