As Seen in AMEX Open forum, USA Today, The Charlotte Observer, America's Premier Experts, the Daily

As Seen in AMEX Open forum, USA Today, The Charlotte Observer, America's Premier Experts, the Daily

Friday, January 25, 2013

5 Entrepreneurial Lessons I Wish I Had Known When I Was 21

When I was 21, I had just graduated from NCSU with a BS in Chemistry and was on my way to Princeton to get my masters and then my PhD in Chemistry.  It wasn’t until 3 years after graduating that I decided to start my business on the side (lesson learned).

During graduate school and from running my business, I learned some great lessons which, would have made my 20's totally different if I had learned them at 21.  

Don’t get me wrong, I am really glad I had the experiences I did in graduate school and in my management career afterwards. And, I would have started my company much earlier if I had had these lessons under my belt.

1) You should dream big.

By seeing yourself achieving big goals, it’s much easier to achieve them because you can see a path to meet those goals.  Remember to always ask the question of “what is the worst that can happen if I go after this huge goal?”  The answer is usually not that bad and once those worst fears are defined, it’s easier to recognize how unlikely they are.

For me, dreaming big was creating a business, launching a product, taking it to market, and then sharing my experiences with other young entrepreneurs.    I’m glad I did finally define my dream and set out to achieve.

2) Marketing is key.  It’s not a mysterious black box; it’s a skill you can learn, practice, and perfect like any other.

You cannot ignore marketing because it can make or break you.  Product design, process design and understanding the numbers will only take you so far.  If you have a great idea but no idea how to let people know about it or how they perceive it, your business is doomed from the beginning.  Being able to predict if the marketing for a certain product will be easy or not is huge because that knowledge can give you a very good idea about the success of the venture.

For me, with a totally scientific education at age 21, I wish I had thought to recognize this hole in my knowledge base earlier in my career.  It was not until I almost graduated with my doctorate that this hole became apparent to me (I know for you people in business out there, this probably sounds crazy!).

What I really learned in graduate school was how to learn things.

Once I set marketing as a skill I should learn about, focusing on it and learning the basics of marketing was relatively easy.   

3) You are NOT the first person to experience whatever challenge you're going through so use your network.

In addition to the fact that it is very comforting to talk to someone who has gone through whatever challenge it may be before,  having a network of people who can advise you is SO helpful.  

It is too tempting to feel like you have to figure everything out for yourself in your own business... the truth is, you don't have to.   This go-it-alone feeling is especially pervasive once you are working full-time on your own business.  Certainly, when I worked in the lab and then at McMaster-Carr in the management team, I reached out in order to make projects run smoothly if I didn’t feel I knew what to do.  However working alone and being the boss is sometimes lonely.   You should know this going in and use your network from the beginning, not just after you’re frustrated or discouraged.

4) Action is critical, even if they are small actions.  You can’t just think a goal into accomplishment.

You should have a big goal in mind and try to get your daily actions to move you, bit-by-bit, closer to that big goal.   Whether those little things are sending an email out to your list, or asking for help on a subject, or calling a potential supplier to ask one more time what’s the best they can do, you must DO and not just THINK.

Don't be overwhelmed by a big goal, move towards it. 

Ideas, like light bulbs, are only really neat if you plug them in and use them. 

Thinking will only get you so far if you want to accomplish big things.  Sometimes if you’re stuck in your thinking, taking one step forward illuminate the path ahead.

5) You DON'T have to know everything before you start.  Indeed, that is the incorrect thinking that holds so many people back. 

It's very tempting to think you need a degree or lots of training before you start your own business.  

The truth is that you're never going to know it all.  You should look at life and your business as a learning opportunity for yourself.  When I started my business, I was working full time and my co-workers were all going to get their MBAs.   I decided I would invest that money and time I would have spent getting an MBA differently.  I would start my own business and approach my business as a way to learn all the business lessons I needed to know that way.   

Would it have been possible to have these lessons firmly under my belt before age 21.  Yeah, I think so.  That said, I’m so pleased about the path life has taken me on so far.  Sometimes, I think I’ve learned things when I actually needed to know them…. Or maybe that’s just when they sunk in properly. 

What entrepreneurial lessons do you wish you had known at 21?   Start a comment below and share! 

If you like this post or think it would be helpful to someone else in your life, please share it!


Do you want a free 30-minute consultation on your business with me, Katie Hughes, PhD?

Connect with Katie on Twitter @katiehhughes and we’ll can something up.


  1. As brilliant and pertinent all of these lessons are, the one I REALLY wish I'd known from the beginning is #5.

    I waited waaaaaay too long - doing more study, more coaching, more training - before I hung out my shingle, and the years would have been better served by serving others.

    I'm definitely going to pass this on.

    I just wish we could make it required reading for high-schoolers everywhere.

    1. I think it just takes courage to go out there and try something new. Sometimes I see people procrastinating by learning more on the subject. When I see the situation, I think they could just as easily have jumped in 2 weeks ago. Whatever extra training won't make a huge difference to their launch, but yet I find them waiting.

      In the end, a boost of self-confidence is what most people need to step forward. I know that knowledge makes me feel self-confident sometimes, but I could have gotten that self-confidence boost from my family, friends, mastermind group etc

      That's a lesson for me when I see friends and family learning, learning, learning, waiting, waiting... I should just give them a boost of self-confidence and see what happens...maybe they'll take the leap!

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. When I was 21 I was working at a bookstore and in college. But, as a teen I remember buying creatine in bulk and selling them to people at school. I understood people and at that age boys want to be as big as they can get.

    True, marketing is a vital point to selling your product. I seem to get stuck in my ways and only listen to myself. Not that I don't absorb from others, but when I feel something I usually just listen to the little voice in my head.

    Sure, I network very good. If there is something I can't do I can find someone that can. I use my strengths and learn from others when I don't understand. Lot of people dream, talk, ect. but few actually do it. I learned that very early on.

    1. Garen,
      Thanks for commenting on this post!

      It sounds like you got out early in business (no waiting to finish college or get a degree). I wish I had been so confident in those years of my life.

      I think the most important lesson is there... few people actually DO. If you're a do-er you'll generally go further than the dreamers, even if you take few mis-steps along your path to success.

      Thanks for your insight!