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As I See It

Hearing the call of small business? Pay attention

I knew by the time I reached 24 years old that I wanted to own my own business. I really can’t explain why I knew it or what there was about being my own boss that appealed to me. I just knew.

Being a budding entrepreneur isn’t the most comfortable space one can occupy. In fact, it’s fraught with uncertainty and fear. On the one hand, the security of having a job is a powerful force, constantly pulling in the direction of a regular paycheck and health insurance. The burden of family responsibilities is a real deterrent to striking off on your own. After all, what if it fails? These are the trade-offs that must be sacrificed if independence is your passion.

And, truth is, most new businesses do fail within the first couple of years. The odds are against you, and because of the very real risk of losing everything, most people choose to stay within the warm confines of working for someone else and shelve the impulse to go it on their own.

Real entrepreneurs just can’t do that. I couldn’t do it. Those of us who make the leap of faith can’t resist doing it. A force that can’t be satisfied any other way drives us until we’ve given it a try. And not just one try. We try, we fail, we try again. And, so on and so on.

Go your own way

After discharge from the Army, I was privileged to go to work for the national accounting firm of Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young). Everybody said that experience with a national accounting firm was an ideal background for launching a business or getting a high-paying job with some client company. I worked at Ernst for three years and launched my own business. That was in 1976 and I have generally been on my own ever since then.

Shortly before striking out on my own, I invited my mother to visit Ernst’s new offices in Deposit Guaranty Plaza (now AmSouth Plaza). She was so dismayed by my decision to leave a steady job with health insurance and a retirement plan that she declined the visit. And, because my career has taken a number of twists and turns, she has expressed concern just within the last few years as to whether I would ever be able to hold a job.

Always successful? Are you kidding! In the early days, many times my wife had to go over to MetroCenter after work to have the power reconnected when I just didn’t have the money to pay the bills. I drew all the equity out of my home to prop up a failing business venture that eventually turned profitable, but never earned enough to pay off the mortgage.

If smooth sailing is your idea of success, better stay out of the arena of self-employment. It just doesn’t work that way.

Then why do it? It’s a compulsion that, if you can resist it, you probably should. Many people view self-employment as a ticket to making lots of money. And that sometimes happens.

However, it’s more likely that dues will have to be paid with years and years of lean living before success is achieved.

What does it take?

A study released several years ago indicated that Mississippi was weak on teaching youngsters the principle of entrepreneurship. In response to that study, several schools and agencies have begun offering classes for entrepreneurs.

I’ve thought that I might enjoy lecturing some on the subject, but I always pull back. I fear encouraging someone who doesn’t fit the mold to launch a business and might feel responsible if they fall flat on their face. It’s my judgement that anyone who has the drive to do it doesn’t need encouragement; in fact, they can’t be stopped from betting everything on a game where the odds are decidedly against you.

So, what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur? I’m not sure I know the answer. You don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, that’s for sure. You don’t have to have money, though that certainly would make it easier to get started. You do have to possess a lot of resilience to pick yourself up and get back going each time you get knocked down.

You need good people skills. By people skills, you need an uncanny sense of reading people and knowing who you can depend on and who you can’t. However, by far, the most important trait is the drive that keeps you going when times are tough and the future looks dark. And, I just don’t know how you can teach that.

Entrepreneurs who read this column will know what I’m trying to say. Others are not likely to understand regardless of how I arrange the words. I wouldn’t exchange the career I’ve had for anything, though there certainly were some things that, in hindsight, I would have done differently.

One of the greatest things about our country is the opportunity to try, fail and try again and again — a place where a country boy of fairly humble origins can make his own way over a span of 30 years and reflect back over that time with a smile on his face.

Ain’t America great!

Thought for the Moment

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. — President Theodore Roosevelt

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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