What Working For 3 Startups In The Last 10 Years Has Taught Me

RoadLessTraveledPost author: Mic Johnson

In the past 10 years, I’ve worked for three startups. The first one was Valiant Solutions, a recruiting company based out of North Carolina. When I joined them, they were a year old and had less than 10 employees. For the last 6 years, I’ve been with Blue Gurus. We’ve been a 2-person company for the bulk of our nearly 7  years in existence. Finally, in January 2013, my wife Missy and I started MJMeetings, a meeting and event planning company for corporations and professional associations.

Recently I was reflecting on what I’ve learned through my experiences over the last 10 years: the ups and downs, the wins and losses, living a personal and professional life that are completely intertwined, and more. I’ve included a few of them below. If you’re an entrepreneur, own a small business, work for a small business, or are thinking about going into business for yourself, I hope the lessons shared here help you in your journey.

You Won’t Get The Payoff If You Aren’t Willing To Take The Risk

When I started with Valiant Solutions, I’d left my previous employer with nothing lined up and was selectively unemployed for a few months. When I started with Blue Gurus, I parted with my previous employer, was again selectively unemployed for a few months, and eventually approached Jason and said, “I don’t need a salary. I don’t need benefits. I don’t need a certain number of hours a week. I want to switch careers and I want to work with you.” When Missy and I started MJMeetings, she’d never been her own boss, never worked in a startup, and had never had to sell before. And, no, Missy and I didn’t win the lottery and didn’t inherit money. We’ve taken calculated risks and (so far!) they’ve paid off. And I’m not just talking in financial terms. I’m talking about quality of life, stress level, work-life blend, our overall happiness, and more. ROI isn’t all about money.

It Takes Time To Discover What Your Brand Is

In the first couple of years working with Jason in Blue Gurus, I was very unsure about what my own personal and professional brand was. And though we knew we wanted to work together, we weren’t sure what that would look like. As time went on, we developed the model for the services we offer today. In addition, I became more and more confident in myself both personally and professionally. I know who I am. I live a life true to myself and my values. And I believe in what we do and how we do it. I’m seeing Missy go through the same process now with MJMeetings. There’s nothing I can do to fast forward the process for her. She has to get there in her own way and in her own time.

You Don’t Have To Do Everything The Way Everyone Else Does

You will have all kinds of people tell you that you can’t do things or that you should do things a different way. While it’s always helpful to have people around you that care about your success and happiness, ultimately you’re the one that will make the decisions and have to live with the repercussions or benefits of those decisions. That voice you hear inside you is the one you should ultimately listen to.

Trust Your Instincts

If there’s one thing that I would underline a hundred times, it’s this one. I can’t tell you how many times this has come into play over the last 10 years. In fact, as I think about nearly every career and personal move I’ve made, my instincts were always the guiding force. Be true to yourself and the rest will fall into place.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

I’ve found myself saying this a lot in the last couple of years. If I were to define the world of small business entrepreneurship, this would be it. If you ever feel comfortable, you’re doing something wrong. With time, you learn that instead of trying to get comfortable, it’s more important to embrace being uncomfortable. Doubt, anxiety and fear are a part of the process.

Consciously and Carefully Build A Network of Awesome

The world is full of people looking out solely for #1. I call them TAKERS. It took me longer than I want to admit to figure this out and it’s true in both your personal and professional lives. Learn to identify those people…and then stay away from them. Instead, build a network of awesome people. I do this in a variety of ways and am very selective of where, and with whom, I spend my time. One way I make sure I’m with awesome people regularly is through my peer advisory group, Introducing Awesome. There are very few things in business as valuable as a network of people that truly care about, and want to help, each other.

It Sucks Losing Clients

There’s no way to sugarcoat this one. It happens. And it sucks. And sometimes it happens when it has nothing to do with what or how you deliver your products or services. And that sucks even more. But that leads me to my next lesson…

Keep Watering

I wrote a blog post about this one awhile back and it still holds true today…and it will for all eternity in business. You have to keep going. You have to keep showing up. You have to invest time in people and relationships. You have to continue to help people. You have to keep delivering. You have to keep finding new clients. You have to keep dealing with adversity. You have to ask for help. Grab the hose…and keep watering.

Maintain Your Balance

Everything you read and hear when people talk about starting a business is that you have to burn the midnight oil, practically kill yourself, sacrifice time with family and friends, lose sleep, give up working out because you don’t have time, eat crappy food, and so on. I know a lot of people that have done that and I’ve read one too many articles that glorifies that type of behavior. And I never bought into any of it. You can too. “Success”, however you personally define it, may not happen as quickly for you when you take the road less traveled, but remember, you don’t have to do everything the way everyone else does.

If You Thought You Were Patient Before, You Were Wrong

Most of the time things in business and in life don’t happen as quickly as we want them to. I thought I was a patient person before when I worked in the corporate world…willing to do my job and wait my turn for the next opportunity. But being involved with three startups has taught me about a level of patience I didn’t know I had and never would have predicted I could have dealt with.

You Have To Have The Tough Conversations

It’s not all a bed of roses. Life and business throws us curve balls all of the time. Some people think they can just work harder and that will solve everything. Hard work certainly has it’s merit, but more importantly you have to be willing to have the tough conversations along the way. You have to work with people whom you trust, be willing to be vulnerable, be willing to look yourself in the mirror, and be willing to make the tough choices along the way. Jason and I have done this a few times over the last 6 years. It’s never easy, but we always feel better after doing it…because we come from a place of honesty, caring and genuine love and respect for one another. There’s no better way to do it, in my opinion.

Enjoy The Ride

The road less traveled by isn’t full of litter and other travelers. It can be lonely at times, but it also allows you the opportunity to stop and smell the roses, enjoy the process of learning, growth, overcoming obstacles, and building the life you want for yourself. Understand that the road isn’t always smooth, but the ride is totally worth it. I hope these lessons sparked some thought in you. I’d love to hear what other lessons you’ve learned from your own experiences. Comment below or send me an email at mic@bluegurus.com.

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