December 1, 2015

14 Things I’ve Learned In One Year As A Struggling Entrepreneur

Guest blog by Alex Foster-Roman

It’s no secret that the road to successful entrepreneurship is everything from scary to daunting to head-bangingly frustrating. Whether you’ve been to school for two years or ten, there are subtle entrepreneurial and social elements that you can only learn trying to run a business, other than the exception of maybe getting an MBA. It takes more than just being good at your craft or having some tech expertise. You need social savviness, awesome habits, nauseating enthusiasm and emotions made of rubber.

I’ve only been at this thing for about a year and the learning curve has been steep. However, I am progressing and heeding the learnings from the proverbial school of hard-knocks. Here are a few delicate lessons about being your own business.

1. Be extra nice to everyone you meet

Obviously, this is a great guideline for life but it holds especially true when you are an entrepreneur. Networking and relationships are about as valuable as money in most industries. You never know who you are meeting or who that person knows. From my experience, about a third of solid relationships will lead to some sort of business in the future. All the best entrepreneurs are personable, friendly and generous to everyone they meet. If you are standoffish at first and then warm up once you realize a person can help you, it’s already too late. So be kind, even to people who appear as though can’t outwardly benefit you. Your social reputation is high-priority when you are your own business.

2. Doing work for free is usually anything but

This may not apply to well-established brands and enterprises, but in the past year I have done my fair share of free work. I’ve found that in some way shape or form, the world will take care of you for doing free work. It sounds odd but free work will rarely go uncompensated. Now, you may be opposed because you went to school or have a certain special skill set and don’t want to devalue yourself, and I get that. It’s hard watching years of hard-earned talent and money being under-appreciated, but if you commit to giving your best work no matter the circumstance, you should have the trust in the system that it will come back to you tenfold. If you aren’t busy enough with paying clients there should be no reason why you can’t fill the time with some pro-bono work.

If you’re going to give things for free, make sure you do it early and generously. This isn’t a revolutionary business idea but it is crucial when building client relations, especially at the beginning of your career. There are a few reasons why not being stingy is so beneficial to success as an entrepreneur. Firstly, it allows the client a glimpse at your expertise on a personal level. It’s one thing to see the work you’ve done for others but another to see the work done on your own project. You don’t want to lose a client because they were reluctant to commit because you didn’t want to do anything until you saw that money in your bank account. Secondly, this builds huge trust in your client relationship and starting out as an entrepreneur, relationships are everything. Having the client know that you have their best interests at heart beyond money goes much farther than the cash you’d receive on that first project. The goal is to have your client throwing money at you and wanting to compensate you for future work. If it’s like aging pinecones trying to get clients to send you money, you aren’t doing something right. Thirdly, this stimulates a psychological response of reciprocity in the client’s mind. If they received something from you, even if it was free of charge, the natural human response is to reciprocate the gesture. So, unless they are a total broke asshole sociopath, they more than likely will be returning to do more work with you.

3. Being over-competitive will only make you crabby

Jealousy is a very ugly trait and it’s even uglier when worn by entrepreneurs. Sure, being competitive can be healthy and inspiring but you want it to stay at just that. The moment it turns into a negative thought loop, you are doomed. I’ve seen it in both myself and others many times. Everyone always has to justify a reason for someone being successful instead of looking at themselves. If someone in your field is doing better than you, or landed a big gig that you could very well have gotten yourself, don’t scoff and criticize but admire and analyze. There’s probably a hidden reason they are succeeding and you may not be. This should be inspiring news and should motivate you to work harder; don’t look at it from a negative perspective of wanting to sabotage their career because there’s only room for one cowboy in town. Instead, understand that the fact that they got that gig means that you can too. Anyone’s success is an indication of potential success in you. Perform an honest analysis of what you are doing wrong and work towards cultivating the good traits in yourself which others have but you may be lacking. This world, and your business market, can be infinitely abundant if you are thinking creatively and positive. Don’t be a crab in a bucket.


4. You should always provide more value than you get paid for

As a startup or small business entrepreneur, from my perspective it has been evident that you will always do more work than you get paid for – at least at this point in my career. And you know what? I am totally okay with it. This is the sacrifice for doing something I love and this is how life and business works. So far, I’ve experienced that no matter how easy the job appears at first, it will likely require more work than the apparent monetary value you will be compensated for.

5. Offer more than one thing – be Referral Royalty

Whether you offer more than one service, it doesn’t matter if you can personally perform it as long as you have the network to provide other sources of value to people. If you become an oasis for services and contacts, in good faith, clients will not hesitate to come back to you when they need more work. Now obviously it helps if you can provide multiple services, but most of us do not have the time (and I wouldn’t suggest it) to master more than one skill. Keep referring and referring and referring. Everybody will love you and your network aka your support system aka your bank account will love you for it.

6. Write It All Down

You are going to get busy and there will always be something that needs to get done. Juggling client relations and projects is not easy, especially if you have other endeavours like bands, part-time jobs or girlfriends/boyfriends. Just do yourself a favour and get as much of that mess and clutter down in one place. Make it your sanctuary that you trust at all times. Use your phone, computer or any productivity app you can find that you like. Trust me, having everything you need to do in your head kills your presence and suffocates the natural entrepreneur in you.

As a tip, try re-writing your to-do list twice. The first time in order of how you thought of your tasks and the second time in order of priority. Tackle high-priority items first.

7. Failure Is Freedom

This isn’t anything new, but this mindset is something that I have been able to cultivate throughout the past year. Most successful people are able to step back and review their shortcomings objectively. They are neither good or bad – just another thing one must learn from. They are called “reference experiences” and when dealing with clients, the more you have, the more often your interactions are on point. The quicker you can mentally bounce back from negative feedback and view your failures as information to learn from, the more successful you will become. That being said, if you can, try to observe other people’s mistakes before you make them yourself so you still gain the knowledge without the inherent set-backs.

8. Reputation Marketing

School, especially music school, rarely teaches you the intricacies and nuances of online client relations, social media and lead generation marketing. Don’t be an idiot on Facebook – stay away from intense political scuffles and other controversial topics. You’re just doing it to feed your ego anyways, unless you are specifically trying to market to a demographic. Your reputation, especially online, is important for business. Always try to respond as quick and as consistently to everybody in your industry. If you let messages fall through the cracks of your inbox, that’s your reliability and reputation being drained and ultimately your $$$ too.

9. Don’t Eat It!

This is a ratio I have made up to follow in order to keep myself on the right path to success. There is a great book called “The Marshmallow Test”, that stresses that the main determiner of success relies more on a person’s ability to delay gratification than any other trait. That means it’s more important than your smarts, your genes, your environment, your family, your job and even your bank account. The reason you aren’t more successful than the next person is because you wanna play video games now, you wanna eat that Snickers bar now, you wanna get drunk now. The premise of the 9:1 ratio that I have come up with is that for every 9 times you have to delay gratification on a significant level, you allow yourself one moment of instant gratification and self-indulgence. So every nine meals I may have a cheat meal or a relatively unhealthy dessert. Every nine nights I stay in working at the studio, I will go out and let loose for one night. It seems straightforward but this isn’t an easy task when you have your friends pulling you down with them.


10. Have Some Damn Self-Efficacy

I know this very smart young entrepreneur that has the potential to do well and make a lot of money, probably even more than me. However, she has too little belief in herself for being an entrepreneur. This is one of the reasons I think schooling can hinder your success as an entrepreneur. Many programs are too caught up in teaching ‘the manual’ that kids are afraid to do anything without knowing every little detail about the subject. I always hear “But I’m not good enough yet”, “But I don’t really know enough”, “I’m not ready” …this puts my head in a frenzy. Nobody who has done anything worth mentioning ever thought they were 100% ready. They took a risk, they trusted in their mental faculties that they could do it, or at least found out what they were missing. You must do first and then read the manual – and not vice-versa. Do not over-analyze before trying something for yourself. Experience-based reality is the best teacher and always will be. You keep talking and ain’t nothing gon’ get done, y’feel me?

11. Habits

Most successful people do not have more willpower or discipline than you do. They just have better habits. The thing about habits is that once one is in place, you almost become that new person, and therefore following through with that action really takes no willpower at all. The habits you cultivate daily as a business owner and entrepreneur are crucial to being a leader and a reliable force for your clients and network.

Your brain only stores enough willpower juices (glycogen) to build one habit at a time. This will take anywhere from 21 to 60 days depending on which internet article you read. The most successful people aren’t any more disciplined than you or I, they just have formed better habits over time. They do not use up willpower because the things they do are natural. Work to replace one bad habit for a good one every season and soon you will be a super power.  Think of what you will be like in ten years if you improved one part of your life every couple months. Momentum is vital and success compounds growth.

12. Give Critiques The Right Way

Often times when you position yourself as a thought leader in your industry, many people will come to you for advice; free advice. But remember what I said earlier – things that appear to be free rarely aren’t. You give some sound advice now that works and they will appreciate your honesty and helpfulness. A month later, they will probably be coming to you for your help again. There will come a time when they will offer money for your extended help. Never be too blunt with your critiques, however. Constructive criticism always trumps straight up being mean.

13. Relationships = $$$

There is no greater and more important lesson that I have learned than this. I heard a story about a guy who had thousands of dollars of equipment and a studio to work out of that sold it all away for a fraction of the value. I heard he didn’t want to be an engineer anymore because the industry ‘sucked’ and there was ‘not enough clients’. Now to be fair, the music industry is indeed tough, but this is a guy that probably thought his gear would do his marketing for him. His microphone was so good he didn’t need to network. His console was so vintage that he was above doing sessions for half price to get a client base going. His hair gel was too slick to buy a round of drinks at a local bar filled with musicians and people that could refer him clients. Your relationships make you money over anything else.


14. Reading = Knowledge = Power = $$$

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a truly successful person that doesn’t read at least a book a month. I started making reading a habit about a year ago. The benefits are not usually drastic right away. Sure, it may initially broaden your perspectives, calm your mind down and replace social media clutter with useful knowledge. After months of consistent reading and soaking in the ideas of great humans who have devoted their lives to mastering specific topics, I have started to notice an improvement in my thoughts and actions. Reading is more like growing a plant. Each new page is a little seed of an idea that may sprout, if you let it, and may influence you to make a better decision a week, two weeks or even months from now. Keep learning from positive, smart and ambitious people and it will be as if you have a team of coaches in your ear throughout the day helping you be mindful of your decisions. I find it insane when people finish school and stop learning or reading non-fiction books.

Make sure you read and learn about a variety of topics. It is a common habit that people get too caught up in; researching just one perspective or one discipline because it reinforces their tightly wound belief structure. Try to read things that don’t necessarily agree with how you were raised or how you think. If you are an atheist, read a book on Christianity; if you are a vegetarian, consider a book that supports meat eating; if you love Obama, read a book about Republican politics. You don’t have to agree with everything you read and you shouldn’t be offended by opposite belief systems. A good trait of a solid entrepreneur is being able to understand perspectives and the different ways people think. This will give better and wider insights into the world and the human mind. Hell, you may even change your mind on some subjects that you held dearly for a long time. Just because you change your opinion on one thing, it doesn’t mean you have to trash your entire belief system. You should be comfortable enough to hold conflicting ideas in your head, and mentally flexible enough to understand the pros and cons of each viewpoint. Of course, nothing is black and white and any good business person knows this and can use it to frame situations to their advantage.

So read books about business, marketing, wealth, happiness, psychology, philosophy, religion, meditation, nutrition, fitness, dating/attraction, fashion, sociology, and anything else that can help you grow your wealth and enhance your life.

Alex Foster-Roman is a Rapper/Producer/Engineer/entrepreneur based out of London, Ontario. He is the co-founder of Helium Nine productions, he was mentored by legendary Canadian audio engineer Kevin Doyle and now works at the state of the art facilities at the University of Western Ontario. Contact Alex, and check out his music and production.

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