It’s not something we think about often, but every entrepreneur on the planet—from age 17 to 86—used to be younger. She used to be less experienced. And she’s learned at least one important lesson along the way.
As the founder of a social venture that helps female entrepreneurs create and sustain their businesses, I’ve had the chance to hear from many, many women what they did right—and what they wished they had done differently. And while I don’t believe in regrets, recriminations, or revisions, I do think it’s very important to learn from the successes—and more important, the mistakes—of others who’ve gone before us.
If you’re a new entrepreneur, or even just thinking about the possibility, these are the most important lessons I’ve gleaned—both from my own experience and from other founders.
Don’t Fix Yourself—Find Yourself
The massive marketing machine of our modern culture tells us that there are “models” of what we should look like, act like, and feel like. But you’ll save yourself many years and a lot of heartache if you tune out all the critics and spend some time with yourself. What do you love? What makes you excited? Do you spend enough time exploring yourself “unedited from the world” to understand what you can really excel at?
Gretchen Schauffler, founder of Devine Color (an amazing paint and home lifestyle line) had a lucrative career with a pharmaceutical company. But when she took a break to raise her children, she discovered that her real passion was for design. After that, she stepped off her “safe” path and allowed herself to explore her creativity. And, of course, she never looked back.
Get intentional with what you would like to be doing if money, timing, a job, or your relationship were no object. Don’t let what others think you should do hold you back from what you know you want.
Don’t ever wait for “the perfect moment” to make a change, pursue a dream, or start your company. If there’s something you want, prepare yourself for it, and then go get it. When I was in my late 20s I realized that I had been waiting—for the perfect time to go back to college and finish my degree, for my kids to be older, for my husband to be more supportive, for the dishes to be done! The list kept growing until I realized that there was never going to be a good time to pursue my goals. If I wanted something, I had to act. And I hear the same thing from many other female entrepreneurs—that if they have one regret, it’s that they didn’t start sooner.
Invest in Yourself and in Other Women
Putting aside resources to pay for a wedding, buy a house, or prepare for a baby seems like the most natural thing in the world to women. It’s an accepted, and expected, part of our culture. But in many respects, our cultural norms haven’t really kept up with the times. What women typically don’t prepare for—or even really think about—is investing in our business ventures and those of our female friends.
When Tereza Nemessanyi, co-founder and CEO of HonestlyNow, was ready to launch her company, she approached a number of friends who had the means to make a “friends and family” investment in her venture. Not a single woman stepped forward. A few months later, the husband of one of these women decided to start his own company, and quickly raised all the capital he needed—from the husbands of the same bunch of friends.
Some say that women are stingy or risk-adverse. But I think it’s simply that we haven’t thought about it enough or prepared ourselves for the opportunity. I encourage all women to put aside money for investing in their future business or a friend’s great idea. Either way, it’s an incredibly empowering move.
Build a Supportive Community—and a “Super Network”
It’s crucial to build a strong, supportive network around you, but also to go beyond your friends and family. This idea of a “super network” means you have to bust out of your comfort zone and make new friends, take risks, and go places where you might not know anyone. When you start your business, don’t be shy about reaching out and seeking meetings and engagements—you never know where the next great idea or meaningful partner is going to come from.
Jane Hoffer, co-founder and CEO of the distance gaming company Ohanarama, tells a great story about taking a meeting that she wasn’t sure about. She could see clearly that the person in question wasn’t going to invest in her company, but she finally figured he might introduce her to people who would and agreed to take the meeting. As it happened, that contact introduced her to the founder of Guitar Hero—who became her first investor and helped her secure subsequent investment for Ohanarama’s launch.
Finally, the most consistent encouragement that I hear from hundreds of successful women when it comes to entrepreneurship (and life) is this: Be yourself, spread your wings, and follow your dreams. After all, that’s the only way you’ll reach them.
Submit your story by January 25 and the top five stories will win a copy of The SmartGirls Way: Strengths, Success, and Significance—A Path For Women Entrepreneurs.