Four Things Conventional Education Will Not Teach You About Owning a Business

Owning a business can offer tremendous rewards, both personal and professional. It also holds unique challenges that not everyone is prepared to face. The good news is that you can learn how to handle those challenges; the bad news is that, in all likelihood, nobody ever taught you how. A traditional education is good for many things—I hear yours was excellent—but it tends not to address some important realities about life as a business owner.

It All Starts With You

When you were in school, your work life followed the same basic pattern over and over: Get an assignment, do the assignment, hand in the assignment. Ideally you’d hand it in on time, but who doesn’t need an extension now and then? You may have come to think of yourself as a machine that consumes instructions and spits papers out the other end—a machine that can work continuously as long as the coffee doesn’t run out. Not a bad life if you enjoy coffee.

Business owners can’t work that way. If you sit around waiting to be told what to do then you can expect to sit for a very long time, because you are the one who is expected to call the shots. Whether you run an e-commerce retail site, a brick-and-mortar establishment, or a taco truck, nothing will happen until you decide it ought to happen and then make sure it does. (“Proactive” may be a burned out buzzword, but it got that way for a reason.) Whether you delegate a responsibility or take matters into your own hands is your choice to make based on your circumstances, but remember: It will never be someone else’s job unless you decide it is.

Deadlines Matter

No, Really... They do.

Remember when I mentioned paper extensions? Some teachers are willing to give you extra time to hand in an assignment once it becomes clear that you won’t be able to make the deadline. That is a decision teachers can make, but it’s vital to remember two things about your teacher. The first is that their main goal is to help you learn rather than to get something from you. The second is that, on one level or another, you are probably helping to pay their salary.

Now replace “teacher” with “client.” It’s quite a change. Your clients may be happy to hear that you are learning, but that is not why they’ve come to you. They’re also paying you instead of the other way around. (That’s the whole idea, right?) If a project or product is running behind schedule, your first instinct must be to find some way to bring it back on schedule. Some clients might accept the delay, but unless you have intimate knowledge of their needs and expectations, don’t just assume that late delivery is not a problem. Someone may be counting on you.

Of course, there are times when the matter is completely out of your hands. Illness, weather, and meteorite strikes can throw your business for a loop without ever asking your permission. This is when it’s important to know how to manage customer expectations. Instead of waiting for them to ask why you haven’t delivered, get in touch early and tell them about the situation. Tell them what you are doing to ensure that they will get what they need as soon as possible, and ask them how you can offer additional support. They will remember that you toughed it out so you could do right by them.

Knowing Everything Is Not Crucial

It’s midterm season and you’re about to take a test that will count as 25% of your final grade. You sit down at a desk, pull out a few crisp No. 2 pencils, and accept the test packet from a TA. When nobody's looking, you take a glance at a piece of paper with key information scribbled tightly on one side. (Or you check a mobile device you smuggled in, or you receive morse code messages through your dental fillings, or whatever.) You may get away with it or you may not, but either way what you are doing is called cheating. If you are caught, the best you can expect is a zero on this test, and at worst you might be kicked out of school. Time to plan a few conversation starters for the next family reunion, since nobody will know quite what to say to you.

A few industries use a similar philosophy when they hire, but this is changing rapidly as human resources departments realize that knowing something in this connected age is less important than the ability to find something. When you interview a prospective employee, consider a potential employee’s research and communication skills as much as their knowledge base. If they can’t answer a question immediately, can they give you the right answer after a minute checking their phone? What does that say about what they might bring to your talent pool?

The same goes for you, too. Be ready to draw on all of your resources. Academic culture can train you to be afraid to admit you don’t know something. (So can our wide culture. Just ask any politician.) The truth is that if you regularly consult with your employees on matters relating to their fields of expertise, nobody will hang a “did not memorize” sign on your neck. Show everyone that you know your limits; show them that you value what they bring to the team; and never, ever do a job badly that one of your employees could do better just because you’re afraid to admit you don’t know how.

You Are the Brand

Most college students at big schools take at least some classes where the instructor has no idea who they are. Huge lecture courses are graded based on the written work students produce, and the students themselves are expected to show up just to make sure they know what’s going on. (Who is going to take attendance in a 300-student intro chemistry lecture?) In those cases your grade and your standing are defined entirely by what you produce, not who you are. It may feel impersonal, but there is also a comfort in knowing that you’re being judged only by what you choose to show.

Unless you have Ronald McDonald to hide behind—in which case you’re probably not reading this—you are the face of the company. People will associate your business not just with your products and your customer service, but with the last conversation they had with you, the tone of your last e-mail, and how you chose to dress for that big meeting. While there are no hard and fast rules for how to establish yourself, but professionalism and respect aren’t just for frontline retail; they go all the way up.

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