Richard Pierce Thomas

Leadership and Small Business Consultant

“Congratulations,” Leslie said with a wry smile as she sipped her Cappuccino.

“Thanks a lot,” I replied, having shared that I was coming up on the 7th anniversary of the start of my business, Activate Leadership.          

She knew what it meant to get this far, having run her own company for a number of years.

“So, Rick. Knowing what you know now, what would you teach a budding entrepreneur, desiring to start their own business?” 

I paused long and hard on the question. What advice would I give? 

“Lesson number one,” I said, thinking out loud. “It is going to be way, way harder than anything they have done before.”

Leslie laughed. “Do explain,” she said. 

“I never intended owning my own business. I exited college as an engineer, content to design better mousetraps and make stuff run better, faster, and cheaper. As seems to happen in life though, I was pulled into managing our manufacturing business during a very critical time when we were losing all kinds of business to China. The crazy thing is, what I found in that process is I enjoyed working on the business more than in the business as an engineer.”

“Steering a business to be a viable enterprise drew my interest like nothing I had experienced before, and I found myself day-dreaming about doing it all the time, not just when a crisis arose. There was just one problem with the whole scenario, however—it meant I would have to start a business to do it. So, I dove in, leaving full-time employment and all the security of a regular paycheck. I was wholly unprepared for the next three years.”

“What was the hardest part?” Leslie asked coyly. She already knew.

I laughed immediately, the answer appearing simultaneous to her question. 

“Letting go of my expectations,” I said. “Anyone starting a business should be prepared to let go of any expectation of the success they think they will have. Mainly because they will be wrong—and the sooner they let go of that, the sooner they will start focusing their energy where it matters—on the challenges of the day.

“The second lesson I’d teach them is how they treat others is everything. What they have to say to their business partner, employees or others is not nearly as important as how they say it. This becomes especially relevant when they need to deliver difficult news. Ask, ‘Do they matter to you?’ If so, put the relationship first and the need to be right second. 

“As a recovering engineer, I know all too well the need to be right. It’s hard-coded into my DNA and it still gets me into trouble at times, arguing some banal point just to prove I know the answer.” 

Leslie chuckled, shaking her head in agreement. “Engineers and accountants,” she added and we both laughed.

“If they don’t matter to you, then it’s best not to say anything,” I continued. “As Twain famously said (or thereabouts…), ‘It’s best to allow others to think you a jerk, than to open your mouth and prove them right.’

“The last lesson I’d teach them is to surround themselves with really smart people. The humbling part of running a business comes in the realization that they don’t know nearly as much as they thought they did. Of course if they did, they may not have started the business in the first place, knowing how hard it will be. When that realization sinks in, being a business owner can be the loneliest place there is. So, surround themselves with really smart people who have been successful. They will become a wealth of information when they need it most.”

We chatted for a while longer and eventually said our goodbyes. I walked back to the car thinking about the past seven years. As difficult as it has been, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t feel blessed to know that I am doing something really meaningful and fulfilling. Though I may battle and bleed, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. No, I never learned these lessons in college…but it sure would’ve been nice if they could have warned me! 

Rick P. Thomas is President of Activate Leadership, a leadership development consultancy in Washington state. He consults and speaks to organizations across the country, focusing on individual and organizational achievement.