Lessons From a Successful Entrepreneur
Advice for Starting (and Running) Your Own Business
It’s our first year partnering with Madison’s premier entrepreneurship event, Forward Festival. So we asked our resident entrepreneur, ITP CEO Paul Hager, to share what he’s learned from leading a 5-time Inc. 5000 business. Here’s what he had to say.
It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur. Not a lot of people will take that big step and risk. But it’s challenging. Just because you’re really good at the one particular thing you want to build a business around doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make a great business owner.
There are parts of being a business owner that aren’t the fun stuff you see portrayed in movies or shows. People think a business owner is pretty carefree and takes home bags and bags of money.
The reality is, the business owner is often the last person to get paid. The owner has to be willing to help other people and work really hard to grow something. Maybe that something is something you can someday sell, or maybe that something will just explode and become the next best thing.
As you set out to start a company, you have to be solving a problem for someone or something. You must have a unique way you’ll be accomplishing this. Don’t go into industries that are really crowded where it’s hard to differentiate yourself. And make sure you have a unique value proposition. Do your research, check the patent space, and make sure you have the freedom to operate.
People bring me their new technology ideas often. When they do, I do a quick Google search and usually find something that’s strikingly similar. It’s a tough reality to face. If you’re trying to build a company around a problem that’s right in front of you today, you need to be super smart to make that happen.
“Really, you need to be solving the problems of tomorrow, to be ahead of things. This way you have the space to operate without infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. You’ve got to be thinking quite a bit forward and ahead.”
From a technology standpoint, it’s such a great time to start a new company because you can be so lean and so efficient. You can have a phone system, servers, and access to communication and collaboration tools and resources at such a small price point.
To open your doors, you don’t even need doors. We have access to so many awesome co-working spaces here in Madison. You can literally have business tools, a phone or video system, extranet/intranet, and a physical address for less than $250 a month. This is an incredibly low cost of entry compared to what it used to be.
One of the things I always recommend is to be really smart in those early years. You’ll feel like you’re working really hard to only inch forward to the next step. It’s so true in those early days of a small business. You start to think: “If only I could hire more people, my life would be so much better. I wouldn’t be feeling the grind so much.”
But realistically in those early days, you won’t be able to afford those people. Instead, my advice is to use fractional people, independent contractors, and online freelancing services like Upwork to be really lean. You have to be very mindful of your early numbers. Then when you do have those extra dollars, make sure that you’re investing in them really smart ways.
Invest in marketing early – way earlier than you think you should. Invest in marketing before you invest in sales staff.
“A really good marketer and an efficient marketing strategy can bring more business to your door. That allows you to play the role of the closer, closing deals that are brought to you from marketing efforts.”
Once you get too busy, it’s time to bring in salespeople. Marketing is where it’s at. As I look back at ITP’s history, this is something I would have done differently. I would have brought in our own in-house marketing people earlier.
I would absolutely do it again. I would start all over and be a part of another startup. Being a small business owner – and more importantly, an entrepreneur – is exciting and makes a real difference in the world. You get to carve out new business ideas and create new jobs.
See Paul in action at this year’s Forward Festival during Hacker’s Havoc Happy Hour.
-Tuesday, August 27
-Palette Bar & Grill, Madison