10 mistakes I could have avoided as a young entrepreneur
I am a 32 year-old French-Bulgarian psychologist. A year and a half ago I opened my own practice for consulting, psychological counseling and coaching in Frankfurt am Main. I am an entrepreneur, as I dared the adventure of starting my own business in a country I moved to a few months before, with no previous experience in self-employment, with little (at that time) knowledge in the German language and system, with a limited local network, with high expectations and a vague idea about what I was getting involved in. Although I attended a dozen courses and conferences on entrepreneurship, read numerous books and articles, and talked to more experienced self-employed colleagues, it didn’t prevent me from making mistakes. And although avoiding those mistakes could have made my journey somehow smoother, I am grateful for them as they were a great opportunity to learn. Here are 10 things I did wrong that taught me the most.
Asking too many people for advice
Looking for information is one of the first steps to take as a young entrepreneur and there are some major things you have to keep in mind, like market needs, tax and professional regulations, as well as financial and marketing aspects. But as an entrepreneur you may also experience some doubts, especially if it’s the first time you start a business. And it is totally normal to ask yourself “Am I doing things right? Am I doing the right things?” It is also normal to seek advice: from your family, from your friends, from more experienced professionals in your area, from other entrepreneurs. But other people’s opinions are just that: opinions, everybody has one and it doesn’t necessarily bespeak an undoubtable truth. It may even be more confusing to have diverse points of view on a subject, as you may then lose clarity and delay your decisions. So once you have gathered all kinds of advice, you should consider it all for a moment, then lock it away in a closet in the back of your mind and write your own story.
Believing that there is a formula to follow
Reading books, testimonials and articles, listening to talks, exploring what other people do can be a great source of knowledge and inspiration while designing your own business. But what you don’t find in these kinds of documents is how things really work. You may get the wrong idea that there is a logical path to follow, a number of steps to be made in order to succeed. And even if it’s true that there are some stages everybody goes through (like registering the business, building a web site, finding a place for selling the product / providing the service etc.), most of the time success is about trial and error and it’s about luck. You can’t follow a step-by-step guide-book and expect that it will necessarily work in your case. Because doing as others do without making it personal doesn’t work. Even if it sounds like that’s a good way to do things, the best way is YOUR way and it is the only way for you.
Overthinking and underdoing
Everything starts with a plan and it is very important to have a wide vision and try to anticipate. From my previous experience as a project manager I knew that calculating and preventing possible risks is one of the first steps to make, along with defining clear, measurable goals. But my first years in entrepreneurship taught me that planning too much is not always the best way to do things. Because there are so many things that can go wrong and you can never anticipate everything. Too much anticipation can even be dangerous for your business, as it can immobilize you and prevent you from taking action. So once you have a clear focus and you know where you want to go, just start walking, without asking yourself too much if you should put the left foot first or the right one. Believe in your capacity to adjust and keep in mind that when you fall is when you learn the most and that “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” (W.Churchill).
Trying to do too many things right from the beginning
On this matter there are 2 schools: those who think one should start with one product/service and diversify with time and those who think one should have a broader offer from the beginning and adapt fast. I’m personally one of the latter, and maybe it is due to the nature of my work. I constantly have ideas about new projects and at the very beginning I tried to launch a lot of things at the same time. I still believe in parallel processing, rather than in serial. But, as human beings, we only have limited resources: 2 hands, 24 hours in a day, exhaustible cognitive capacities. So we have a choice: either we focus on a few things and we are more efficient, or we split our resources on multiple tasks but then we must accept that it will take more time. Or as my mum would say: you fill a big basket slower than a small one.
Being afraid to miss an opportunity
Let’s be honest, at the beginning you struggle to find your first clients. And you may then believe that any chance to work is good. But every time you decide to spend your time and energy on a project, you choose not to work on something else. This is how I found myself spending time on subjects that had little to do with my initial plan instead of developing my original ideas. And I found out with time that being afraid of missing an opportunity is a bias of perception. Because, unless you stay at home doing nothing, there are a lot of occasions to provide your service or sell your product if there is a market for it. But not every occasion is a real opportunity for you to do your best and to grow your business.
Trying to build collaboration no matter what
I love working with other people and in my previous jobs I was always part of a team. So after a few months of working on my own, I started missing it. Then I decided that collaborating with others on building workshops, courses, conferences and all kinds of activities could be a way. And to be honest, I thought it would be an easier way to start some projects. It turns out collaboration is one of the most difficult things to do. I am talking about real collaboration, not just delivering your service/product and being paid for it, but creating a win-win situation with common objectives, complementary resources and fairly distributed tasks, and all this with people who share the same values as you. Getting involved with the wrong people and in conditions that don’t satisfy you can cost you a lot of time and energy working on things that will never see the light of day. Not to mention the frustration. So next time you consider a collaboration, make sure that you do it for the right reasons, that there is a real deal for you and that the frame of your common work is set from the beginning.
Talking to the wrong people when difficulties arise
Sharing what you’re struggling with with your spouse, mother or best friend can have a powerful relieving-effect. But it doesn’t always help you move forward. If your family and friends are there for you when times are hard, then you are lucky to have a supportive social environment. And this is what your family and friends can do for you: they can listen to you, support you, encourage and comfort you. But don’t expect them to mentor or coach you, it’s not their job. So if you are looking to solve a problem, have more clarity on your situation, find new paths or even gain some self-assurance, you’d better speak to a professional and be ready to pay for his/her advice, expertise and mentoring. It can be difficult to find a good coach or a mentor though and you may think “I don’t need it, I can do everything myself”. The truth is: speaking to the right person only once can help you move forward a lot faster than struggling on your own for days.
Failing to keep a journal
At the very beginning I was very meticulous about keeping track of my ideas and approach. Then at some point I stopped and it was a mistake. As you undertake the adventure of entrepreneurship you learn a lot, you get inspired and have thoughts, you try different things and sometimes you succeed or you learn through your mistakes. And it is important to write all this down. Not only because we all forget, but because keeping a journal is the best way to make your experience sustainable. It allows you to avoid repeating your errors, to collect the right solutions for the problems you face, to gather your successes. And it is a powerful tool when you’re struggling with a drop in motivation: just read about a time you solved a problem or took a step forward and you’ll get back your confidence.
Expecting my work to be appreciated and acknowledged by everyone
Where I was born (Bulgaria), people say “there are passengers for every train”. It’s used to encourage someone to be patient, especially when one is struggling with something. It is mostly used to say “don’t worry, your turn will come”, but I also like the implicit idea in it. The one that you can’t please everybody, that you should stay faithful to yourself and that the right people will come to you, the right things will happen. Of course, it’s not to say you should ignore all criticism. It means to me that one should always consider negative feed-back from clients/users, but otherwise you should only pay attention to constructive criticism.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned was that every single thing happens at the right moment and there is no point in rushing. Being impatient can even have a very bad impact on your motivation. However, I am aware that in order to stay motivated we need to have positive feed-back, and things need to happen, to move forward. But they don’t necessarily do so at the pace we expect them to and we must accept that. The important thing is to stay focused, to get up every day and work for your goals. And if you are committed enough, it will pay off. But entrepreneurship is not a race, it is a mountain climb: the higher you get, the slower you move.