Contributed by Kym Huynh, an EO Melbourne member, EO Global Communications Committee member, and co-founder of WeTeachMe. Kym is fascinated by entrepreneurs and their journeys, so he asked EO members from various chapters to share their experiences. Read his earlier posts on how EO members define success, the impact of core values, lessons learned from their best and worst partnerships and the best advice they’ve ever received and nine lessons learned from entrepreneurial projects.
When asked, “What was your first entrepreneurial project? What did you learn?” Here’s what EO members shared.
See differences as opportunity and not a challenge
My first entrepreneurial project was becoming a tour guide in Italy —a country that was not my own. I was taking exams in a new language, there was non-stop paperwork, complex protocols, and never-ending answers that were not set in stone or black or white.
Back then, I wanted everyone to work in a way that was aligned with my brain and work methodologies. Experience in the field taught me that accepting other people’s way of work can bring the same, if not better, results.
I learned to accept and work with differences in thought and methodology, reset my brain to embrace diversity, and to see the differences as opportunity and not a challenge.
— Andrea Grisdale, EO Italy, founder and CEO at IC Bellagio
You don’t know what you don’t know
I was unaware that my first entrepreneurial project would take me on a 23-year journey.
I, and my business partner, saw an opportunity to secure a distribution agreement for a product and service that we are passionate about. We pursued the international headquarters located in the United States for five months before receiving the horrible fax message (yes, a fax!) that we were not going to become a distributor.
We were devastated because we had a clear plan to make this venture work. At 11:30pm one evening, I went to a 24-hour printing business, wrote my first business plan, printed it, bound it, and by 11 am that same morning my sister (who was travelling to the US) had it in her hand to present to headquarters.
My sister—naturally, we did not present her as my sister—presented the case on our behalf, and said that “we would not take no for an answer”. Headquarters agreed to a face-to-face meeting and subsequent training but with no promises. For the next six weeks while we prepared, we borrowed AUD$120,000 (this was 23 years ago) against my parents’ house to make the launch in Australia as big as possible.
In that six weeks, we honed the business plan, hired staff and invested in resources. Our preparedness, enthusiasm and passion enabled us to pull the entire thing off.
After our training in the US, we executed on the AUD$120,000 launch. We spent it all in seven days with not one guaranteed account. We had media, PR, celebrities—and within 18 months we opened 118 accounts with a three‑staff business.
Fast forward 23 years: We now have 300 high-functioning accounts, a team of 40, and are a leader in our industry. One lesson learned is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Had I known the enormity of the task ahead, I may have been too frightened to go for what was in both by my heart and my gut. However, our knowledge and passion fueled the creation of a team, a following, an amazing client base, and a business.
The saying “fake it till you make it” has more relevance than people give it (with a caveat). Our moves were well-calculated, we knew our numbers, and we threw our inhibitions to the air and recruited like-minded, passionate people.
— Daniel Dickson, EO Sydney, managing director of Amarco Enterprises
Don’t sign any agreement in a hurry
Maybe not my first entrepreneurial project, but certainly my first entrepreneurial real business.
I was working for Polaroid as a Finance Manager, and was amazed at the cost an agency charged for placing employees. I decided to start a personnel agency, but stay at Polaroid until the new business took off.
I hired two mature salespeople who had the attitude I was looking for, and I called the business “Vogue Personelle”. I’m quite proud of the branding; I utilized the French tricolour in my logo, and placed Vogue magazines at reception.
We had been in operation for two months, and I thought I would soon leave Polaroid. Then, I got offered the job as General Manager— effectively making me the youngest GM in the Polaroid empire.
I decided to sell the business fast, and I got screwed by another larger agency. They not only got the business for virtually nothing, but also took the incoming fees from the placements my team had made.
My lesson: Even under time pressure, don’t sign any agreement without reviewing it carefully and preferably with legal advice.
Greatness requires passion
I left school at age 15 to run my own small business. I created custom PCs for consumers, built networks for small businesses, and developed websites.
I learned two key things in those early years. First: Focus is essential. Spreading myself too thin meant a lack of specialization and a lack of ability to effectively market myself as a credible expert, given the breadth of services being offered.
Second, a reinforcement of the need to shed offerings that I didn’t love. While you may be good at something without loving it, you’ll never be truly great at it. Greatness requires passion not just for the monetary ends, but for the means that gets you there.
—Jamie Skella, chief operating and product officer at Mogul
This post originally appeared on Kym Huynh’s Leadership Toolkit blog and is edited and reposted here with permission.