5 Lessons Learned in 5 Years as an Entrepreneur

By: Amanda Barna

For me, being an entrepreneur all started in a supply closet. Weird, I know, but true. I was organizing a supply closet as part of my new corporate job when my former colleague and close friend Michelle called me and asked me if I would be interested in starting a new company with her. After a great deal of laughter (at Michelle) and answering concerns (from my family), Michelle and I both quit our stable jobs and started CMOR. And what a ride it has been.

The past five years have been full of excitement, uncertainty, opportunities, and lots and lots of learning. I can honestly say that I have learned more in the past five years than in any other time period in my life, even college. Given that CMOR has just celebrated our 5-year anniversary, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on the top 5 things that I have learned in my five years of being an entrepreneur.

  1. Networking and outreach are important. At our former place of the employment, The University of Akron, prospective clients would come to us with projects. Being a research center located at The University of Akron gave us instant credibility. I had no idea what networking was or how important it was going to become to me. When we started CMOR, we immediately joined both the Akron and Canton Chambers of Commerce and started attending events. We knew we needed to join the chambers, but there were so many other groups that we were hearing about that seemed interesting and valuable. There are, however, only so many hours in the day and we didn’t even have a mastery of networking skills. Deciding what groups to be involved with and what events to attend is completely different from learning what to say and do at these events though both are crucial to maximizing the investment in time and dollars. We learned that recommendations from others and attending several events for each group helped us to find the ones that were the best fit. We watched people who exhibited strong networking skills and even attended a workshop on how to effectively network. However, it took time to develop our own networking style and comfort level in this type of business development/outreach activity. Trial and error was necessary to design an introduction (or 30-second commercial) that was effective in explaining what it is that CMOR does in a way that is easy to understand.
  2. Having the right people in the right position is key. You have to have people on your team that understand and are dedicated to the company’s mission, and these team members need to have responsibilities that align with their strengths and your needs. For example, our Director of Data Services, Anthony, worked with Michelle and me at the University of Akron. We knew that we wanted Anthony to be part of our CMOR team and he became our first employee. For a short while, it was just the three of us. Anthony oversaw our call center as well as many of CMOR’s administrative functions and even attended a few networking events. Although Anthony did fine with these tasks, it was not what he was passionate about, and Anthony was a lot happier and more productive doing more data driven tasks that matched his interests. The contributions that Anthony has made to our website, databases, and sample management have been amazing. On another note, we also learned that there are times when there is just not a fit. Sometimes this is a result of mismatched expectations between the employer and employee, sometimes it is due to the employee not meeting job expectations but when it is the result from negative attitudes the rest of the team can be negatively affected as well. CMOR is committed to maintaining a positive work environment and there have been times that we have had to release productive staff because of their negative attitudes and the effect it was having on the rest of the team.
  3. You have to stay focused.This is a lesson that we recently learned. CMOR specializes in providing affordable research and evaluation services to non-profits, governmental agencies, colleges/universities, healthcare organizations and hospitals and other organizations with a public policy and community interest. For the first four years of operation, we were constantly looking for ways to expand our business outside of our focus area- such as to area businesses. We were spending time and money trying to expand into other areas instead of expanding in areas that we already had expertise and strong connections. We still do projects for companies and businesses that fall outside of our target audience, however, we no longer spend our time and money going after those projects and clients- we wait for those projects to come us.
  4. People don’t always do what they say they will do. Just because you run your business a certain way, does not mean others adhere to the same business philosophy and values. We have found this to be true several times with vendors that we have used for various services and products. This is truly one of the most frustrating aspects of being a business owner. Beware of commissioned based sales people- many times they will promise you the moon and the stars, whatever it takes to get your business, but then things don’t end up as they promised and they are long gone. What we have learned in this area is: (1) get everything in writing and before the work begins, (2) find out how long the person has been at the company and if they are paid based on commission (not always a bad thing, but still good to know), and (3) who you can contact with problems in the event they leave the company. These rules won’t protect you from companies whose owners do not adhere to a strong ethical business philosophy so ask around for references from people you trust.
  5. Learning when to say no. When we first started CMOR, we were so excited just to be in business that we said yes to everything. We were afraid if we said no to anything that it would hurt our business long-term. So, if a client needed a large project completed on a small budget, we did it, which resulted in us ending up in the red on several projects. Over the last few years, we have started saying no, and it is one of the best decisions we have made. While most of the time, we are able to conduct a research project within the client’s planned budget, this is not always possible. In these cases, we always let our potential clients know what we are able to complete within their budget and what it would cost to complete the entire project.