Editor's column: You learned the secrets long ago Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

It doesn't take an advanced degree or even a high school diploma to be a successful entrepreneur.

Dave Thomas is proof of that. Although he says dropping out of high school was the biggest mistake of his life -- and he has since earned his GED certificate -- the Wendy's founder still managed, without a 12th grade education, to turn a little hamburger joint on Broad Street into one of the largest restaurant operating and franchising companies in the world.

How'd he do it? My theory: good, old-fashioned work experience.

Dave got his first full-time job at age 15 as a bus boy. Although that may sound like a rather humble position, I'd argue it taught him virtually everything he needed to know about running a business.

Our first jobs, no matter how lowly they may have seemed at the time, probably did the same. Here's my proof:

Lesson No. 1: Be on time.

As an employee, arriving late to work or appointments can call into question your dependability, dedication and work ethic. As an employer, shipping product late or failing to pay invoices on time can lead clients to believe you're not as reliable or financially stable as you claim to be. That could cost you business.

Lesson No. 2: Ask for help when you need it.

Good employees don't assume they know it all. They seek advice when they are unsure how to proceed with a new project or when they don't feel properly equipped to handle a situation or problem.

CEOs often forget they can do the same. This city is full of seasoned executives who have been through many of the challenges your company is facing right now. Call them up. Meet with them. Ask their opinions. Form a board of advisers. Join a group like YPO, YEO or TEC, where you can consult with other business owners.

Nobody creates a successful business single-handedly. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence.

Lesson No. 3: Don't spend more money than you make.

It's simple logic, really, but what young employee hasn't been tempted to live beyond his or her means when looking at that first big paycheck and the pre-approved Visa application that arrived in the mail the same day? CEOs can react in a similar fashion when those first big accounts start rolling in the door -- and bankers start calling with loan offers.

It's all too easy to begin counting unhatched eggs and get in over your head. Debt is a dangerous tool. Use it wisely.

Lesson No. 4: Listen to the boss.

Even the most eager, talented employee recognizes the importance of listening to the CEO. After all, that's the person who signs the checks -- and the one who has the authority to hire and fire at will.

So why, then, when we are placed in that top spot, do we stop listening to those who pay our salary and who decide whether our firm is worth doing business with again? Our clients are the ones in control now. We ought to spend less time telling them what services or products we can provide to their companies and start asking them what products and services would help their businesses grow.

Lesson No. 5: Prepare for the worst.

What employee, no matter how happy or secure, doesn't keep an updated resume tucked away in a file at home "just in case?" Things change rapidly in the business world, and no matter how far ahead of the pack or financially stable your company may seem today, it could all change tomorrow.

Your biggest client could take its business elsewhere. Your entire management team could quit. Your production plant could burn down. Having an emergency fall-back plan is crucial.

One more entrepreneurial lesson we learn as employees, but tend to forget as we ascend the ranks: Remember to take breaks. Whether it's an hourlong lunch with a friend or a weeklong vacation to sit beachside or ski, taking time to clear our heads is often the best thing we can do for ourselves -- and our companies.

Refreshed CEOs, like refreshed workers, think better. Better thinking can lead to better decisions. Better decisions make for better companies.

And what's not to like about that? Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.