Reflections on my first year “out on my own”

I realized last night that yesterday marked the one year anniversary of my being informed that my services were no longer needed at my prior employer.  I had worked in the sales/marketing/management portion of a smallset of medical practices for about 18 months.  The first year I was there was an exciting time.  I brought a lot of new ideas to the company and the results were headed in the right direction.  The last 6 months of my tenure was significantly different.

Around November of 2007 I was charged with a task that wasn’t necessarily in my skill set and not necessarily part of my job description.  But because I was computer savy, the fit seemed appropriate.  After months of plugging away at a task that seemed to be just out of reach a little more each day, my relationship with the people I worked with became professionally strained.  By spring, someone had been brought in with my job title and consultants were sniffing around on my projects with an eye to no doubt take them over at some juncture.  I met with my boss (who owned the company) in May to get clarification on what my role was and the vagueness and uncertainty of his answer confirmed what I suspected: I was on my way out.  I thought I’d been doing a good job and the results (20% YOY growth) were indisputable.  But those results hadn’t been on his terms and weren’t what he had in mind when I was hired.  So we parted ways.

My time there was filled with lots of learning for which I am thankful.  The management strategies and style I’d learned at a huge sales oriented company were melded with strategies more befitting a small, service-oriented company.  The employees I managed – all wonderful and driven people – helped me learn that not everyone is a salesman nor should they be.  Getting great results doesn’t always have to be driven by the bottom-line.  If for no other reason, the experience was a great one.

I also learned a lot about helping place people (including myself) in a position to succeed.  I learned about communication, about organization, and about what motivates people in a way that I never might have anywhere else.  I had come from a culture where compensation (bonuses, time-off, etc.) were a great way to motivate specific behavior and moved in to a culture where compensation didn’t stand a chance against long-standing practices.  It was an interesting experience, a good experience, and one for which I am thankful.  

Unfortunately, as is usually a lesson of work life, I haven’t seen a single person from that job since the day I left.  It is funny (and not unique at all to me) that you can spend 8 to 10 hours a day in relatively close quarters with people for months at a time and once you leave its like you were never there.  So it goes…


Based on the timeline above, today marks the one year anniversary of me waking up and going to work at a business where I have all of the responsbility.  We’ve added workers, accounts, processes, and standards.  We’ve had some successes and some failures.  I’ve had bad days and good and in the end there is nothing I’d rather be doing: the worst day doing this (talking to angry customers, learning that an order has been cancelled) is still eons better then the best day of being on the clock for someone else.  As I’ve said countless times, steering your own ship comes with an unimaginable amount of responsibility but it also comes with an unimaginable amount of freedom.  I work 50 or 60 hours most weeks.  But those are my hours and I get to decide when to work them and how to apply myself.  I don’t have to stop in the middle of something important to go feed my boss’s cats or join a conference call training me on a new product.  

Instead of rambling on and on though, I thought I’d just jott down a list of lessons I’ve learned from being in the trenches of a real, working, successful, started-from-nothing business.  Many of the lessons (“Rules”) written here were done before June 3, 2008 which means they were done while I was an employee-by-day and entrepreneur by night.  Everything below has been learned under live fire with real bullets….

1. Foundation is key – I’ve started many business with bad foundations. Usually this is a people problem more then anything else.  Having the right people is the most important thing in the world to your success.  With the right people, you might succeed.  Without the right people you will certainly fail.

2. Plans are for suckers.  Map out your plan…then throw it away.  It has been impossible for us to plan with any accuracy more then about 3 weeks in to the future.  In one swoop, a new customer comes on board with different needs that you have to accomodate.  Or your old customer doesn’t pay on time.  Or the products you thought would have great margin turn out to be losers and products you thought were “cheap” are your best performing.  Planning is something you do when you have too much free time.  Next time you want to “plan” something, use that time instead to get some real work (progress) done.

3. You have to fight for it.  In “Any Given Sunday” Al Pacino makes an all time great locker room speech about how life is about inches and what we’ll do for those inches.  What will we give, fight for, sacrfice for the inches all around us?  For the inches right in front of our faces?  What are you willing to do?  Will you know when to quit?  Will you know the difference between trying and doing?  At a moment’s notice my wife (also my business partner) and I have jumped in the car and driven to El Paso (about 800 miles) to meet with a customer.  I spent Christmas Eve quoing products to people still working.  I haven’t had a day off (much less a “vacation”) in years.  And I wouldn’t trade a minute of it.   

5. Be responsibly reckless.  At the strangest times, opportunities will present themselves and you will have minutes (if you are lucky) to sieze them.  The advantage of a small business is that you have the power to say, “we’re going to do this and if we have to figure it out ‘how’ in the coming days, then so be it.”  Big businesses with lots of red tape can’t do that.  You can.  And you should.

6. Complain at night.  You’ll have lots of issues and problems along the way.  Some will be small, some will be big.  But your job during the day is to do whatever you have to fixing them.  Spending energy and – more importantly – TIME complaining about the problems isn’t helping get them fixed.  And if they have to get fixed, you may as well get down to the business of fixing them.  Vent about it over a cold-beer when your office is closed.

7. Find a way.  As your business grows you’ll run in to larger and larger challenges.  Maybe your challenge is in finances or in customer acquisition or customer satisfaction.  Regardless of what it is, how big it is, and when it happens, you are not in a position to let anything fall through the cracks.  Issues left unattended will not go away on their own but rather they will grow until they kill you.  You have to find a way every time or else you are risking everything you’ve worked hard for.

I may have some more to sprinkle in later but that’s a good start for now.

One Response

  1. Excellent point on 3. Too often success is linked with luck. Don’t get me wrong; luck has a part. But it is amazing what one can accomplish through willing and fighting themselves and others to success.

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