Over the years, people have asked what prompted us to start our own business. For me, the decision occurred on September 11, 2001 around 10:40 a.m. – about a dozen minutes or so after the second tower fell.
Our boss at the time was at our main office while my soon-to-be business partner and I were working at another location. She was on the phone with him and said that people in the office were upset – we all had friends and relatives in the area and we couldn’t reach any of them. I had two friends who worked in the towers and my brother and his wife both worked in the financial district. In addition, my sister was a pilot for United Airlines based out of Boston.
My future business partner told our boss that she wanted to close the office so people could go home and be with their families. His reply, which still amazes me to this day, was – “Tell those babies to get over it and get back to work. It’s all over with now.” She came down to my office and waited until I got off the phone. I was on the line with a client in Europe and was relaying what little information I could access which was more than they had at the time. I remember telling them the towers were gone and they simply couldn’t believe it. When I hung up, she told me what our boss had said. In an animated version of this story, there would have been steam coming out of my ears.
For several years prior, we had talked about starting our own business – but who really knows how to start a business? Especially if you don’t have a business background and very little business sense. Most of the time it was just “wouldn’t that be nice” talk. It seemed that we would stay among the countless number of people who dream of starting a business but don’t take the leap. However, that one little reply from my boss pushed me over that edge forcing me to take the leap. I turned off my computer, packed up my bag and walked out.
As I was driving home, I remember how eerie the world around me felt. People suddenly didn’t seem to be in a hurry. There was more patience in the world, at least for a little while – or so it seemed. I called the local Red Cross on my way home to see if I could donate blood. They told me it was already almost a five hour wait and they doubted they would need more. Instead, I drove home to be with my 2-year-old daughter. I pushed her on the swings for so long she asked me to stop – that was a first. While I was pushing her and looking off into the distance, I knew there was no way I could continue working for someone who had no regard for anything but himself and his profits.
While I knew nothing about starting or running a business, I decided I knew enough about how “not” to run a business. I figured if I just looked at each decision and thought, “What would my old boss do?” and chose the opposite, I’d be fine. Instead of treating vendors like steerage class, we would work together. Instead of treating employees like scum, we would create a family-like atmosphere. Instead of milking clients and taking advantage of their budgets, we would do quality work at a fair price so they’d continue working with us.
As we approach our 20th year in business – and the 20th anniversary of that tragic day – there are plenty of other things I’ve learned along the way that would’ve come in handy at the start of it all. I’ve had to compile my own list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that I’m sure would have come standard with a business degree but nothing that’s worthwhile comes easy.
I figured this is probably the perfect time to share some of those lessons in the hopes that someone out there who has dreamt of starting their own business will be able to avoid some of the pitfalls we faced along the way.
- Hire a Really Good Accountant:This is paramount. Unless you are a really good accountant, you don’t know accounting. We found out (13 times to be exact) that hiring someone who said they could do accounting – or bookkeeping – but can’t, causes more harm than good. Don’t stop there though – find a good outside accounting firm as well. Doing so will help with your taxes and act as a check and balance for your internal person. If we had the team that we have now in 2002, we would be light years ahead.
- Stick With What You Know:When you first start out, you will be eager to take on any work you can get. If you’re good, your clients and customers will ask you to do projects that may be outside of your wheelhouse. Don’t do it. Taking on work that you can’t manage will lead you down a path that will take you away from your core competencies. It’s tempting, of course, especially when money is tight. However, it is best to politely decline while reminding them of the things you are good at.
- Deal With It:If you think you’re immune to anything bad happening to your business (people quitting in the middle of a big project, getting hacked, having a client refuse to pay), think again. Running a business is like running through a mine field. Some days you’ll be okay; other days you’ll get blown up. You’ll never know what kind of day it it’s going to be. Bad things will happen, and you’ll need to deal with it because the buck stops with you but hey, – that’s why you decided to start your own business.
- Get Good at Interviewing:The old saying is you need to be slow to hire and quick to fire. It can be tempting to just fill a seat because you have an immediate need which is when you’ll settle for the best of the worst or pick someone because they like the same color that you do. Take your time and find the right fit. Getting rid of someone who doesn’t work out will cause a much larger disruption.
- Establish Rules:I hate following rules and that’s why when we started, we had a one-page employee manual. Today’s employee manual is almost 60 pages. The additional 59 pages can generally be attributed back to someone who did something they shouldn’t have. Thus, we needed a set of rules – for everyone, including me.
- Overthink Things:When we were thinking about starting, people kept telling us that we’d fail unless we had a plan locked down and airtight. What they really meant was we should keep fretting over things until we scared ourselves out of doing it – no one who said we’d fail had ever started a business.
- Relinquish Total Control:It’s tempting to hire someone to handle a task that you don’t want to do – or don’t know how to do (like accounting) – and assume it’s being done properly. The fact is there are some truly evil people out there who are just waiting for you to turn your back and that’s when the trouble starts. Keep your eyes on things and never fully turn the keys over to anyone else; the odds are they don’t have your best interests in mind.
- Panic:This is easier to say 20 years in than it was at the beginning but it’s true. Ultimately, everything works out if you just take a breath, go for a walk, or do whatever you need to do to think your way out of the problem. I used to think there was a constant “tick-tock” sound in my head and that if I didn’t just keep scrambling, we’d fail. After a while, you’ll see just about every imaginable situation. So just take your walk and think about it – address it when you’ve calmed down a bit.
- Fear the First Step Off the Cliff:Starting the business reminded me of the scene in “Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade” where he had to step into the abyss – only to find there was a bridge there all along. You stand there fearing what might happen, but the reality is that once you take the step, you’ll find a bridge waiting for you too. This isn’t to say you should take foolish chances but don’t let the fear of starting paralyze you.
- Give Up:This is the most important “don’t” of them all. The thought of giving up should be so abhorrent that it makes you ill. There are plenty of times in the past 20 years where my partner or I were beaten down but giving up and shutting down was never an option we even briefly entertained. Giving up means “they” won – “they” is whoever doubted you in the first place or the bad employees or bad customers who tried to trip you up.
Our resolve was born out of the devastating disaster of 9/11 and tested over the years with the financial crisis; Russian hacking; the pandemic; and a thousand other smaller events. We know that we will continue to get tested because that’s life. Steel yourself for whatever may come your way and start your own thing. Life is short and it happens quickly – that’s what struck me most about 9/11 and still does to this day.