Business Advice

A teacher recently emailed asking what advice I would give high school students who want to start their own businesses. Here’s what I said:

1. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that something is too competitive. Once you subtract the people who don’t work very hard, or the people who aren’t as good as you, your competition shrinks dramatically.

2. That said, an original idea sells itself. Instead of spending a year pushing the same product everyone else has, spend that time thinking of a product or service that no one else offers. If you do, you won’t need to do much marketing, people will find you.

3. Don’t believe the myth that “if you liked your job, no one would pay you to do it.” It’s essential that you love your work for you to be as happy and financially successful as possible in your life. The person who loves her job will always beat out the person who’s doing it for the paycheck.

I’m curious about what you guys would say. What’s your take on success?

40 thoughts on “Business Advice

  1. I would say that an original idea is awesome — as long as you’re up to the task of doing a lot of education and outreach as part of your business building. When you’re doing something really new or different, half of your pitch has to become “here’s what this even IS,” before you can get to the “…and here’s why you should pay me for it.”

    In fact, I’ll expand that to say that the best entrepreneurial skill you can have is the ability to articulately and persuasively pitch yourself and your ideas.


  2. I’d go for a combination of #1 and #2: if you want to go into a field that’s very competitive, find a way to differentiate your product or service just a little bit (or a lot) within that market. And research it to make sure that your product or service has demand. A good way to start this is to think about your chosen field and ask yourself what is missing in that industry? What frustrates you when YOU try to use that service or buy that product from existing vendors? If you can solve that question, it may be the way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the competition.

    Also, really believe in your ability to succeed. I think that if you are hesitant, unsure if you can hack it, or think your product is worse than others, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s easier to make a successful sales pitch if you really believe what you’re saying and enjoy what you do.


  3. This is said with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Advertising:

    Word of mouth is the best advertising. Period.

    Once you have your idea, get the word out. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. If the idea is good enough, word of mouth will sell it faster than all the money you could possibly spend on advertising.

    Referrals can spread like wildfire if the product or service is good. Advertise, but do it so you get the most for your money.


  4. I talk to eighth graders every year about keeping their options open, the importance of making good impressions and talking to as many adults they know about the work they do, build your network early.

    The biggest thing I try to impress on them, and is true for anyone to be successful, it’s about the amount of effort and problem solving you put in, not just the smarts or the good idea you have. (All those adults you’ve talked with can help throughout your career too!)


  5. 1) Trust your instincts and don’t give up too easily. If you have a new idea, don’t pay too much attention to the people who say, “If it were such a great idea, people would be doing it already.”
    2) If you’re having a hard time pitching people or making new contacts, remember this: Nobody ever got shot over the phone. Make the call. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


  6. Telling people you’re happy and successful has the amazing effect of convincing them that you are, in fact, successful.

    It seems a bit too simple to be true, but it really works in making you more successful.

    Sounds a little bit Oprah, though.


  7. Definitely #3. Success is doing what you enjoy. Getting paid for it is a huge bonus. You hit the trifecta if what you’re doing consistently keeps you intellectually engaged, forcing the hamster on the wheel in your head to continue running. Because when the hamster stops, he gets fat and lazy. And no one wants a fat, lazy hamster sitting inside their head. In general, I mean.


  8. Good advice. I’d add, work on an original idea, but don’t think it has to be absolutely perfect before you put it out there. Waiting for “the perfect” idea, time, pitch, etc. is a good way to avoid doing anything. By all means be thoughtful and thorough, but, more importantly, get your ideas in front of people. (How much of success do they say is just showing up??)


  9. If you haven’t defined what success is to you or if you can’t accept that definition when it comes true there’s no point. You could be the hardest worker or the most creative marketer or biggest earner but you’ll never be happy.


  10. In business, you are either growing or shrinking. I believe that that is true for life in general. There is no such thing as “same as last year”.

    That said, look at life positively. Many times, what appears to be “shrinking” is really a necessary period of time as you get ideas for a growth spurt. However, beware of complacency and arrested development. Those are nice terms for “shrinking”.

    Always take a long-term perspective when evaluating growth, relationships and success.

    I’ll stop now because I sound like a fortune cookie.


  11. I thihk anybody who WANTS to start their own business should do it. There are a lot of people out there who simply aren’t interested, or are more interested in the guaranteed paycheck that comes with working for someone else.

    I started my business after thinking about it for almost two years. I had written several business plans, but I was just too chicken to make the leap. I am so happy that I did!

    I spent over $4000 on marketing and advertising last year, and can I just say that I should have saved my money and opened an IRA? Didn’t get a single new client from doing that. I get all of my clients via word-of-mouth and repeat business.

    Excellent advice. Especially about the original idea. My idea kind of fell in my lap. I saw a need in the industry I already worked in, and realized nobody else was doing it, so I started doing it. And fortunately, it’s not something that everyone can (or wants to) do, which reduces the competition.

    But I tend to believe (now) that there is enough capital out there for everyone who wants to hustle enough to get it.


  12. Oh great, I made a typo first thing in that comment. Think, not thihk.

    That is pretty funny, considering I am an editor. Doh!


  13. These are all good bits of advice, especially about believing in yourself and talking to everyone. Someone will always know someone else in the field who would be happy to talk to you about their work. Something my dad taught me about being a creative person that has been very valuable is this:

    If you’re going to work, you’re going to have to be involved in business. Unfortunate but true. There are so many brilliant, talented, wonderful people out there, but many of them can’t bring anything to the table beyond their creative talent. If you can bring that something else, it makes you really valuable. Business isn’t about making High Art, but about making a profit.

    Good writers who can communicate with the technology people are unbeatable in the marketing department. An architect or designer who understands marketing can make a huge difference in how well pitching an idea goes. Someone in science or technology who can communicate big, complicated concepts in a way that everyone else can understand them? Totally getting a raise.


  14. Two small things that have worked well for me and people I know:

    If you have a choice between a well-paying but slimy client and a talented, ethical (but less moneyed) client, go for the good people. They know other good people, and you want them to be your clients too. Get your work into good circles. It can really pay off.

    If people are always saying, “I don’t know how you can stand to do that,” about something you enjoy doing, you might have found yourself an excellent niche.


  15. right on maggie!

    to me, having a successful business is about figuring out what you’re good at and what you love doing, then looking for a need that isn’t being met. where those two circles intersect is it!

    also, being patient is important. this is where loving what you do comes in handy… you won’t be cynical and bitter when your big moment actually arrives.


  16. I don’t really have much to add since you and all your commenters have made some excellent points.

    To expand on someone who said “Believe that you will be successful” I also say “Believe in what you are doing.” Not only will it give you fulfillment essential to being happy, but your confidence and pride will sell itself. No faking required, and people will notice!


  17. I wholeheartedly believe that communication is key and often overlooked when starting a new business, or even maintaining an existing one. In order to be successful, one must be able to communicate with a vastly diverse group of people on a variety of levels in a variety of situations, and understand that indivduals communicate in their own unique way. Clarity in your messages to others, both written and verbal is key.

    I also believe it’s important to have tolerance of people’s quirks. Just being friendly can’t hurt either.

    Only you know when you’ve achived personal success – listen to your heart.


  18. Everyone has pretty much said it all.

    Follow your heart.

    My father is a pastor and has always said that at any funeral he has preached for that never once did a big van carrying all the deceased’s possession follow them. Do what makes you happy not what will get you lots of stuff.


  19. 1. Believe in yourself.
    2. Trust your insticts. Your heart and soul know the path long before your head.
    3. Word of mouth is the best advertising one can do. It’s even better than the yellowpages.


  20. I think it is all excellent advice. I especially like #3. Lately I feel like I have have fallen away from that in my career and I know the future holds me getting back to that – hell or highwater.


  21. I have recently launched my own business, and my first piece of advice would be set up a clear and easy to use bookkeeping system. Then I would say, success is achieved when you have helped something or someone to grow, even if only by small steps.

    Very interesting post. Congrats on the little one!


  22. I agree with what most everyone else has said (particularly “find what you do and get someone to pay you to do it!”), but would like to add *how* to get this fabulous word of mouth advertising you keep hearing about (this is simple, and works in all aspects of life): 1. Do what you say you are going to do (this includes being on time!), and do it well. 2. Have a positive, can-do attitude. 3. Communicate (which mostly means listen, but also means keep people informed & in the loop). If you can do these things, then people will want to spread the word about you – this is how you build a good reputation.


  23. Thank you for this . . . it couldn’t have come at a better time.

    I’ve been working on buying or starting different businesses for the last 2+ years, and have written no less than 4 business plans.

    After a lot of soul-searching, I finally found “the one”. I’m still dragging my feet, but this has given me the push I need to get off my butt and start promoting my new business.

    So, thanks! đŸ™‚


  24. When I was 20, I was told by a very wealthy friend to make a business plan for my life.

    This includes very specific business and life goals at the following intervals:
    >three months
    >six months
    >one year
    >five years
    >ten years
    >twenty years
    >fifty years

    That was ten years ago and I’m a little freaked out at how much I’d planned has happened – with very little “hard work” of my own.

    Take the time to visualize your success and lo, it just might happen!


  25. Don’t undervalue having a job you love. I could make more money with my skills if I worked somewhere else, but most of that difference is made up by the fact that I love where I am and what I’m doing. I’d probably be richer elsewhere but much less satisfied.


  26. Figure out the parts you *love* to do and the parts you *hate* to do. Find someone who *loves* to do what you *hate* to do and pay them to do it.

    It’ll be a lot less painful for you and you’ll be supporting someone else’s effort to do the same (which will come back when someone who hates to do what you love to do finds you).


  27. Great discussion Maggie! Thanks for kicking this off. I’d like to weigh in with a hearty “ditto” on the value of referrals and word of mouth. Beyond that one business myth I’d like to see busted is the idea that you need to work yourself into an early grave to succeed. While hard work and certainly some over-the-top commitment levels will certainly come into any business at some point, if you can’t be successful in business while still sustaining a healthy quality of life then you aren’t successful. No business can succeed if it burns out its people assets.


  28. i would say at least question the following statements you will hear over and over again:
    1) that’s not how it’s done
    2) it’s just not possible
    3) it’s not worth the risk
    4) it’s better to be secure than to not know what’s going to happen
    5) it’s all about who you know

    everybody who’s ever been really successful studied what had been done before, and then did something else, and didn’t give a damn about the nay-sayers. beware above all well-meaning people trying to protect you from disappointment by telling you how unlikely it is that your dreams will ever be fulfilled. lose those friends fast. they’re not really friends – they’re lampreys.


  29. Customer service is the biggest key to success. If you treat your customers well, they’ll tell their friends about you and always come back for more.


  30. Do what you love for a living. 40 hours a week minimum? That’s way too much time to spend unhappy.
    Money/salary is not a sign of success. The joy you bring to your job is.
    You can change your mind any time you want.
    Be curious. Ask for advice. A little chutzpa goes a long way.


  31. A great post!

    Although I agree with Abby that it is great to pay people to do the parts you hate, be prepared to wear many hats (even the ones you don’t like) when you first start out. It actually does help you get a much better understanding of all the aspects of your business. That being said, don’t be shy to hire professionals to do what they do best, especially when it comes to legal advice, book-keeping and taxes.


  32. Indeed a great post!

    Here’s my 2 cent:

    1- Never EVER sell yourself short.
    2- Join a local entrepreneure group and built a network around you.
    3- Keep yourself passionate about your job and be pro-active in your market/community.
    4- Take some vacation or some time-off for yourself.



  33. I would say… be prepared to WORK! If you want to work 9-5, M-F then go work for someone else. If you want to work 24/7 then start your own business. It’s totally worth it if it doesn’t kill you!


  34. Hire good people (sounds so simple).

    And once you have hired them, do right by them. If they’re happy, then customers will be happy.

    Also… the customer is not always right and shouldn’t come first: the employee should (even if you’re the sole employee).


  35. Gotta love the job! we spend most of our lives working, we should at the very least like it. I have had my own business and made money not lots but enough to live on and the business paid for itself. However, one day I had a moment of clarity and realized that I wanted to make a difference in the world and what I was doing was not it.
    Now, I LOVE my job, I would do it for free if I could.


  36. This post was so timely for me. I’ve recently identified one of my actual useful skills (I have a vast many useless ones) that has emerged as a pattern in my working life over the past decade, and which could be a freestanding career in the form of my own business.

    Reading your advice essay gave me heart, and I have begun researching how to write a business plan and how to make my ideas and services into a real, live, honest-to-goodness business and career.


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