Entrepreneurship – Is it for you?

By Kathy Finnerty Thomas

Originally published at LinkedIn



Create, Invent, Own your destiny. Be your own boss, never be laid off again, build something of value. Its sounds as enticing as a vacation at a beautiful secluded resort. Lately there has been a lot of great buzz about entrepreneurship – But are you the right type? Is there a “right type” of person to be an entrepreneur or can anyone become an entrepreneur?

I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family working for my Dad from childhood. My Dad is a brilliant but unassuming man who really never liked working for others – okay maybe that’s too politically correct. He couldn’t work for anyone else, wouldn’t work for anyone else. No one was as smart as he was and he might have been right. As a child he started buying packs of gum and selling it by the stick on the playground. He hunted small animals and sold their fur, invested the money in bonds and paid for his first house. He owned a great business and spends his retirement advising and teaching other entrepreneurs about business.

Some people are an entrepreneur in their very heart. I was fortunate to have worked for my Dad as well as in large and medium size companies – I have seen both sides. I learned a lot from my Dad although they may not have seemed like lessons at the time. As I left my Dad’s business I was excited about the prospects of working in a large company, climbing the ladder, making a name for myself – it was great but I found it hard to follow strategic direction that I didn’t agree with. I had an entrepreneurial spirit even in the larger companies I worked for.

There are people who truly excel at climbing the ladder, impressing the right people, and navigating the political landscape. I truly admire them and wish I had that skill. I marvel at their talent. I pulled it off for a while but I had trouble following the corporate direction when it didn’t make good business sense to me.

For the last 14 years I have been the President of Stowebridge Promotion Group, the promotional product business my husband started 20 years ago. I offered to help out for a few months and never left. We have an amazing, truly differentiated business with an outstanding staff. While he is the visionary and founder, I run the operations side so he can spend most of his time working with customers. When I started, there were just the two of us but we have seen explosive growth every year since then. I love my job, I love my customers but I don’t believe it is for everyone.

So if you have been thinking about being an entrepreneur, here are some things to think about before you take the leap. (This is written for ordinary people – for someone thinking about starting their own company. It is not written for someone with wealth who just buys an existing business and it may not apply to all businesses.).

Great News – you get to be your own boss…but can you lead and inspire yourself?

There is no one to tell you what to do, when to come to work, no useless meetings. You no longer have to work for someone you don’t respect – however, you no longer get to work for someone you do. It’s great to be your own boss but I push myself harder than any boss ever could because I have to. I am totally dependent on this company for my income and also responsible now for the livelihood of more than 20 other people.

Are you able to get yourself out of your jammies in the morning, even if you are working from home, and get to work? Can you hold yourself accountable? Are you great at driving yourself? Can you persist through the hardships without giving up? But at the end of the day are you disciplined enough to close the door and call it a day? When I worked at home I would often work all day, fix dinner and then go back to work until bed time – it was just so convenient to go answer a “few more emails”.

Are you comfortable with risk?

When you are your own boss, there is no comfortable, consistent paycheck being deposited in your account every two weeks. And you are the last person to get paid behind employees and suppliers.

On September 11th, 2001, we were a company of two employees working from home, our entire income dependent on the company. Business was going well. But nothing could have prepared us for the disruption and disaster of an unexpected terrorist attack. We were in the midst of several projects all of which got cancelled and the phone stopped ringing for two days. Fortunately in a promotional products business we have many things we can sell and were able to turn from the fun, promotions, events and sales meetings that were cancelled to patriotic items such as flag pins and items that enhanced security such as lanyards and badges.

When the great recession hit we were a larger company – we had recently purchased a building for our business with room to grow but with significantly more overhead than working from home. We were in the midst of purchasing additional equipment for our production operation. We did cancel our order on equipment which was supplemental to our operation but purchased a large format printer which opened the door for us to make banners, decals and other items that our customers were already buying, but purchasing somewhere else. That purchase in 2009 actually helped us increase sales over previous years while businesses were failing all around us. Taking on debt when the economy is crumbling is a scary endeavor leading to many sleepless nights. We were able to hold on to our exceptional staff without layoffs but there were many times that they got paid and we did not. We trimmed every nonessential expense and created a stronger company because of it. We became much more aware of our financial picture on a daily basis rather than monthly, managing every detail and every line item on the financial statements.

One of the hardest and riskiest steps is to go from one employee to two. Can you afford to split the income and make it grow enough to support an additional person?

If you like to sleep well at night – this might not be for you. However, there is a great sense of accomplishment when you can hold it together against all odds and come out stronger in the end.

You are often on your own..

When you are at the top, when you are your own boss – there isn’t always someone to discuss next steps, how to solve a problem, how to deal with a recession or a major unexpected change. I miss having peers that I work with. My husband and I do work together but our strengths and backgrounds are entirely different. It is important to find advisers you can trust keeping in mind they don’t share your risk.

So can you find great advisers but also sift through their advice with the knowledge that only you have? Equally, can you change your perspective and see opportunities through the eyes of an outsider? (Why would a successful entrepreneur hire a coach?)

I want to be rich..

Everyone I’ve met who hasn’t owned their own company thinks that it will make you rich. And it can, eventually. However, you are the last one to get paid after your employees and suppliers. As a child I could never understand how my Dad had such a great and robust company and there was never any money for our family – more importantly for the things I wanted. Now I understand! Sometimes there is a nice payout but most of time the money needs to be reinvested in growth or goes to an unexpected expense. I made a great salary working for other companies and my salary as an entrepreneur is much smaller. Profits go toward growth and expanding our capability. One year we purchased a new exposure unit rather than the new car I was admiring. It was the better investment.

I know my payout comes at the end when I can sell my business, but are you comfortable watching your friends pull down big salaries while you are not?

Do you thrive on attention and public recognition?

Do you love that great feeling of being promoted, being presented with a large bonus or amazing trip, being recognized at the company meeting, having a head hunter call you about a great new job that will propel your career? As an entrepreneur, that doesn’t happen. This was hard for me to give up, especially every time one my friends gets a new promotion, starts an exciting new job. You are at the top – there are no more promotions and you might get a big bonus but there is no one else to see the presentation.

Can you be your own cheerleader? Are you comfortable patting yourself on the back for a job well done? You have the great pride of what you have created but there are no more promotions.

I get to choose the people I work with..

One thing I love about owning my own business is I get to create the type of culture I want to work in and work with people I like. On the other hand managing people is one of the most difficult things I do. You can like them but you can’t be friends. It is challenging and hard work to create a culture and keep it on track. Coaching people to better performance while keeping them motivated, letting people know when their work is off track and dealing with employee conflicts takes up a large amount of my time.

Personnel issues are the problems that often keep me up at night. While you may manage and lead people in your corporations, their salary is not coming out of your personal income. Can you manage and lead and inspire people? Can you also fire people who are not performing even after you have given them your best efforts to lead and inspire?

Are you willing to learn new things and do some less than enjoyable jobs?

I am a marketing person – that is what I love. Yet, somehow I have become the “IT guy.” Friends who know me know how truly frightening that is but there are times when computer problems need troubleshooting that can’t wait. I fortunately have a real “IT guy”, a great back up, but at $100 an hour, I have had to learn a lot about computers. Plus we can’t waste valuable time waiting for help to arrive. I am the HR manager and have to negotiate benefits such as insurance, as well as create, implement and monitor HR policies. I have to be the CFO and the head of accounting. I need to keep up with business and employment law. My husband has to worry about building issues and repairs as well as equipment issues – when to repair, when to replace, how to get the most production out of the equipment we have. You have to be willing to take on tasks that you might not be trained for or want to do, until you grow to the size where you can hire someone to do these tasks. And yes, you can hire outside help for these jobs but that all takes away from profit and income. Are you willing to spend some of your day doing things that have to be done but might not be pleasant, might be something you need to learn? I hate negotiating insurance rates and plans. I am frustrated when I have to stop in the middle of something important to fix a computer problem preventing an employee from doing their job. I dislike worrying about credit card processing rates. But it’s all part of running a small business. And I do actually enjoy the variety and fast pace of my day. In the course of the day there are many interruptions that can take you away from your daily plan, important strategic work needed to run a business and satisfying customers. If you love being focused on your task at hand without interruption or if you don’t like your plans to be altered by the unexpected, this might not be for you.

Can you control the hungry beast?

Running your own business is like trying to control a hungry beast. It takes over your life. I am fortunate in some respects that I work with my husband so he understands and works as many hours as I do. I don’t know that owning a business with a spouse is great for a marriage but we have made it work. However, some spouses may not understand. (Why Entrepreneurs are bad at relationships) I work long hours – generally 12 – 14 hour days. I like to be here when my production employees start. It is often the only time my production manager and I have time to talk. I like the quiet of the early morning before the office staff starts to arrive at 7:30. And I often stay long after everyone has left because it’s the only time I get uninterrupted time to plan and get work done.

While my office staff is great and do their best to keep things going, I frequently work during my vacations because it is hard to walk away from customers and employee needs. A friend challenged me to take three days off without working during my vacation. Sadly it is simply not easy – at least for me and the type of business I have. Will that work for you – no long vacations disappearing from the stresses of work and office communications? You can’t turn your cell phone off and enjoy an extended holiday. Do you have an understanding spouse who is willing to share you with this hungry beast?

Today …

I love what I do. This business is now 20 years old and every year gets easier as we grow and can hire people to take over some of the tasks and allow us to run the company. However, with growth there are additional challenges as well. Do we need to add staff, equipment or do we need a larger facility? I know others look at our business from the outside or when they come for a tour of our facility and think how great it would be to be an entrepreneur. And it is great, most of the time – exciting, rewarding, challenging on so many levels and fulfilling. However before you embark on starting your own business based on the fanciful articles I see written, you need to understand the early stages of starting your own company. There are many sacrifices, and many rewards. I don’t believe being an entrepreneur is for everyone. However, it can be a great fit for the right person.

I would love to hear the thoughts of other entrepreneurs – I am sure you can add many more pluses and minuses to this list. And of course, for those of you thinking about venturing into the world of entrepreneurship, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. It is a great life – just not a great fit for everyone.