How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur With Zero Business Experience

Ideally, every entrepreneur would have an MBA as well as the skills and leadership qualities to grow the business and stay well in the black. In reality, however, few entrepreneurs become business owners by following such a linear path. Many get started simply because they have a good idea or because self-employment is a more viable way to put money on the table.

Take Jim Carpenter, founder and CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited, a franchise system of backyard bird feeding and nature specialty stores. Having received his Master’s degree in horticulture and plant physiology, Jim saw that there was little opportunity for finding a good job if he pursued his Ph.D. So, he ran a small garden center for two years and in 1981 decided to take his love of birds and open his own store. Shortly thereafter someone walked in the door asking to buy a franchise. With no idea how to make it happen, Carpenter bought a $3 book on the subject and set off on a long road of self-educating himself on all things business. It worked out: Today 295 Wild Birds Unlimited stores exist throughout the U.S. and Canada. Here’s what Carpenter learned along the way.

Subscribe to reputable business publications.

Not only did Carpenter start reading Inc. for its business advice articles, in one issue he saw an ad for a Birthing of Giants conference the magazine was holding, one that brought together 60 founders under the age of 40 with more than $1 million in revenue. The event–which he attended two years in a row with the same group of entrepreneurs, professors and business leaders–was pivotal in his learning trajectory. “That was what really opened my eyes, that ‘OK, I’ve got to step it up. There is a path but I’m going to have to learn it,” he recalls.

Get some mentors.

The conference taught Carpenter the value of peer mentors. He joined the International Franchise Association, as well as a local Indianapolis mentoring group co-founded by Dr. William Haeberle, a retired Professor Emeritus of Management at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, who helped Carpenter form a board of advisors in 1995. He says however you find them, these people outside of your company should be willing to pay attention long term to your strategy and give unbiased advice about what you should be doing to grow. “This group has never held back if they thought that I needed to hear something,” he says. “I go into each meeting–and we have four a year as if they were a board of directors–and I try to think ‘What if they could fire me?'”

Confess to yourself and others that you don’t know how to grow your company.

Pride will keep you from learning what you need to succeed, so it’s important in any mentoring relationship to admit your gaps in knowledge. “And then all sorts of people will come and help you once you are in that state of mind,” he says. “The next step is to commit to a mentoring relationship in which you actually react to the really good advice that’s being given to you.”

Decide whether you’re going to lead, hire someone else to lead, or sell your business.

No one is good at everything so if you lack the ability to lead your company in the way it deserves, find someone who can. “If you don’t do one or the other you’re going to have to sell your company because your competition will take over and your company will lose value,” he says.

Keep abreast of what’s happening in your market.

It’s imperative to regularly analyze what’s happening in your space in terms of your performance, the economy, your competition, trends and other factors so that you’re operating from the most informed position possible. Carpenter does this by spending six months every year preparing a strategic white paper to share with franchise store owners to help them understand what’s working with the brand, what’s not, and what needs to change. “The really important thing is here’s what we’re doing to improve our positioning to our target customer and everything should be focused towards that goal,” he says.



Having a partner can be a nightmare, or it can be the best choice you make for your business. So how can you tell if you are about to walk down the path with the right person or make the biggest mistake of your life? Last week, my business partner, Dale Parris, and I celebrated the 10 year anniversary of our company–and more than 12 years of working together. Here are some tips on what makes a partnership work, culled from a decade of harmonious partnership.

Partnership works when both people involved are able to clearly identify and discuss their own strengths and weaknesses. I am a good writer and an excellent manager, but I am terrible with math. My partner, on the other hand, is a genius with numbers and logistics. We know and agree on what we are both best and worst at–which means no arguments about who is capable of doing which tasks, but more importantly, it means we can both openly ask the other for help when we are doing something out of our area of expertise. If you and your partner can’t do that or both think you are the best at everything, you will waste time butting heads instead of moving your company forward.

Partnership works when you can argue vehemently about the best way to solve a problem, and yet still support the solution, even when your idea isn’t the one chosen. My partner and I both want the best for our company, but we have different ideas sometimes on how best to resolve an issue. I am the kind who believes in swift action, whereas my partner, who is more analytical, takes time to suss out more measured solutions. Sometimes my all-or-nothing way forward is the route we take–and sometimes my partner knows he needs to back me down to get us to a more incremental approach. Our partnership has taught us both to be willing to try things outside of our comfort zone. If you and your partner can’t listen to and respect one another’s ideas–and are not willing to accept that sometimes your idea is the one that has to lose–you will focus all your energy on combatting one another instead of your competitors.

Partnership works when you are willing to go to the mat for your partner–even when that partner has made a mistake. My partner and I have both made our share of wrong calls in the ten years we have spent building Metal Mafia. Whether the mistake is one that puts us in a difficult situation publicly or just behind closed doors, we both understand that when one of us makes a misstep, the best way to fix it is to put our heads together and figure out what to do. We don’t hide the problems from one another, and we don’t waste time pointing fingers. If you and your partner are more interested in finding blame then finding a way to get back on track, you will spend time growing angry instead of growing your business.

Partnership works when you feel your partner’s needs and goals are as important as your own. Dale and I have each gone through different phases in our personal lives, which changed the ways in which we worked together. We have always cared about one another as much as we care about ourselves. When Dale got married and had a family earlier than I did, I often volunteered to stay late to finish something so that he would be able to get home to his wife and kids. When I decided I wanted to start working off hours in order to stay home with my newborn in the mornings, Dale shuffled his life to make that possible. All of the adjustments we have made over the past decade came from both of us wanting the best for the other. If you and your partner are only focused on your own desires, you will end up doing things you each disapprove of and clashing in ways that will destroy your business from the inside out.

Partnership gives you an in-house consultant and confidant, a person to help carry the load when things get difficult, and someone to celebrate with when you win big. It is the business model that I would choose again and again–on the condition that it was with the right partner. And in my case, I got lucky, because my partner has made the last ten years better than I ever could have imagined.



Effective Listening

Listening is one of the most important aspects of effective communication. Successful listening means not just understanding the words or the information being communicated, but also understanding how the speaker feels about what they’re communicating.

Effective listening can:

Make the speaker feel heard and understood, which can help build a stronger, deeper connection between you.

Create an environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas, opinions, and feelings, or plan and problem solve in creative ways.

Save time by helping clarify information, avoid conflicts and misunderstandings.

Relieve negative emotions. When emotions are running high, if the speaker feels that he or she has been truly heard, it can help to calm them down, relieve negative feelings, and allow for real understanding or problem solving to begin.

Tips for effective listening
If your goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person, listening effectively will often come naturally. If it doesn’t, you can remember the following tips. The more you practice them, the more satisfying and rewarding your interactions with others will become.

Focus fully on the speaker, his or her body language, and other nonverbal cues. If you’re daydreaming, checking text messages, or doodling, you’re almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try repeating their words over in your head—it’ll reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns, by saying something like, “If you think that’s bad, let me tell you what happened to me.” Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next. Often, the speaker can read your facial expressions and know that your mind’s elsewhere.

Avoid seeming judgmental. In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don’t have to like them or agree with their ideas, values, or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand a person. The most difficult communication, when successfully executed, can lead to the most unlikely and profound connection with someone.
Show your interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like “yes” or “uh huh.”

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph. D., and Robert Segal, M.A.