Long, relentless workdays. Stagnant wages. And uncertainty—will you get that promotion you’ve been working crazy hours to get or will it go to your boss’s favorite? Will you even have a job next year at this time? These are the worries that come with grinding it out in corporate America. Stay late, schmooze with the higher ups, put your all into every project, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll land on top. In fact, you might still be sent crashing to the bottom.
So it makes sense that as Sheryl Sandberg points out in the much talked about book, Lean In, many women are reluctant to make a focused effort to lead in the workplace. My advice? Get out! When you’re bright and talented, you can make your own way by starting your own business.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the message behind Lean In is good. But for some women, corporate America just isn’t and never will be a good fit.
Sheryl Sandberg has famously said that she leaves the office every day at 5:30. But for most women (and men) trying to work their way up in today’s companies that just isn’t a realistic choice. Particularly if they want to get promoted, get a raise or even just stay off the chopping block when layoffs are made. What’s lacking for many women working in corporate America is control—control over their own destiny. And that’s why I recommend that women feeling rundown by the rat race should think about starting their own business.
And it just so happens that now is a great time for women to be going out on their own. A recent American Express OPEN study shows that women-owned businesses are playing a significant role in job creation (second only to publicly traded companies) and that the number of women-owned businesses has increased by 59 percent since 1997.
Now of course, starting your own business doesn’t mean you’re going to leave long work days in the past. In fact, you may even be trading in a 60-hour work week for an 80-hour work week. But here’s the thing: you’ll know where you’re going to end up. And yes, it’s going to take a lot of hard work. But I don’t know many women who are afraid of that! As I’ve always said, ”I’m going to be working hard my whole life, I might as well be working hard for myself!”
If getting out sounds like the right choice for you, keep reading for advice on the steps you need to take to start your own wickedly successful business.
Don’t be bridled by your job title. Forget your job title. When it comes to thinking about what kind of business you should start, job titles are too limiting. What are your actual areas of expertise? How could they be transitioned into a low-cost business?
For example, before starting my business, I was a nurse in a hospital. Being a nurse, I might automatically have assumed that my business should involve taking care of people. But I thought outside the box. I realized my real area of expertise was my medical knowledge, and so I used that to create a new industry. Women in many other professions can do the same. For example, if you’re an English teacher, you might start a business as a freelance proofreader. Or teachers of other subjects might become ADD coaches. Or if you’re an account executive at an advertising firm, your real areas of expertise might be that you’re super-organized and a great delegator. So you might make a great franchise owner.
I think a lot of people get stuck in the “I’d love to own a business, but…” stage because they just look at their job title and can’t figure out how to convert it into a business. Dig deep. Do a self-evaluation of your own skills. Ask your family, friends and colleagues where they see you excel, and then think about a business that would thrive because of your core skills.
Follow the right path for you. When people think of starting a business, often they dream of coming up with the next Google or Facebook and becoming billionaires. But really there are two distinct paths to take when thinking about the kind of business you want to create. One is inventing something that’s never been done before. The other is starting a more conventional business like becoming a consultant, opening a franchise or starting a retail business.
Choosing the inventive path can certainly be lucrative, but it also comes with big risk. A more conventional path might not be as exciting, but you can certainly use it to make a good living and a lifestyle of your choice. Again, it really comes down to what your skills are. If you are a great outside the box thinker, sure, try to come up with something that’s never been done before. But if you’re a really great writer there is certainly no shame in becoming a freelance copywriter and making a solid living that way.
Learn from the best. Look at what other businesses are doing. Explore areas that show growth potential and look to see what need you can cover that isn’t presently being filled in your market. Find a successful company similar to the one you envision owning, study how it started and how it grew, and learn as much as possible about the entrepreneur behind it.
Devour books, publications, and online resources related to your business concepts. Talk to other entrepreneurs to discover their best practices. Look to successful businesses that are different from your idea. Study strategies that transcend industries and apply them to your business.
Get the basics right. Will starting your own business be rewarding, exciting and maybe even fun at times? Sure, absolutely. But it won’t be easy. You’ll have to get a lot right to make it work. If you can get some basics right, right out of the gate, you’ll be off to a strong start.
Remember, the foundation you build today will support your enterprise as you drive onward and upward. That’s why now’s the time to focus on creating a good reputation for yourself. Be someone other people want to work with. Be someone people want to buy from. A great way to do that is to always do what you say you’re going to do. If you promise to work with a vendor at a certain price, stick to it. If you tell a customer, he can bring a product back at anytime, don’t hedge when he walks in with it four months later. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. When you can get these basics right, you can build strong relationships and those are what make a strong business.
Put it on paper. You can think about your business idea all day, but until you really get it all down on paper you can’t truly see where the strengths lie and what holes need to be filled. Writing out your business plan is the best way to think through everything.
Consider the Golden Gate Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge. The architects didn’t just look out at the future location, point a finger and say, “Pour the concrete right about there.” Of course not. You need a plan that projects your vision. It needs to include your goals, your strategies for achieving them, your budget, etc. Through the years, I’ve gone back to my business plans over and over again when big decisions needed to be made or unexpected obstacles popped up. I’ve reviewed and updated them frequently. I’ve used them as my friendly nudge, my board of directors, and my business manager.
Form strategic alliances. The saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And to some extent that is certainly true. But really it’s about knowing the right people. If you don’t know them, you’re going to have to do some networking to form the strategic alliances necessary to keep your business moving forward.
Networking did lead me to my first client, but it works best when you’re selective. Unless you’re selective, networking just becomes a waste of time, and that’s not working. Research what you need, locate the source and ask. Create a network of clients, consultants, vendors and acquaintances that you can depend on to deliver anything from information to referrals.
Here’s my “be strategic” caveat, and it’s an important one. Be nice to everyone, not just the gatekeepers. Treat the receptionist at the vendor you’re trying to win over just like you treat the vendor. Think of your enterprise as a relationship business. Treat everyone as an ally, even those who can’t advance you. Trust me when I say that in our smaller, flatter world all that niceness will pay off!
Put together a power team. I have always said I don’t believe in having just one mentor or taking advice from just one person. Everyone you meet has the potential to be a mentor. The big advantage today is that a mentor doesn’t have to be a physical person. There are tons of books, websites, blogs, podcasts, etc., out there providing great advice. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to connect with people far and wide who know what you need to know.
I could not imagine running the company I have now without the extraordinary framework of staff, subcontractors, vendors and consultants who support it. They, the authors of the many books I’ve read, the numerous people I’ve seen interviewed, people who’ve attended my seminars, and people I’ve just ran into at the grocery store are all my mentors—they’re my power team. When I have an open mind and let these people and their thoughts and views in, it helps my brain work better. It helps me see things with different eyes. Aggressive learning is a competitive advantage in achieving any desired goals.
Know that everything is marketing and marketing is everything. Having a great idea for a business is one thing, but if you can’t figure out a way to sell it to everyone else, you’ll be stuck. It’s all about marketing. Today, marketing is complicated. It can be easier and cheaper because you can do a lot with social media for free. But because it’s so easy, practically everyone and their mother are taking a piece of the marketing pie. So, it can be difficult to get the attention of potential customers.
I’ve always found that marketing is most successful when based on a foundation with multiple pillars. If you depend on one pillar—social media, for example—your business could easily get passed over by potential customers. Add one pillar at a time, systemize that strategy, then repeat the process, adding pillars and systemizing each one, with the goal of adding as many effective strategies as possible. That’s a better way to go.
So, let’s say you choose to start with social media. First systemize what and how often you post about your company to Facebook and Twitter. Once you have a system in place for staying in front of potential customers, add the next pillar, for example, word-of-mouth referrals, then the next, maybe advertising. A single additional pillar could increase the growth of your enterprise 5 percent, 20 percent, even 100 percent or more. As you add solid pillars, each one effectively attracting customers, you’ll become a true marketing pro.
Keep evaluating along the way. You’re absolutely going to hit obstacles along the way. That’s just the nature of business ownership. But you can use each obstacle to improve your business. Evaluate what’s happening at each one. Why did the obstacle pop up? If customers don’t seem as thrilled about your product as you thought they’d be, why is that? Maybe you’ve packaged it in the wrong way. Or maybe you’re targeting the wrong demographic.
I got lucky. I came up with an idea for a business that no one else was doing at the time. But I still had to do my share of evaluating and re-evaluating. In the early years of my business, I woke up one morning and had a reality check: My lack of systems and processes were kicking my butt.
My office looked like a shipwreck with the debris and detritus strewn about by the tide of day-to-day business. I was so busy working projects I had completely ignored my business and the systems necessary to manage it properly. I tackled the problem immediately. Now, I live for processes and systems and my business thrives because of them. But my point is, that was a key period in my business when I had to step back and evaluate. I had to figure out what wasn’t working for my business and take care of it right away.
Beware of “great” bad ideas. A caveat to the above tip is that sometimes things just aren’t working because you’re “great” idea is a bad business idea. No matter how much you chase after a bad business idea or how much blood, sweat and tears you put into trying to make it work, at some point you have to realize it just won’t.
Before I started my current business, I had another business in patient education. I thought it was a great idea for a business and a great way to use my nursing expertise. But I quickly found that patients didn’t want to pay for it, and insurance companies didn’t want to pay for it. I realized if I continued down that path I would be volunteering my time. Not a great way to build a profitable business! So I went back to the drawing board to find a truly great idea.
Expect icebergs. No enterprise is unsinkable; the Titanic sank its first time out. Businesses fail. But when your enterprise has a solid foundation and when you run it like an experienced CEO, only an enormous iceberg can knock you off course.
In 1990, I hit an iceberg when my largest clients dissolved their law firm. I hit another huge iceberg when the recent recession struck. Thankfully, I had the necessary lifeboats in place, and my business stayed afloat both times. Stay on the lookout for icebergs. Don’t get lost in the details or in creating the glitz and glitter. You can easily lose sight of what’s ahead and forget to watch where you’re going.
You just can’t deny what a great time this is for women business owners. If you’re tired of staying late at the office for a promotion you might never get, if you have a vision that just can’t be fulfilled sitting in a cubicle all day, if you’d rather be sweating it out at your own catering business than in a C-Suite office with a view, I strongly recommend you exit the corporate world. Walk out the revolving door of your office building and start your own business. If you don’t have it in you to lean in, get out!
Vickie Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD, is author of the New York Times bestseller Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman and owner of Vickie Milazzo Institute. She has been recognized on the Inc. list of Top 10 Entrepreneurs and Inc.’s Top 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America. Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.