48 percent of entrepreneurs grew up in an entrepreneurial family before starting their own businesses, according to a survey by the Kauffman Foundation. If you're an entrepreneur who wasn't born in an startup owner's family, keep in mind, business success is not genetic. (51 percent of entrepreneurs don’t have that background.)
But, business founders who are children of entrepreneurs learn a lot while watching their role models struggle, build, and eventually succeed. I’m one of those children: My dad was an entrepreneur. He ran a government contracting business for 25 years. As I work to grow my own business, I often think back to what I learned while watching him start and grow his own business. Even though the technology, resources, and tools available to entrepreneurs have changed a lot since my dad started his company in the 80s, there are some valuable lessons any entrepreneur can benefit from.
1. You’re never too old to start a new business.
Even though the media often show pictures of young people as the face of entrepreneurship, the reality is that there is a surge in startups founded by people over 50—“encore entrepreneurs.” Three in ten entrepreneurs are over the age of 50 (compared to two in ten in 2007). More proof of the surge: AARP now offers resources for older entrepreneurs.
My dad started his government contracting business after getting laid off during the oil bust. He was 53 years old. When he first started his business, he woke up at four in the morning, early enough to start mowing lawns at five o'clock for the grounds maintenance contracts he had. He’d come home in the afternoon, have dinner, and start writing contract proposals until about nine o’clock at night. Then he’d start all over again the next day. He never let age slow him down, and he ran his business until he was 78. He didn’t retire earlier because he said managing a business was fun and he liked the challenge.
2. It’s possible for entrepreneurs to run a business and raise a family.
My father had three daughters, and when he started his business, I was just starting college and there were two teenagers at home. Dad felt that teenagers require more attention than one parent can give, and he wanted to be involved. (Plus, my mother returned to teaching to help support the family while his business was in its infancy.) He made a point to be home for dinner every night, help with homework, and be there through all the crises that teenagers face. His secret was to set a schedule that included family time, and stick to it with discipline.
3. Give yourself the business support you need in the startup phase.
As much buzz as there is about entrepreneurs who get amazing amounts of money from investors, the truth is that 80 percent of new businesses won’t get funds from an investor. For those business owners who bootstrap, being strategic about using all the support you can muster is key. This is particularly important for business owners who are women and people of color, who often don't have access to the generational wealth that can provide a friends and family round of startup capital.
Set yourself up for success by looking at the resources you have and taking advantage of them. Even though my dad started his business out of unemployment, he had a military retirement paycheck to pay the bills until the business could provide him a salary. He borrowed against some family property to provide start up capital for his business. My mother, who had been a stay-at-home mom, renewed her teaching certificate and started teaching to help with family income.
A coworker who was also laid off from the same oil company during the oil bust, and who was also in his 50s, joined my dad as a partner. That gave Dad someone to help do the work and someone to talk to about the business.
He also had a mentor—an old Army buddy who had started a government contracting business a few years earlier and who was willing to teach Dad the ropes. That mentor provided a sounding board when my father needed it. Dad also heavily relied on the Small Business Administration and SCORE (the SBA’s Service Corps of Retired Executives). He eventually found a network of other government contractors to join. He even got us children involved—I designed his company logo.
4. Be a tenacious entrepreneur.
Don’t give up! When my dad started his business, he had a mortgage, a stay-at-home wife who’d been out of the job market for 20 years, and three daughters, with one in college. Failure wasn’t an option. One of the best examples of his tenacity was the pursuit of his first bank loan. He went to 26 different banks before he found one that would give him a loan, even though he had stellar credit. That banking relationship lasted the life of his business.
My dad’s tenacity was perhaps his greatest gift to me as an entrepreneur. I don’t think I would have kept going past my first year in business (which I've nicknamed "the ramen noodle year") if I hadn’t seen his determination, and if I hadn’t seen that it took three years before his company was able to provide him a good, steady salary.
When I started my business, someone gave me this encouragement: “It’s the ones that have their backs against the wall that succeed.” But I think having your back against the wall is not so much a condition as it is a mindset and a direction: when your back is against the wall, there’s only one way to go, and that’s forward. If you are offering a good product or service, the money and opportunities are out there.
5. Don’t panic. Think.
I definitely saw my dad worry when problems came up, or when he didn’t get the contracts he felt he needed to sustain the business. He’d talk about his concern, and there were times I could see the stress in his brow. Eventually, though, instead of letting panic turn into paralysis, he gave himself time to strategize, think, and find alternative solutions. He’d talk to his mentors, his business partner, my mother… sometimes he’d even ask me or my sisters what we thought. He’d research and explore alternatives.
Problem-solving is an essential skill for an entrepreneur. So definitely have your human moment, but give yourself time to think, consult others, research, and explore options.
6. Pace yourself. Have a long term vision for your business.
As tenacious as my father was, he also knew that being patient for growth was a key to success, too. This is a lesson I’m still trying to learn—I want to get to $20 million in annual revenues tomorrow! But too much growth too fast can hurt a company, too. I remember my father talking about other contractors who tried to take on projects they weren’t ready for and ended up defaulting on contracts. He was as determined not to let that happen to his company as he was to grow.
My dad definitely had a clear vision for what he wanted his company to become—he started in an era when business plans were over 100 pages long and included a detailed, five-year plan. But he knew that accomplishing a vision takes time, and that the elements included building relationships, establishing a good reputation as a service provider, acquiring money or access to money, and building a good team. Those things don’t happen overnight.
7. Value the people who work for your business.
Dad was a frugal entrepreneur—but having come from the military, he knew the importance of good morale. People are more engaged and do better work when their personal needs are met, their families are well, and they have a safe and reliable work environment. I remember him saying that when he interviewed candidates, that it was as important for the candidate to feel that the company was a good fit for them, as much as it was for him to feel the candidate was a good fit for the company. To me, that statement placed value on what mattered to the perspective employee and signaled what kind of relationship he intended to have with them. Privately, he often talked about how grateful he was for the people that worked for him.
He also told me that even though his clients wanted to know that he was managing costs well, they also wanted to see that the company had good relationships with employees—it helped to increase engagement, improve safety, make sure services were delivered properly, and avoid disputes that could be costly.
He was ahead of his time with some of the benefits he offered his employees, which included paid time off for new mothers, and such attention to diversity that he won several awards for it, including recognition from the SBA. One of the most outstanding things he did was a response to payday lending, which he felt was expensive and predatory. He started a program offering employees access to small personal loans at a low rate—something more businesses are now offering. Today, social responsibility really matters, and that includes impact on employee's lives and communities. Options include paying living wages, cultivating a healthy work culture, instituting a psychologically-safe workplace, flexibility for working parents, and B-Corp status.
8. Startup success can happen even with a modest beginning.
My dad started his business in our family dining room and worked there for two years before he moved into an office. His business eventually grew to have contracts in eight states with 300 employees and $8 million in annual revenue. So even with a few resources, you can succeed. Fortunately, starting a business and investing are very different now than when my father started his government contracting company. Today, entrepreneurs have so many more resources available. The SBA and SCORE offer even more support, plus there are incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, virtual assistants, micro-loans, and angel investment groups to plug into. There are new policies and government programs that help encourage small business growth. And there are affordable options for legal, accounting, bookkeeping, and phone services that didn't exist in the 80s. My takeaway from is to use your moxy with what you've got, however modest, and stick with it.
Shaun Chavis started Saltshaker Marketing & Media because she believes companies can and should become brand publishers, build their own audiences, and engage with people in their own unique voices. Based in Atlanta, Saltshaker Marketing provides digital and print content marketing and brand publishing for food, wellness, and tourism companies, specializing in brand cookbooks and magazines.