What Does It Take to Run a Business?

by Rob Spiegel

What does it take to start a business?

Are you smart enough? Are you tough enough? Are you brave enough? Are you stupid enough? To start and run a business. What does it take? If you’re stupid enough, you don’t have to be brave. If you’re smart enough, you don’t have to be tough. Most businesses that fail run out of money before the business can succeed. If the entrepreneur had more money would the business have succeeded? Or would it have just taken longer to fail?

If you do fail, what will it take to succeed at a second business attempt? More money? More guts? More smarts? More luck?

You can’t really tell at the beginning whether someone will be successful with a start-up. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and moved to Albuquerque to start Microsoft with his buddy Paul Allen. Did that combo look like a surefire success? A couple dropouts fooling about with software for a tiny computer? I would imagine their parents we’re pretty upset about these guys dropping their Harvard education flat.

When I started my first business, a couple former bosses made comments on my prospects. One expected me to succeed. Another said I would have trouble because I wouldn’t like some of the unpleasant things that happen in a business. That first company lasted ten years before I sold it because I didn’t like some of the unpleasant things that happen in a business. They were both right.



Was I lucky? Was I successful? Was I doomed? Yes.

Looking back, my prospects weren’t good. I didn’t have enough money. My first few projects were weak. I was soft on vendors. I paid too much. I charged too little. But I kept going, just like the little engine. I just kept going at it and going at it. Finally reality gave up trying to thwart me. It rolled over like a puppy and let me win. Of course back then, I could roll up my personal overhead into a tiny nut.

When I started my second business, everything had changed. I was confident. I knew my way around. I was strong. I had a few bucks. I also had three kids. And a house. And dogs. And vacations. And bills. I couldn’t roll up my overhead into anything close to a nut.

I failed in six months. Those months went by quick and awful, like trying to outrun a herd of angry buffaloes. They keep gaining, then all of a sudden you trip. Plenty of people predicted it. What are you gonna do?

Start another business, of course. This one worked. I did a personal inventory. I like working alone. I like working at home. I have a few skills. A few people needed those skills. I shrunk my overhead into a nut. It worked. It’s still working. Of course it could fail any minute. That’s always the case. That’s even the case for Bill Gates. Heck, Paul Allen keeps failing over and over since leaving Microsoft, but his pile of capital is so mammoth that failure doesn’t look like failure.

So what does it take to succeed in a business start-up? On his first trip to the United States with the Beatles, a reporter asked John Lennon what it was that made the Beatles so successful. He answered, “If I knew the answer to that, I’d hire a bunch a guys, make a band and manage them.”

There are a couple things I’ve learned over the years. Get your nut small. Find something you really, really like doing – you’re going to have to do it a lot, and you’re going to have to do it at weird hours, and if you have family, you’re going to have to do it while they’re around. Get some luck somewhere – rub Buddha’s belly, pick up every coin you find in a parking lot, even the pennies – I have this superstition that if you don’t pick up stray pennies, the universe won’t give you stray wealth. Ignore your former bosses. And don’t quit trying.

 
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