Most people recognize that traditional employment and entrepreneurship are different and therefore require different skills and temperaments. But surely, the corporate experience helps, right? You have extensive networks — you might even be able to sell into your former employers. You have skills and expertise — these could be your first offerings. You have the savvy that comes with navigating different environments — and therefore the savvy to navigate the different clients you might call on. However, there are also behaviors and beliefs that might be a holdover from your corporate days that no longer serve you when you strike out on your own.
"Sales is someone else’s job"
A former corporate colleague of mine who went into business for herself proclaimed assertively, “I don’t sell.” When I asked how she expected to get clients, she mentioned that she knew enough people from her corporate networks to keep her busy. That worked for a few months. Last I heard, she hired a copywriter for her site and was figuring out how to explain what she does.
In corporate America, you could focus on what you did best, and someone else was selling. If you were in sales, you could focus on that while someone else took care of marketing, finance, operations, etc. When you’re in business for yourself, you take on all jobs, especially sales. Even when you expand your team and can outsource functions, you still have to know enough about each area and be active enough in each to maintain oversight and quality control. Even when you can bring on a salesperson, you will still be the backstop in selling as no one will advocate for your business like you will. Whatever business you launch, you are in sales.
"I can just call the help desk"
In addition to learning the strategic business functions, like sales, marketing, finance, etc., you have to be much more hands-on, even menial, than when you had the resources of a big corporate job. When your computer is down, you might have to search for a solution in a support forum. When the printer is down, you have to unlock the paper jam or change the ink. It would be exorbitantly expensive to outsource every support function as you start out. You need to be that much more resourceful as a small business than when you had your big corporate job. That said, you want to manage your time (and invest in reliable enough equipment) so you’re spending the bulk of it on sales and other high-value functions. Just don’t assume you can bypass all the grunt work that inevitably arises.
"Let’s expense it"
As a start-up, you have to watch your costs much more closely. Renting a conference room, upgrading equipment or taking a sales trip may be a negligible hit to the balance sheet of a big corporation. But for a business that you are funding out of savings and sweat equity, holding the line on expenses gives you that much more time to get traction on your sales. Watching your costs means your business lives to fight another day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t spend any money — that’s another type of mistake new entrepreneurs make. But the executive-to-entrepreneur is more likely in the habit of picking up the tab at a networking lunch, signing up for that conference that you always went to (even if it is no longer appropriate for your business now) or overstocking on supplies to match what you’re used to. Retrain the way you treat expenses. Look at all expenses as investments: What do you expect to get back? Is there a better alternative? Do I need this now?
Traditional employment experience does help. My first clients were people I worked with as an employee. My former corporate network enables me to quickly find decision-makers for projects I now pitch as an entrepreneur. Having seen different work environments and experienced different management strategies contributed to the knowledge I applied to my own business. So you don’t want to dismiss your corporate experience entirely. You just don’t want to transfer all of your corporate habits, behaviors and beliefs into your new business, where they might not be relevant or effective. Whatever you did before, you are now in sales. Whatever support you might have had before, you have to pay for that now or do it yourself. Whatever expenses you incurred before are now investments you need to consciously and judiciously make. Take the good from your corporate experience and avoid the minefields.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology and pharma/biotech.