Opinions expressed by entrepreneur Contributors are their own.
I started my first company in 2004 and founded six more between 2010 and 2022. These experiences have taught me invaluable lessons that I have shared with hundreds of entrepreneurs at TechStars Accelerators, Austin’s Capital Factory and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. If you’d stopped by during office hours, here’s what you would have heard:
1. Find out what topics (or problems) interest you
I started my last two companies to solve problems that were important to me. And I’ve found that I’m much happier — not just successful — since incorporating my passions into my business plans.
That’s why I say to first-time entrepreneurs that the secret to fulfillment is addressing the issues and issues that matter most to them. I always encourage sitting down with a notebook and exploring what excites you.
Once an entrepreneur has made a list, I suggest that they list what has been done in each area and where there are opportunities for them to build a business. In general, these are the questions to ask when evaluating an opportunity:
- Is there a big market?
- Is your project technically feasible?
- Would you have a sustainable competitive advantage?
- Do you have (or can you put together) a team that can take advantage of the opportunity?
- What is the risk/reward? Does it justify investing your time and someone else’s money?
2. Create an elevator pitch for yourself
After someone has done the above work, I recommend creating a personal pitch. This requires distilling expertise, interests, ideas, and more into an intro that takes no more than a few seconds to recite. Some things to integrate:
- What you are doing
- What inspires you the most
- your greatest achievements
- your goals
- What you want to achieve
- your special skills
Here is an example drawing from my background:
“I’m Ben Lamb. I’m a technology entrepreneur passionate about developing technologies to combat human-caused climate change. I recently started a life sciences company with a Harvard geneticist. We are working to reintroduce the woolly mammoth to the tundra to support Arctic rewilding and slow or reverse permafrost melting.”
A concise pitch like this will come in handy at networking events, investor meetings, and even in recruitment. Not only will it get conversations going; it could lead to wider ones.
3. Become an active listener
Meetups are a big part of an entrepreneur’s life, so knowing everything you want to say isn’t enough. You should make sure that you are also open to hearing what others want you to know. I’ve always believed that you learn more by listening than by speaking.
Active listening can also help you as a leader. When you make room for others, your employees feel heard and you can introduce great ideas to them. Maintain eye contact, avoid interruptions, avoid making hasty judgments, and ask questions when appropriate. Also, stay present and keep your mind from drifting to your answers.
4. Knowing when to say no
Entrepreneurs just don’t have the bandwidth to say yes to everything. While some business opportunities may seem incredibly tempting, colleagues have taught me the importance of staying focused. If someone spreads themselves – or their teams – too thinly, will they be able to make a difference in the areas they are most passionate about?
I advise people to be polite but firm. And don’t give a reason or an excuse, as it can lead to an awkward form of bargaining. If you’re unsure about saying no to someone right away, say you’ll review the request and email or text them back later.
As Warren Buffett put it perhaps best: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”
5. Recognize when it’s time to hand over the reins
For most of my entrepreneurial career I have founded and sold software companies. However, during the pandemic, I wondered if the company I ran would allow me to mitigate human-caused climate change and help prevent or slow biodiversity loss. As the AI company I founded in 2018 thrived there, I became more and more convinced that I needed to focus my energies in the life sciences field.
Instead of running two companies at the same time, I was looking for an enterprise software manager who would be a good AI business manager. I hadn’t gotten the company as far as it could go, but I had gotten it as far as I wanted. However, there have been many instances where a company has outgrown the skills of its founding CEO, which made me realize that part of any CEO’s job should be finding their successor.
Once you’ve hired the right candidate, it’s important not to dwell. Exceeding your greeting will only confuse employees as to who is running the company. It can also signal to your successor that you may have concerns. While retaining a seat on the board of directors of the company I formerly ran, I designed and honored a purposeful transition plan.
Use my experience to your advantage
Serving as a mentor and guiding entrepreneurs on the path to success has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. I have achieved amazing things by doing the above and I hope you can say the same.