What Does it Take to Be an Entrepreneur in VT? (Part One)
Janice Shade and Louisa Schibli are co-founders of Milk Money, a low-profit limited liability company that supports local investment, entrepreneurship, and small business through its local investment platform, educational and networking resources, and service for investors and entrepreneurs.
Janice Shade spent an hour talking to our content and communications specialist Heidi White about what it takes to be an entrepreneur in Vermont. The following is part one of a two part transcript of their conversation. In part one, Janice provides some insight into what it takes to be an entrepreneur and offers some advice and caution for new business owners.
HW: Can you tell me what the average entrepreneur is like? What kind of personality traits they have?
JS: Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone – it requires someone who has a comfort level with uncertainty. I think that’s really the key. An entrepreneur is okay with not knowing where things are going to go and just trusting that they will be able to find direction in the road ahead of them, while also being able to pivot when situations change. They need to be able to move forward even when they don’t have a clear vision of what is to come and have the confidence to look into the abyss and not lose their cool. Being an entrepreneur requires you to be a little crazy.
Janice shared this quote after the interview. It’s one of her favorites.
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” –Apple’s “Think Different” advertisement
Someone who is well suited to being an entrepreneur is able to trust their instincts. They’ll know, at a gut level, when they have done enough planning and are ready to put their ideas to the test. I’ve worked with people who get so wrapped up in the planning of things and they never get started on their business. Part of that is fear, I suppose. You do have to do some planning, but then you have to know when it’s time to stop planning and just get moving.
An entrepreneur must often be a Jack of all trades, able to write up a marketing piece, negotiate a sale, manage a P&L (profit and loss statement), troubleshoot a production issue, solve computer problems, and take out the garbage – all in the same day. Before you are able to take on employees, you fill every position from CEO to cleaning crew. Which leads to one other defining attribute of the typical entrepreneur – they love to keep learning new things and don’t mind that every day is vastly different than the last.
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HW: What are some of the first steps an entrepreneur should take once they’ve decided to take the plunge?
JS: Start by researching your business and developing a business plan. And I highly recommend that as soon as you have a kernel of an idea, seek out an advisor through the Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC). The VtSBDC system is amazing. From State Director Linda Rossi, all the way down. I love my advisor in Burlington, who supplied me with some great tools that helped me determine whether my business idea was viable. You can talk to a VtSBDC advisor for free and they’ll help you figure out whether to go into business, guide you through business planning, help you gain financial literacy about your business, and assist you with any other issues you run into along the way.
HW: What about the business plan? Is that necessary in the beginning stages?
JS: Yes, a business plan is essential. Fortunately, you don’t have to hunker down for a month (or two) and write up a 20-page document filled with charts, numbers, and chapter headers. That’s the old school way of doing it. Business plans can be much shorter and concise and, with a tool like the Business Model Canvas, it can even fit on one piece of paper. By starting with a business plan, you will have to think through all of the aspects of your business, from how you will reach customers and end users; how you will work with suppliers and handle production; and most importantly, how the business will make enough money to support its own growth and your financial needs.
Often, people go into business because they love what they do and they think that knowing everything about their work translates to knowing everything about running a business doing that work. This is not often true. Someone who is really good at baking, for instance, may not necessarily be really good at running a bakery. Knowing how to do the work is only part of running a successful business. The other part is being able to put in place and manage all the various aspects of a business to support that work.
HW: Do you have any cautionary advice for entrepreneurs who are just getting started?
JS: Don’t finance on credit card. Really. If you take nothing else away from this interview, take this away. Credit cards are revolving debt with extremely high interest rates. Find a different way to finance your business. When I started TrueBody Products back in 2008, I naively thought I could finance inventory on my credit card, thinking the business would perform exactly to my forecast and I’d be able pay them off within 30 days. But things don’t always happen according to forecast and new costs arise while sales take longer to come in. I wish someone had been there to tell me how bad an idea that was. The worst thing you can do is rack up credit card debt with your business. It is always best to find lower-interest options for financing start-up costs.
“I naively thought I could finance inventory on my credit card, thinking the business would perform exactly to my forecast and I’d be able pay them off within 30 days…. The worst thing you can do is rack up credit card debt with your business.”
If you are beginning a company that you anticipate will grow larger, don’t go it alone. Me, myself, and I is NOT a management team. When you take on this type of project alone, you miss out on the feedback that is so necessary to building a thriving business. It’s all too easy to get carried away in your own “great idea” and a good partner will give you a nudge when you’re about to try something ridiculous. Also, nobody has all of the skills it takes to run a business so you will need a partner who fills the gaps in your skill set (and vice versa), and who will keep you sane during your growth spurts and rough patches.
For businesses of all sizes, I’m a huge fan of advisory boards. Every business owner needs a group of trusted advisors who can provide perspective and advice. I always work with an advisory group and sometimes they can be brutally honest, but I’m happier and more successful when they are. If my advisors tell me I’m doing great when I’m not, it doesn’t do me any good. When they’re honest and tell me where I’m getting it wrong, they’re helping me grow and improve. And, when all is said and done, I don’t always have to take their advice. It’s there for me to consider as I figure out what’s best for the business.
When small business owners and solopreneurs ask me where to find advisory board members I recommend they ask the trusted business friends and associates to whom they already go for advice. It’s easy to set up an advisory board and doesn’t cost much. At one point, I had an advisory board that I paid with pizza. We got together once a quarter and they loved it. People enjoy helping out. These meetings can be a lot of fun.
“At one point, I had an advisory board that I paid with pizza. We got together once a quarter and they loved it. People enjoy helping out.”
Another piece of advice is that you absolutely must take care of yourself. Make a commitment to trying to find balance every day. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat right, spend time with your family, and get out into nature; whatever works to recharge your batteries. You’ll be so much more effective at everything you do. And don’t forget to pay yourself. If you’d like your business to continue to grow and evolve, you will someday need a manager, CEO, etc. who will require a professional salary. If the salary for such a position has never been included in your financial statements, it will throw your financials off in the future. Figure out what salary makes the most sense and start there.
Some other small things – If you are in a serious relationship with someone, make sure they’re on board with your business idea. Though this has not been a problem for me, I know of many people who have struggled because their spouses would not support them in their business venture.
If you’re not good at numbers, find yourself a good bookkeeper. The best investments you can make as a business owner are in a good attorney, CPA, and bookkeeper. And make sure you have workers comp, business insurance, and any other type of insurance that is relevant to your industry. Call an insurance agent to find out what you need.
HW: Is Vermont a good place to be an entrepreneur?
JS: Where else can you sit down to lunch with the founder of a multi-bazillion dollar company and ask for business advice? Vermont is such a small state and there truly are only one to two degrees of separation from most folks if you just start asking questions. My first full-time employee at TrueBody just happened to be a former colleague of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and was able to set up a lunch meeting for me that was so enlightening (and fun).There are so many successful entrepreneurs in Vermont and, for the most part, they are more than willing to offer advice to other entrepreneurs who are just getting up on their feet. You don’t find that everywhere. Vermont has a lot of entrepreneurs – successful entrepreneurs.
Read part two of this interview, where you will learn more about financing and find helpful resources for entrepreneurs.
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