It is when we all play safe that we
create a world of utmost insecurity.
~ Dag Hammerskjold

When I started my first business, I didn’t know another self-employed person. There also was no Internet and not many books that were written for someone wanting to create a one-person operation. It was all trial and error…lots of error.

Today there are abundant resources, but some of the most important things I learned still aren’t being acknowledged. Here are eight things I wish I had known sooner.

  1. The business you start out with is not the business you end up with. By it’s very nature, business is an evolutionary process. As you change and grow—and as the marketplace changes and grows—you’ll make adjustments. The good news is that you can get started wherever and whenever you want without having to know every detail. Be willing for your business to deliver pleasant surprises.
  2. Refuse to take advice from uninformed sources It’s easy when you’re filled with self-doubt to listen to dreambashers. Don’t do it. And don’t solicit advice from those who have failed. It’s amazing to me how often I talk to people who have abandoned a great idea because someone who knew nothing about their business (and probably wasn’t even an entrepreneur themselves) talked them out of it.
  3. Know the difference between an expense and an investment. Many new self-bossers see any outlay of money as an expense. While your business will have costs associated with running it, spending money now to produce a greater good in the future is an investment. Your money needs to go to both.
  4. What you don’t know can be learned. Part of building a successful business is determining which parts of it make your heart sing and which make your heart sink. Once you know that, you can farm out the parts that you’re not good at. Equally important is learning how to research your ideas and connect with informed sources. If you operate on the assumption that you can acquire the information and skills you need at every stage of development, you’ll always have the pleasure of being a voluntary student.
  5. Personal growth is a daily activity. Paul Hawken says, “Being in business is not about making money. It’s a way to become who you are.” I became an entrepreneur because I was curious about what I could become. Self-employment continues to be my best teacher. There’s a basic truth you need to keep in mind: you can’t outperform your self-image. In order for your enterprise to reach it’s fullest potential, you have to reach yours. An occasional seminar or personal growth book or CD isn’t going to have the impact that daily work on your self will. Happily, there’s an abundance of tools to help you do just that.
  6. Don’t confuse a project with a dream. Your dreams are your ultimate destination; a project is a step along the way. Too many people use a project failure as an excuse to abandon their dreams. Know the difference.
  7. Patience is your best friend. There’s a fine line between being patient and being a procrastinator. It seems to me that what many people call failure is simply running out of patience, giving up before their idea had a chance to blossom. For most entrepreneurs, patience is an on-going challenge.
  8. Know the difference between taking a risk and taking a calculated risk. Timid people who are not self-bossers think that you’re a wild person jeopardizing your family and finances. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Studies have shown that successful entrepreneurs take risks, but they’re cautious, calculated ones based on research—and intuition. Part of the appeal and adventure of being joyfully jobless is not always knowing exactly how things will turn out.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good,
too, then doing well will never be enough.
~ Anna Quindlen

The most passionate environmentalist I’ve ever known was Chris Utterback. To her, all offenses were equally serious whether it was defiling a public space with graffiti or chopping down a rain forest. She cared deeply for the earth and couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t feel the same sense of responsibility.

One day we were driving through the quiet Connecticut countryside where she lived and came across a pile of trash heaped on the roadside. She slammed on her brakes and we jumped out of the car, picked up the litter, bagged it and put it in the trunk of her car. As we got back in, I sighed and said, “Planetkeeping is a full-time job.” Chris looked at me and without saying so, we both volunteered to be Planetkeepers, even though it was long before environmental problems were getting much attention.

Planetkeeping isn’t just a full-time job; it’s a demanding one that requires a vigilance and a willingness to do more than our share simply because it’s the moral choice. Planetkeeping is motivated by a sense of responsibility to nature and other people— whether we know them or not. It assumes that we’ll take care of whatever is ours to care for no matter how difficult or challenging that may be.

A genuine Planetkeeper refuses to be influenced by the indifference or apathy of others—not even when surrounded by Pillagers. Pillagers are the folks who go through life consuming and destroying with no thought for anyone beyond themselves. I suspect that most of us fall somewhere between the two behaviors, acting responsibly in some areas and less so in others.

“If you want to change the world,” Paul Hawken advised, “don’t join the Peace Corps. Start a business.” As I look at the history of social responsibility, entrepreneurs seem to have played a leading role. In the small Minnesota town where I grew up, it was the local business community that spearheaded charitable projects. Fundraisers as well as pitching in with labor were common events. If Habitat for Humanity had been around, I’m sure we’d have seen our small town leaders swinging a hammer.

Although many big businesses have been more Pillagers than Planetkeepers, one company is working diligently to raise awareness that leads to more responsible business practices. That business is Home Depot whose  mission statement is to Improve Everything You Touch.

It’s a practice worth a closer look. Imagine how quickly things would change if everyone went through their days actively working to improve everything they touch. What would happen to road rage? To rudeness? To the environment? To self-esteem? To greed? To our communities? To litter? To hunger?

How can we as small business owners improve everything we touch? I believe it starts simply with a willingness followed by a commitment to put such lofty thoughts as Improve Everything You Touch at the heart of our relationships and activities. Planetkeeping also demands that we stop withholding our own gifts and talents and put them to work in the service of making the world a better, happier nurturing place.

If your operating policy is to Improve Everything You Touch, your creative spirit gets engaged, showing you solutions that others haven’t seen, pointing out opportunities awaiting a champion, and adding a dimension of purpose and meaning in everyday activity that the Pillagers can never know. Planetkeeping isn’t just a philosophy, after all. It’s volunteering to care for the world.

During the bleakest time of my life, my neighbor John stopped by to see how I was doing. Relieved that someone cared about me (I told you this was bleak), I rattled off a lengthy list of my latest woes. When I finished, John put his arm around my shoulder, smiled at me and said, “Barbara, you’ve got the wrong set of problems.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

He thought for a moment and said, “Well, you should be worrying about where to find a good mechanic for your Mercedes Benz.”

As dismal as I felt, John reminded me that this was a temporary condition. This conversation also awakened me to the fact that not having problems isn’t an option. No matter what level of success we achieve, to be alive means that we’ll have problems to solve. Thank goodness.

Paul Hawken says there’s an easy way to determine if a business is good or bad. “A good business has interesting problems,” he says, “while a bad business has boring ones.”

The problem with problems, then, isn’t that we have them, but that we hold onto such petty ones. When we fail to solve our little problems, our everyday living problems, we forfeit any possibility of getting more interesting ones to solve. If you want to have intriguing problems to solve, you’ve got to first solve the ones you’ve got. Then you get to trade up for the interesting ones. 

$100 Hour. Ask yourself, “Who’s got a problem I know how to solve?” Often when we have mastered something–whether it’s installing a toilet or salsa dancing–we forget that not everyone that would like to do what we’ve done has learned how. Solving problems is the basis for many profitable businesses.

Explore More: Clare Bean  and Morgan Siler are single mothers who decided to solve a problem they had themselves…the isolation of raising kids on their own. They started  i Heart Single Parents  to bring single parents together in a community where they could connect. They’ve also just launched Single Parent magazine to share more ideas and information with single parents everywhere.

Wise people put their trust in ideas and not in circumstances. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson