Let me share with you a few pieces of unsolicited advice I’ve heard over the years:
“Never work for free, your time is valuable and you should be compensated.”
“Cold calling is dead, don’t do it.”
“Don’t ever work with your friends.”
“The Patriots are going to crush the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.”
“58 rules for modern marketing, a thread 1/59”
When you see this on Twitter, block block block!
“Ladies, don’t eat finger foods at networking events.”
Very wrong, and also pretty damn sexist. I listened to this exact advice at an etiquette event at a university that I have great respect for…in 2019. I now believe the speaker time traveled to get there. For the record, if there’s cocktail shrimp or chips and guac, you should eat that shit immediately. Don’t be a fool and don’t worry, I let him have it.
The only thing I know for sure.
There is really only one single rule when it comes to starting a business and that is this – your entrepreneurial journey is your own.
There is simply nothing else to consider, but don’t worry – as an entrepreneurial philanthropist rainmaker content creating visionary evangelist with a bunch of emojis in his title – I’m here to explain. Starting a business is hard, but it’s even harder when you let the business impostors of the world into your life.
I’ll start with an example from year one of my entrepreneurial journey – an event that changed my life and inadvertently the careers of so many of my colleagues.
In July 2014, I had five clients, and I was wracked with anxiety. FischTank PR was really just me sitting in my apartment, filled with self-doubt and taking showers at 4am before putting on a dress shirt for no reason whatsoever. Zoom wasn’t a thing, Skype was already on the decline, and everyone else was in their office or happy hour after being social. Except me.
I was struggling to get going. It was very difficult for me to know when to say yes and when to say no to something. To make things more challenging, since December 2013 when I’d picked up my first client, I had encountered a number of YouShoulds – a noun that isn’t yet in Webster’s Dictionary but will be by the time you’re done reading this blog post.
…OK, I’ll bite. What is a YouShould?
Glad you asked. YouShoulds are exactly as their name indicates. They’re generally individuals who don’t own businesses and don’t call their own shots, but do have a sense of entitlement based on either their seniority or college education. Perhaps they’ve held some prior mid-level job at some Wall Street bank, internet conglomerate or some other organization they think you should care about.
YouShoulds start every sentence with “You should…” They inevitably tell you that you should get embossed business cards (this happened, at the Cornell Club of all places); rename your company (someone advised me to call FischTank ‘Regal Communications’ – so original); or my favorite, bring on a senior partner who was mature (I’m not mature?) and could help me engage with c-suite business leaders.
You’ve seen them in their glory. The “thought leaders” who have LinkedIn titles like “CEO Whisperers,” “10X Sales Leaders” and “Building Multi-Million Dollar Orgs” and “Entrepreneurial Problem Solvers with 7 Successful Exits.” For that last one, they really mean they exited the company. But who cares about nuance, right?
These charlatans, usually men with headshots from 2004, quote Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk – you know, a bunch of regular guys. These gents have no problem sliding into your DMs to tell you about how great they are and why you should listen to (and hire) them. Just as the tips I listed above are wrong, these titles are nonsense, and the people hiding behind them generally are as well.
The worst part? I listened. Maybe I didn’t always act, but yeah, I have a few hundred of those embossed business cards left, and yes, I considered a partnership with an Investor Relations professional who may or may not have fought in the Civil War and voyaged on the Titanic. I almost let them board my entrepreneurial journey.
Returning to the plot with my moment of entrepreneurial awakening.
OK, back to the event from July 2014 that woke me up to the actual realities of entrepreneurship. I was introduced to a securities attorney who will remain nameless to protect his identity, and he made me an offer: I would get him press coverage discussing IPOs and SEC-related topics, and in exchange he would refer me business by making introductions to clients in need of PR services. A pure barter.
I asked three or four people about it, and all of them said more or less the same thing: f*ck no! “Eric, your time is valuable!” “He’s scamming you, make him pay!” “You’re being taken advantage of!” Their feelings were unanimous – don’t do it.
I heard them out, but this time I didn’t listen. I called him back the next day and said I was in. Why? Honestly, I wasn’t that busy and I wasn’t that happy, either. I didn’t know my path forward. I decided to take the shot.
A few days later a market moving event occurred, and I secured a media opportunity for the attorney with a CNBC online news journalist. Nothing too crazy, but definitely a good start.
The attorney emailed me maybe 10 minutes later, but it had nothing to do with the media opportunity. It was an introduction to an advanced materials company that had recently gone public, and the attorney recommended they hire me, positioning me as someone who was hungry and would get results. Weeks later, they were a client.
Shortly thereafter, that same attorney made another introduction, this time to a large, private after-market automotive retailer. I visited their office and days later, they became a client.
After that, I had enough business to bring on a partner and now friend of mine, Matt Bretzius. “Don’t work with people you’re friendly with!” they said. Once again, “they” were wrong. People who love the Eagles, Phillies and Sixers (and Flyers, sure) can run a pretty fine business.
The securities attorney and his firm have been clients of FischTank for nearly eight years. He and his team made countless introductions that have resulted in many more networking opportunities and event invitations, essentially creating a tree of new connections that have driven ongoing business (and revenue) to FischTank. In return, for years my firm has generated countless media opportunities for that attorney and his colleagues, managed the website and social media, and supported their marketing objective. Why? Our handshake deal still stands.
Do your thing!
This of course is the moral of the story. Sure, asking for advice is important and something I do on a regular basis, whether it’s from my wife, friends, clients, colleagues, business associates, or history and books that contain even more lessons.
But one thing I know for certain is this – my entrepreneurial journey is unique to me alone, although I do have so many people to thank and give credit to. Had I listened to the YouShoulds or the LinkedIn influencer wannabees with the 800 word blog posts about what we can learn about marketing or business from Kanye West’s downfall, I don’t know where I’d be.
Trust yourself, your vision and the people who care about you first. Work hard, follow your own entrepreneurial journey and the results will come.