This article continues the series about the connection between entrepreneurship and personal growth called Entrepreneurs Grow at Warp Speed.
Develop a broad base of skills
Starting your own business can push you to learn a variety of skills you may not otherwise learn, such as:
- business law
- contract negotiation
- sales skills
- presentation skills
- crisis management
- customer service
General business skills that you learn in one business can readily be applied to another, so your early business lessons give you a head start in any future businesses you may build.
In my first few years in business, I didn’t know anything about contracts and spent a few thousand dollars each year to have experienced lawyers help me draft, understand, negotiate, and edit contracts, such as for game publishing deals. Eventually I learned enough from those lawyers to be able to competently draft my own business contracts and negotiate my own deals, which saves me time and money. I also learned that I wanted to spend less time dealing with lawyers.
I can learn a lot about a business by paying careful attention to their contracts. A contract is a treasure trove of information if you know what to look for. I’ve rejected a number of deals outright when a business contract made me suspicious of someone’s intentions or gave me doubts about their competence. A sloppy contract is a sign of a sloppy business. A sneaky contract is a sign of a sneaky business. A confusing contract is a sign of a confusing business. I favor contracts that are fair, direct, thorough, and simply worded.
When I had to negotiate event contracts for my Las Vegas workshops, it was easy because I already had lots of experience with business contracts from a previous business. I’ve done 11 events so far at various hotels on the Vegas Strip and downtown, and I never needed to use a lawyer for any of them.
Now I only hire a lawyer when I’m doing something unusual or where a mistake could be very costly, and I only use them selectively for the parts where I need help. I hired a lawyer in 2007 to help me with my book publishing agreement with Hay House because it was my first book publishing deal, and I was ignorant about some aspects of book publishing, such as what the royalty rates for different media should be. That lawyer helped me make enough beneficial changes to the agreement to more than cover her fees, and I was able to keep the legal costs reasonable by handling most of the contract negotiation myself.
When you’re new to business, you’re going to have a lot to learn — much more than you expect. Sometimes it will seem overwhelming how much there is to figure out. But you don’t have to learn these lessons all in your first year. Even after being an entrepreneur for more than 20 years, I’m still learning aspects of business that many people might think are very basic. It was only this year, for instance, that I finally got my business accounting practices in order.
If you stick with entrepreneurship for many years, you’ll learn a wide range of skills that can benefit you in any business and your personal life as well, such as when you need to negotiate the purchase of a new home or when you plan a wedding and need to stick to a budget.
Some skills that you learn will only be needed on rare occasions, but you’ll be glad to have them.
On a personal level, it can do wonders for your self-esteem to know that you can competently exercise such a wide variety of skills. This helps you see that you’re always capable of improving yourself to tackle new challenges that may currently seem out of reach.
Learn to say no when you’re suspicious
How many times in life do we make the mistake of walking into a trap? Business has lots of potential traps, and getting good at avoiding them is at least as important as capturing opportunities.
It’s very difficult to walk away from a business deal that looked good at first and suddenly turned bad, especially if you’ve already invested a lot in it. This can be as hard as leaving a good relationship that turned bad. You remember the good times and feel that it must be possible to rekindle what was.
In 2010 I hosted four workshops at the Flamingo Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. All of those events went smoothly. We had a great meeting room that was perfect for our workshops, and I enjoyed working with the Flamingo’s staff and found them to be friendly, professional, and competent. I especially liked the meeting planner we worked with, who was always on the ball. The venue was also a good match for our attendees, with reasonably priced guest rooms of decent quality. The Flamingo is right in the middle of the Vegas Strip, which made it a fun and lively location for attendees who wanted to soak up the authentic Las Vegas experience in the evenings.
I wanted to keep doing more events at the Flamingo and thought we’d continue working well together for many years. But when I went to book a new event with them, something had changed on their end. The original meeting planner I’d worked with had been promoted, and they assigned me someone new who didn’t seem to care whether we booked with them or not. She refused to rent us the meeting room we loved, preferring to reserve it for more lucrative wedding receptions. She showed me rooms that weren’t appropriate for our events and that didn’t match the specs I provided. She was all around unprofessional and wasted my time. I couldn’t get a deal done with her, so for our next four workshops in 2011 and 2012, I switched to the Tropicana, which had just been remodeled at the time. Those workshops went well, but I still preferred the meeting rooms and staff at the Flamingo.
I tried going back to the Flamingo again in 2012 or 2013, hoping that the previous issues were a fluke. This time I dealt with a different meeting planner who seemed more professional and accommodating. She was able to get us the room we loved at the same price we paid in 2010. So far so good.
By the time she sent me the contract, I figured it would be smooth sailing since all she had to do was send me the same contract we’d used four times before. It was mostly the same, but there were some differences, all of which slanted the deal towards benefitting the Flamingo at our expense. I was able to get nearly all of that nonsense removed, but I was told their legal department would not allow us to remove one sentence that they insisted on adding this time. This wasn’t in any of our previous agreements.
That one sentence would have given them the right to add additional expenses to our bill however they deemed necessary. In her emails to me, the meeting planner insisted that our costs should be the same as before and that everything should go smoothly. She acted like that sentence was just part of their new standard agreement and claimed it couldn’t be removed. Yeah, right.
When I see such a vague, open-ended catch all in a contract, it sounds alarm bells for me, and it should do the same for you as well. I might have done this deal during my first year or two in business. But not this time. I walked away from the deal and didn’t do that workshop. That one sentence killed it for me.
When companies are in trouble, many times there are still good employees working for them who are trying to do the right thing under impossible conditions. They may be pushed by management to squeeze more money out of good customers, for instance. At the time I thought that either the meeting planner or the Flamingo’s legal department was deliberately sabotaging the deal. I was annoyed that they wasted my time once again. Their decisions seemed ridiculous to me. We had a good thing going that was mutually beneficial, and we could have worked well together for years. Why did they seem to irrationally insist on fucking it up?
In retrospect, however, the story looks a bit different. That meeting planner (or the legal department) may have saved me from a much nastier situation.
Earlier this year, the owner of the Flamingo, Caesar’s Entertainment, filed for bankruptcy. That was probably a long time coming. I don’t know what would have happened if we had booked that event with them, but in retrospect I’m glad they insisted on that one ridiculously unreasonable line in the contract, which pushed me to walk away.
If we had worked with them during that time, we might have gotten stung by various problems that companies commonly experience on the road to bankruptcy, not the least of which may have been having our bill padded or seeing our event become an unfortunate casualty.
The worst mistakes I’ve made in business involved saying yes to deals that I never should have done.
Similarly, some of the worst mistakes you’ll make in your personal life will include staying in stagnant or declining relationships much longer than you should.
Being an entrepreneur will expose you to more of these tricky situations. You’ll learn to pause and reflect a little longer before jumping in headfirst. Those pauses can save you from many headaches.
Grow your skills to capture new business opportunities
Many business opportunities will elude you until you can grow enough to capture them. Seeing those opportunities dangling in front of you and knowing that you could seize them if only you grew a bit more can be very motivating.
The world of business is like a huge fruit tree. You can reach some of the low-hanging fruit right away, but most of the juiciest fruit is higher up in the branches, teasing you with its golden deliciousness.
Once when I was chatting with Hay House President Reid Tracy in his office, he told me that their best-selling authors typically make most of their money from speaking, not from writing books. That was around the time I was just getting into professional speaking and had earned less than $10,000 total from it.
To capture the income from speaking though, I had to grow into a speaker. I had a small amount of experience speaking at tech and gaming industry conferences before I started blogging, but I was only paid with free conference passes at best. I felt I had a long way to go before I’d be capable of earning significant income from speaking.
In the early 2000s, I often sat in awe of people who could speak confidently in front of groups. I wanted to push myself to grow in that area too. One reason I shifted from game development to personal development is that I’d have more opportunities to develop my speaking skills. In the personal development field, I could more easily justify a major investment in my speaking skills because there would likely be a significant financial payoff on that side. If I stuck with the gaming industry, I could still speak at tech conferences, but it wasn’t likely to generate much income because that type of speaking is usually done for free.
I liked speaking, wanted to get good at it, and would gladly do it for free. But I couldn’t justify taking the time away from my computer games business that would be necessary to stretch myself in that way. The demands of my business were at odds with my personal growth interests.
In these situations you can put your old business model first, or you can put your personal growth first. I did the latter. I shut down my games business and started fresh in a new field. A big part of my motivation was to adopt a business model that would do a better job of financially rewarding my major growth pursuits. I could now justify spending more time speaking and writing because those skills would benefit my new business too.
Notice that I was making a big sacrifice here too. In the new field, I wouldn’t have as many rewards for keeping my game programming skills sharp, so I knew that those skills would atrophy. That tradeoff was worth it to me.
Weaving my personal growth journey into my business has been immensely rewarding. It’s like getting paid to grow. Now I have the skills to easily earn six figures a year as a speaker if I wanted to. To me the ability to earn income from speaking is nice, but the greater reward is knowing that I can get up and speak confidently in front of people without fear or anxiety.
This years-long process of turning a weakness into a strength is wonderful by itself. Doing this as an entrepreneur is even better because your business gives you bonus rewards for success if your new strength can be used to generate extra income.
To this day I pay a lot of attention to the alignment between my personal growth interests and the behaviors that my business rewards. When those fall too far out of sync, I know that something has to change.
Think about how you can adopt a business model that will provide extra rewards if you achieve your personal growth goals and/or extra punishments if you don’t. You can deliberately link your income to the behaviors you want to adopt.
Learn patience and consider abandoning deadlines
Many entrepreneurial opportunities can only be captured with immense patience and persistence.
For many years patience has been one of my greatest weaknesses. I went through so many cycles of planning out my work in detail, making careful estimates, and then rejecting my estimates and replacing them with foolishly optimistic estimates because I didn’t want to accept how long my goals would actually take to achieve. I’d set deadlines for myself that were impossible to meet.
I’d try to complete projects in a few weeks that should realistically take several months. I’d set ridiculous deadlines that didn’t give me enough time to finish, let alone to polish the work to a high level of quality. This caused me to keep piling up partially finished projects, which can be a real drain on one’s motivation.
To this day impatience remains a big personal growth challenge for me. I love to move fast. I like going from idea to result quickly, which is probably why I like blogging so much. But I also recognize that doing a really good job on some projects takes a lot of time, and rushing is counter-productive.
One April during my late 20s, my family was about to throw me a birthday party. I was annoyed. I had a lot of work to do, and the timing of my own birthday was inconvenient. I wanted to skip the party and postpone or cancel it, so I could stay at my office and work. I argued with my Mom about it, who (perhaps rightfully) got a bit snippy with me. After I got of the phone, I thought to myself, This is ridiculous. I grudgingly went to the party, but I was distracted by all the work I still had to do. It was a no win situation.
So many creative projects die because people accept unrealistic deadlines. The problem is that creative work can be highly unpredictable. Estimation is hard enough when all the details are known in advance. When unknown problems must be solved, deadlines can easily do more harm than good.
I understand that deadlines and time estimates are important when you’re spending a lot of money, tackling time-sensitive opportunities, fending off competition, or working with large teams. But many entrepreneurs aren’t in those situations. For many entrepreneurs, any deadlines are arbitrary and self-imposed.
I learned that I actually do my best work when I don’t have a specific deadline. I find deadlines immensely distracting. They often cause me to do lower quality work, to make poor decisions, and to make more mistakes. Deadlines raise my stress levels and push my brain out of its best creative zone.
In lieu of deadlines, what motivation could you use instead? If you don’t have a deadline, then won’t you be at risk of descending into laziness?
I find that without a deadline, I actually work even harder. Instead of pushing myself to work faster, I focus instead on the quality of the work I’m doing.
Yesterday I breezed through a 12- or 13-hour workday and deeply enjoyed the work I did. I started my workday around 5:45am and worked the first five hours with no breaks. Even at the end of the day, I still felt motivated to keep working and did a little more work after dinner. This is how I work when I don’t have a deadline. Instead of worrying about the time, I put my full attention on the task at hand. I do the task as if time is infinite.
My major personal growth lesson here was learning that working timelessly is more effective for me than working with a deadline. I know that many people swear that deadlines are important for achieving goals. For me deadlines are counter-productive though. Deadlines trigger my impatience and make me crash into walls.
For me the path to patience has been to allow myself to work as if time doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is the task that’s right in front of me.
Almost all of my writing was done in a deadline-free fashion. Now I’m learning to tackle a greater variety of projects with this same approach, and it’s working very well so far.
Business is an incredible teacher of patience. When you see patient entrepreneurs achieving results that you’ve never been able to achieve, you’ll feel incentivized to stop sprinting wildly towards random goals and put in the time to do quality work.
Maybe deadlines work well for you. But if not, consider focusing on the quality of your work instead. Immerse yourself in doing your best, and ignore the passing of time.
Grow strong enough to tackle the monster projects
This is a corollary to the previous item, but I think it deserves special treatment.
Many businesses have monster projects. These are the big, hairy, sometimes scary projects that you may dread doing but which could have serious payoffs if you complete them. When you develop your patience and persistence, some of those monster projects will become accessible to you. You’ll be able to dig up gems that you once thought would be too difficult to extract, and you’ll even learn to enjoy the process of digging.
I’ve known for many years that I need to update my aging website, which largely uses the same design it launched with in October 2004. In many ways this is an ugly monster of a project. I launched the site quickly to get it online fast and made a variety of inconsistent design decisions during the past 11 years. The blog portion of the site is managed by WordPress, but the rest of the site still includes dozens of hand-coded HTML pages, various scripts full of spaghetti code, countless redirects, experimental pages that no longer work, hundreds of dead links, and dozens of smaller design problems. That said, the site is still immensely popular, receiving tens of thousands of visitors per day.
A few years ago I made an extensive to-do list of what was needed to modernize the site and fix the design and coding problems, while still keeping the original content intact. That list was more than a dozen pages long. I shoved the monster back into the closet.
This year I finally decided to tackle this monster project. I no longer felt impatient or stressed about it. I approached the project as a personal growth challenge, thinking about all the ways I’d have to stretch myself to get it done.
I considered hiring a designer, but truth be told, I never found a designer whose designs impressed me. I received lots of suggestions, but whenever I checked out the portfolios, I saw lots of designs that didn’t speak to me. My priority was to improve the usability of the site for my readers. I couldn’t see how parallax scrolling would help me achieve that.
Moreover, I wasn’t excited by the personal growth path of working with a designer. It seemed like a boring and tedious way to get the project done. I’ve known other people who went this route to update their websites, and they were often dissatisfied with the experience and the results.
Maybe there’s a golden designer I could have worked with, but I never found that person.
Design is not my strength though. For starters I’m color blind. A person with normal vision sees about 1 million shades of color. I see 25,000 shades. That’s 1/40th of normal. In the blue part of the spectrum, I can see close to what a person with normal vision sees. But when I stray into reds and greens, I really have no idea how those colors look to most people. Fortunately, I have a girlfriend who does have normal color vision. I figured that working with her on the color aspects of the project would make it more fun, which turned out to be true.
I decided to use a simple standard for this project. I would do whatever it took to do it right this time. No deadlines. I’d keep working on it until I was satisfied with the result.
I’d come up with a consistent design philosophy and standards for the entire site. I’d solve each problem carefully and thoughtfully. I’d learn whatever I needed to learn. I’d seek help from other people as needed.
I began that project in late August, not really knowing how long it would take but figuring at least a couple months of full-time work. I decided to put blogging on the back burner, so I could focus more deeply on that one project.
I started by updating my knowledge of WordPress. I went to WordPress.org and learned about the latest features that I wasn’t using yet. I joined the Las Vegas WordPress meetup group and started going to their meetings. In September I went to the two-day WordCamp Las Vegas, my first WordCamp ever. I talked to web developers and designers. I took a lot of notes and looked into every resource I encountered.
I didn’t rush. I didn’t worry about deadlines. I just focused on learning what I needed to learn and doing the best work that I could.
I designed by doing. I would make a prototype design of a single page, look at it, and note what I didn’t like about it. Then I’d try another approach to fix those problems. When I felt semi-satisfied with the result, I’d show it to Rachelle and watch her grimace. Then we’d discuss what was still wrong with it. I’d keep iterating and trying new ideas until we both liked the result.
Treating this as a personal growth project turned out to be extremely motivating. I found it easy to work 10-12 hours a day and still felt an intense drive to keep working until my brain was too exhausted to continue. Instead of just trying to get the project done, I immersed myself in gaining new knowledge and skills and then applying what I learned to make further progress on the project. Every day was a learning adventure.
For example, instead of trying to pick better fonts for the website, I decided to study and learn typography. I spent several days in a row just studying typography for 8-10 hours per day. I probably learned more about typography in that first day of intensive study than I ever knew about the subject in my entire life up to that point. I thought deeply about how the typography choices would affect my reader’s experience of the site.
After I believed I had a practical and functional understanding of typography, I applied this knowledge to the website update. I considered hundreds of different fonts for the redesign and carefully selected the exact fonts I wanted to use. I tested and tweaked every aspect of typography that I could modify until I was finally satisfied. I probably spent 2-3 weeks of this project just on the typography. There is no Arial or Verdana on the new site!
I considered not just fonts but also line height, letter spacing, use of headings and subheadings, and more. I tweaked the number of characters per line to fall within the ideal range for reading articles. I customized the styling of the bullets, numbered lists, block quotes, links, and more. I even programmed the fonts to automatically resize themselves for different screen sizes.
I’ve probably become something of a typography snob as a result of this exploration. The best motivation to finish and launch the new website is looking at the old website and noting how ugly and chaotic it looks to me now.
This project, which was once my monster, has been an amazing personal growth journey. I normally would not have tackled this type of project for myself though. One reason I was motivated to do it was because my website is an integral part of my business. The website already has a lot of traffic, and I know that many readers would appreciate a more modern design. I can’t say if there will be a financial payoff for this project, but a more intelligently designed website surely couldn’t hurt.
For me the immediate payoff is that the new site is going to be much easier to manage. That alone made this project worth doing.
There isn’t much work left to do on the new site. All of the major problems have been solved and fixed. Hundreds of to-do items have been checked off. The remaining work mainly involves tweaking plugins, fixing some broken links, and testing and fine-tuning. The monster has been tamed.
When will it launch? When it’s fully done. I could give you an estimate, but I won’t.?
In school we learn knowledge and skills that we may never apply in the real world, so of course we forget most of what we learn within a few weeks. This type of learning is mostly a waste of time and energy. School is mostly babysitting.
In business we have the opportunity to learn something and apply it immediately. This adds depth, power, and drive to learning that makes us soak up information faster and with greater retention.
As an entrepreneur you’ll see plenty of evidence that your personal weaknesses are holding your business back. Knowing that you’re going to have to work on yourself to help your business can motivate you to tackle some intense growth challenges.
These growth challenges are endless. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to tackle them all at once, and don’t beat yourself up too much when you fall short. Just keep turning towards that powerful and ambitious spirit inside of you, and be as patient as you can as you continue to grow into alignment with your potential.
This series will continue…