Considering starting your own business? Entrepreneurship is again rising in prominence as people seek to pave their own way in the world. It’s tough road, but one lined with incredible rewards and career satisfaction. Here, one twentysomething entrepreneur shares his top tips for taking the first steps.
According to a recent study featured by USA Today, unemployment rates among 18- to 34-year-olds increased 55% from 2006 to 2011. For current and soon-to-be college students, this is yet another sign that the coveted path to gainful employment through higher education is not so reliable. For many young men and women realizing even the most competitive applicant is likely to go unemployed for a while after college, the answer is good old American ingenuity. If you cannot find a job, why not make your own?
Admittedly, life as an entrepreneur is not always glamorous. Until you reach a certain threshold of income and success, you will feel like you are playing a game of Monopoly that never ends—a game that could last for several years. You will not be able to sleep without contemplating your next roll of the dice. When you are trying to develop and strengthen a business in difficult economic times, there will be months with money pouring in and there will be even more months where you will be making less per hour than your grandparents made back in the 1950s. You will make mistakes. You will undoubtedly need to ask for help along the way.
In business, your widget* does not matter. You can be successful whether you are selling vacuum cleaners or your tax-prep services. You do not need a concrete idea to start planning for a successful career as an entrepreneur, but if you already know that your future does not include an ordinary 9-to-5, there are a few ways you can start preparing now:
1. Build and strengthen every relationship you make.
Sure, you should definitely keep in touch with your old crew; you never know where they will end up and how you might be able to help each other down the road. But don’t forget about the relationships in your life either: teachers, school administrators, professors, employers, friends of the family, etc—these are the relationships that often mean the difference between success and failure for a young entrepreneur. Even if you have no intention of returning to your hometown, having many contacts (even hundreds) ready and willing to vouch for you to each of their many contacts throughout the country is priceless. One of the first things you need to learn as an entrepreneur is how to reach potential customers. Having a strong network to call on when your widget is ready to hit the market will put you way ahead of the curb.
2. Build a social media presence, but treat it like your résumé.
This one is for all students, regardless of your future plans. Should you have a Facebook page? Yes. A LinkedIn? Absolutely. A Twitter or a Pinterest? Maybe. One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to social media is forgetting that you will be judged according to what people see. Do not lie to yourself. Potential business partners and customers do not want to work with someone who has a Facebook page consisting of oversharing, angst-ridden status updates, and pictures of your empty liquor bottle collection. For most people in the business world, your social media accounts are weighted as highly as your résumé and college transcript. Why? Because what you post on social media sites directly reflects what you do and say when you think nobody important to your career is watching. It is indicative of the person you really are behind your professional façade. Make sure the person people see online reflects the professional you really are.
3. Build and maintain e-mail lists.
It is a brave new world, in which almost everyone has an e-mail address and compulsively checks it throughout the day. You should treat every email address you come across as a potential rent payment. Do not let a single one disappear. Consider making an investment in an account with YMLP.com or a similar service. This interface allows you to organize and store e-mail addresses into specific lists. You can then do mass broadcasts to those lists. Make a list for your former teachers and professors. Make a list for your theater contacts. Make a list for all of your former sports teammates. Make a list for your family. Try to make each list as focused as possible. And you can break it down by interest too; if you have know 50 people with a strong interest in video games, you should make a list for video games! And do not worry about adding a single contact to multiple lists. Most of these interfaces will automatically prevent double sending to a single contact.
4. Maintain regular, relevant contact with your e-mail lists.
You should not be sending e-mails to your lists on a weekly or even a monthly basis. Let’s face it—you’re in high school or college and there is not necessarily a lot going on to interest your mother’s book club. Keep any e-mail contact relevant and interesting to each contact group. If your Contemporary Lit professor recommends a book you think your mother’s book club would enjoy, send it their way. If you read an interesting article about education you think your high school teachers would find intriguing, forward it. Try to contact everyone on your e-mail lists at least two to three times a year. For most people, your main form of contact will just be to update them on your life and to ask that they update you on theirs.
5. Live frugally and save as much money as you can.
Most students (and their families) need to pay their own way through college, relying on scholarships and/or loans to fund the majority of their college education. You and the financial aid office at your school will calculate the bare minimum you will need to pay for tuition, books, food, and other living expenses. Then, you can almost always budget a certain amount more to make sure you have an adequate financial cushion. If you are going to live the life an entrepreneur, you need to get accustomed to saving every penny you can now. Do not rely on your school’s calculations. Know exactly how much money you need to live on during school. Cut corners where you can. Put the rest into a separate savings account you cannot easily access. Pretend it does not exist. Work a part-time job for your “play” money. Even if you only put away few hundred dollars a semester, you will be surprised how quickly it will add up. Moreover, when your big idea presents itself and it is time to bring it to life, you will be forever thankful you chose to save and invest it in yourself and your future.
*A widget is a placeholder used to stand in for any product or service when discussing business and marketing. For example, if you are a vacuum salesmen, your widget may be a new carpet shampooing attachment. If you are a video game designer, your widget might be a new RPG game.