by John L. Ware - November 30th, 2012

Let me start by saying that I don’t like to necessarily use the term “tips” as it is an overused, trite and hackneyed term with gambling implications. And the last thing I like to do when I talk to new business owners is invoke a gambling meme. Therefore, I will break the third rule of professional writing to change my title to use the word “suggestion.” There…now I feel better.

There is one rule that I counsel with every entrepreneur: BE YOURSELF. If you suddenly become too mean, too nice, too altruistic, too extreme in anything – especially if it doesn’t relate to your own personal traits or beliefs – that is a roadmap to failure. Moreover, there are so many suggestions I cold provide a start-up entrepreneur that I would be afraid to leave some out for fear that I would unknowingly and unwittingly repress information that important to that particular entrepreneur. Moreover, there is no way any person in my position, with my experience, could or should limit the list to ten things. With those caveats out of the way, I will presuppose what would help the average entrepreneur most. Oh, and one last thing: I don’t have anything in this list relating to people – who to hire, how to train, how to treat them, and so on. This is because it takes a special breed of individual to work with an entrepreneur to help him or her achieve their vision. I find that, short of tangible abuse, people (on both sides) work through their troubles and make it work, at least in the beginning.

So, here is my list of “suggestions,” in no discernable order.

1. Try to make mistakes. Lots of them. I call this “accelerating the failure cycle.” Take a lot of shots at your goal; innovation requires deviation. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Learn from experience and experiment. Having said that, mitigate the fallout from the mistakes as soon as possible. The best way to do that is to learn from the mistake. And the best way to learn from the mistake is by brutally honest feedback. I find that brainstorming and 360 peer reviews work the best.

2. Beware the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” Time and again, doing something one has little or no experience in or with sometimes yields results – or fallout – that are not conducive or aligned with the original plan.

3. There is no such thing as “change management.” The concept of “change” must be woven through the company culture – top to bottom, with NO exceptions. Change isn’t some project or program you have your manufacturing or engineering people do in their spare time. It’s everybody’s job, all of the time. Especially in a start-up.

4. It’s YOUR money, whether it comes from outside investment or out of your own pocket. Make sure everyone else knows it, and treats it as “their money.”

5. Be a part of every major decision – either directly or indirectly. If you are too busy to do this, your priorities are misplaced.

6. Get out of your comfort zone. Put down the iPods, iPads and iPhones and approach someone – preferably a total stranger and/or someone with a different point of view (e.g., different age, gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, whatever) – and talk to them. Engage them in conversation. Seek out diverse opinions. See what the “other guys” think. Learn all sides of the argument.

7. Be skeptical, not cynical. Contrarianism works. Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see. Question everything, anything and anyone you want. Remember: 5W’s + H (Who, What, Where, When, Why & How) = A Good Start. Look for people who can provide “constructive conflict” (as opposed to destructive). You don’t necessarily need alignment of opinion. Innovation comes from antithetical ideas – ideas that don’t agree.

8. In the final analysis, NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. At least, act like that is the case. No one can predict or forecast with any degree of accuracy or confidence. Beware of “experts” and “gurus.” One can ONLY be an expert with a learned and practiced skill, e.g., a surgeon or chainsaw carver. Be cognizant of the fact that people generally have a higher self-evaluation of their capabilities than they actually possess.

9. Understand the difference between good risk and bad risk. “Good” risk involves being prepared to take advantage of opportunities should they present themselves. “Bad” risk is the threshold you’re willing to step up to – and cross, if necessary – to achieve your goals. Remember that the concept of “risk vs. reward” is a zero sum game. There will ALWAYS be an outlier that has the capability of creating the “black swan” event – good or bad. And you won’t see it coming.

10. Try to eradicate the concept of waste, as well as the virtual reality of waste, in everything you do. At least at the outset, EVERYONE should be doing value-added work, i.e., work that contributes to “top line” revenues and “bottom line” profits. Lean and Six Sigma thinking and doing will help you achieve this.

John L. Ware

John has accumulated over 35 years of experience and expertise within all types of business operations management – including manufacturing, supply chain, distribution, engineering and quality/compliance operations. Companies he has worked for include U.S. Surgical Corporation, Sun Microsystems, nVidia Corporation and Domino Lasers, Inc.

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