ADVICE TO A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR: Ten Years Later, These Ideas Still Work

Back in 2010, I corresponded with a 20-something year-old young lady named Erica who asked for my advice about her future. She had worked for other people before (including a job in a prison), but was interested in starting her own cosmetics business and wanted my input. I don’t know much about cosmetics, but I have had almost 50 years experience starting and running my own small business ventures. The last time I had a job was 1989, just before the first of our five children was born. These business ventures of mine have allowed me a lot of freedom for how I spend time, they’ve allowed me to live in the rural setting of my choice, and they’ve allowed both my wife and I to me home all the time raising our kids. A lot more people could enjoy this kind of thing, I’m sure.

When I found my note to Erica, I thought it might be helpful to others . . .


Dear Erica,

Thank you for seeking my advice on finding your own work that you can get excited about and also profit from. I hope my experiences can help you. I know exactly what’s motivating you because I feel it, too.

Like you, I’ve always preferred working for myself, beginning back in 1973 when I was 10 years old. At that time a glass factory near my grandfather’s house was buying empty glass jars and bottles for a half cent each, so I went door to door collecting them in my wagon. There were no municipal recycling programs then, so there were lots of glass bottles and jars to be found in the neighbourhood. My goal was to buy a plastic model airplane kit that cost $3.70 (740 glass jars), and I eventually got there, thanks to my “glass recycling” business. When I was 12 I started a lawn maintenance business, then I started building furniture for people when I was 17. My woodworking experiences eventually opened doors to work as a professional cabinetmaker and carpenter. I was 22 years old when I bought my rural property here on Manitoulin Island, Canada, in 1985.  I’d work all spring, summer and fall building the house and developing the land, then travel back to Toronto and get work in cabinet shops or on construction sites for winter, saving every penny I could before heading back to the Island the next building season. In 1988 I thought I’d try magazine writing, and approached an editor with the idea for an article. Writing proved more profitable and flexible than woodworking, so I’ve cultivated that ever since. I’ve since added photography and videographer to my writing work. Robert, our oldest son, is now doing the same thing I am, enjoying the same benefits.

Over the years I’ve learned several key things that might prove helpful to you as you create some way of earning a living on your own terms. One of the most useful is understanding what I call the “fish bowl”.

1. The key to success outside the fishbowl is discipline.

Fishbowl jobs have set times for starting and quitting, and set times for breaks and lunch, plus set amounts of money you earn. Most jobs fit into what I call the fishbowl category because employees are usually safe, they’re not subject to many financial risks, and someone else decides how much fish food (money) gets sprinkled on the water. I have nothing against fishbowl jobs in general, they’re just not for me. To continue the analogy, I prefer life in the open ocean . . .

A working life in the open ocean is the opposite of a professional life in the fishbowl in many ways. It requires at least the same level of effort as working in the fishbowl, it’s just that the discipline has got to come from within, not from some boss looking down at you in the water. The way I see it, either I force myself to put in at least 10 hours of solid work every day, or my lack of success in the open ocean will force me back into someone else’s fishbowl where their discipline, schedule and pay will be imposed on me.

If you haven’t done so already, Erica, I recommend you create an iron-clad work schedule for your life. Say, from 8:00 am to 6 pm five or six days a week you’ll do the cosmetics stuff of one sort or another. I know you can’t be meeting with people all that time, but I’m sure there’s lots of background work you could do. Your work should be intensive enough that you’re physically tired at the end of each week. Use your dislike of the time you spent working at the prison as motivation to give a lot to your business. Also, take some of your work time for professional development i.e. reading books on selling techniques and negotiating skills for instance. You already write very well, but even as a professional writer I find it helpful to read and reread books on writing technique. The very best one is called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. After an entire university education where I had to write in a style that no one wants to read, On Writing Well was a great antidote, helping me unlearn academic writing and to learn to write in a way the public enjoys and learns from.

Feel like fleeing the fishbowl? You need to be a wiggly minnow to succeed, and though the risk is real, the benefits are enormous.

2. Fishbowl jobs can be great learning experiences.

When I began making furniture for people, I was self taught. When I began working in commercial cabinet shops during the winter while I was building our house, I found myself face to face with all that I did not know. I see now that my time working in someone else’s fishbowl cabinet shop was actually a very valuable learning experience to prepare me for life in the open ocean – a learning experience that I was being paid for! If I were you, I’d consider finding the most successful cosmetics rep in your area, then offer to be their assistant for little pay (or even for free). Keep a pocket pad or a note app handy on your phone at all times, recording the valuable things you discover. There should be hundreds of little bits of wisdom and dozens of big ones.

3. The boxcar takes time to get rolling.

I’ve heard stories from the past about strong men who could push a railroad boxcar only with their bodies, but in all cases they had to push on the car for quite a while before it started moving. That’s the case with any business, and especially one involving individual clients, like you’re envisioning. People have to come to know you. Word has to get around. People also need to come to like you. In addition to preparing yourself to apply sustained effort without necessarily seeing any immediate reward, go out of your way to be kind. You probably do this already, but it’s worth mentioning here. I make it a habit, for instance, to send a thank you email to everyone I do business with every time I get paid. Each year I’ll send out hundreds of thank you emails, and not just because I think it helps promote my business, but also because I am genuinely thankful. No one can succeed entirely on their own.

4. Money can be good, but consumer debt is bad.

One of the reasons Robert and I get the work we do is because we’ve invested in technology needed to create good results. Investment is key in every business, and you need money to do that. That said, I’ve also made it my policy to avoid consumer debt at all costs. One reason I chose to build my life on Manitoulin Island was because land here was inexpensive. I paid just $16,500 for 90 acres of pristine farmland and forest in 1985. This was every last penny I’d saved up until I was 22. I lived in a tent for 7 months of the year on the land while I was building a 10-foot x 20-foot shed that cost me $500 in materials to build, then I lived in that shed for four years after that while I was building our house. During this time I drove a 1968 pick-up truck that I bought when it was 18 years old and gave away when it was 36 years old. I share these details only to show you that there is another way of living that’s quite contrary to the worldly approach of buying things on payments and credit. I don’t know your situation as far as debts and savings go, but just thought it worth presenting this alternative. Business debt can be different, but only if the prospects for actually making money from that debt truly exist. A cosmetics business doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing you should go into debt for. No need.

One last thing . . . one of the biggest advantages I’ve discovered is the value of not thinking too much. You need an overall plan, of course, but beyond that too much thinking can make you crazy. Simply apply yourself diligently to creating a situation for yourself in the open ocean, keep applying pressure in that direction, then the success, freedom and enjoyment you envision will happen. Success often takes quite a bit of time, but when it arrives, it’s worth the wait.

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