When considering starting your own company, there are a lot of financial, legal and business questions you need to ask yourself. "How am I going to raise money? Who are my competitors? Are there patents on similar products?" I’m not going to focus on those types of questions here. I’m going to focus on the intangibles. Here are nine questions that you need to ask yourself about your own capabilities and personality as an aspiring leader.
1. How much responsibility can I take on?
You will be responsible for not only yourself and your business but everyone that has a vested interest in it. This includes employees and their families, investors, business partners, clients and the community in which you run your business. It’s one thing to put your own fortune and reputation on the line; it’s another when you get other people and their livelihoods involved.
I am responsible every day to the BRIC Language Systems team in NYC, China, Brazil and Mexico -- as well as every one of our language learners, interns and business partners. Being your own boss sounds nice, but you’ll realize quickly just how much weight your shoulders can hold. Make sure you know you can handle it, for your own sake and theirs.
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2. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to make this work?
There are tremendous sacrifices involved in starting up a business. Those sacrifices will include sleep, hobbies, exercise, relationships, vacations and your own personal freedom. A lot of these sacrifices are the result of realizing who you’re responsible to (see above). Be ready to sacrifice a lot in order to succeed and ask yourself if those sacrifices are worth the potential reward? More importantly, and more realistically, ask yourself if it would still be worth it if all of that sacrifice results in failure?
I lived in China for eight years. I sacrificed going to best friends weddings, the births of their children, my health, college football Saturdays and so much more. So far, it is well worth it, not only because BRIC is doing well, but even more so because of the experiences and friendships that developed out of my time there. If BRIC blew up tomorrow -- which I don’t expect nor want -- I can honestly say that it was worth it.
3. Can I remain calm amid constant chaos?
Batton down the hatches! You’ll be dealing with a storm of confused emotions and organizational chaos. How you relieve stress is incredibly important. Make sure that you have the mental fortitude to deal with an incredibly stressful environment and that you know how to decompress. Whether it’s exercise, meditation, yoga or whatever else -- make sure that you know how to relieve stress.
During my time in Shanghai I took kungfu classes at Longwu Kungfu, tried Taichi, and ran the Bund in the mornings. This helped me get through an otherworldly amount of stress and chaos that only expats living in Shanghai will understand. No matter where you are, stress relief is one sacrifice you can’t afford to make.
4. Can I make a decision under pressure?
When you start a company, you will be dealing with issues that you could have never imagined. You’re involved in every decision and every detail. This means everything from legal to hiring, accounting, marketing, sales, IT and design. You need to be able to calmly, rationally and quickly assess a situation and act. You’ll need to be decisive.
As Brian Tracy says “decisiveness is a characteristic of high-performing men and women. Almost any decision is better than no decision at all”. Be able to make the decision, move on, and deal with the results. We all make bad decisions at some point, I know I’ve made a lot of them in getting BRIC up and running.
5. Am I able to back down when I realize I’m wrong?
Leadership is as much about being able to accept when you’re wrong and listening to your team, as it is about being right. No one likes a boss who can’t admit when their wrong. If you’re leading the team in the wrong direction and people are pointing it out to you, as a leader you need to accept that fact and change course.
Being able to listen to your team and heed their advice is a hallmark of a good leader. I’ve been lucky in every leadership situation that I’ve been in to have either had a good team handed down to me or built a good team from the ground up. Those teams are why I’m where I’m at today.
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6. What are my own weaknesses?
Being self-aware isn’t a prerequisite for being a good leader, but it should be. You need to know how what you think, say and do are perceived by others. This is far different from being self-conscious. Being self-aware allows you to understand others and effectively motivate, discipline and lead them. It’s recognizing not only where you’re strong but also where you’re weak -- and using that to build a team that compliments those weaknesses with strength.
7. Can I manage a diverse group of people?
You are going to be responsible for putting a team together that will inevitably have different political, social and economic backgrounds. They will have different attitudes, personalities and viewpoints. These differences are to be celebrated, but they will also need to be managed and lead towards a common goal.
Can you, as a leader, bring your team together when they don’t see eye-to-eye and are at each other’s throats? It will happen, you need to be able to help them forward as a team. Sometimes these differences are impossible to overcome and change needs to happen.
8. Can I let someone go, including someone close to me?
A lot of startups involve friends. Those friends may come from the neighborhood, university or a previous job. Sometimes those friendships get in the way of good business judgement. If anyone, including a friend, is dragging down the business despite repeated attempts to motivate them and having given them a fair chance, they need to go. This is part of your responsibility to everyone on the team who is executing, as well as all of the others mentioned in no. 1 above.
Related: The Right Way to Fire an Employee
I’ve had to let people go in all kinds of circumstances. Some of them were close to me. I’ve had people break down in tears, and I’ve broken down in tears myself, but we were able to have the conversation and get through it. It's not easy, so ask yourself whether or not you can handle that type of situation?
9. What are my reasons for starting this company?
Is it to make money, change the world, disrupt an industry, work for yourself, passion, pride? There are a lot of reasons people start companies. Make sure you know why you’re starting your company and that the reason is sound.
Be realistic if you’re setting out to change the world. Change doesn’t come easy. Make sure that change is wanted or necessary when trying to disrupt an industry. Be self-motivated if you want to work for yourself, and make sure that passion and pride are both in check.
Once you’ve answered these nine questions, get ready for a whirlwind. You’ll feel extremes of every emotion from exhilaration to sorrow, success to failure, anxiety to serenity, doubt to certainty and anger to pleasure. You’ll feel many of those conflicting emotions at the same time and sometimes for the same reason. It’s a wild ride, and if you’re ready for it take the gloves off and come out swinging for the fences, it’s totally worth it.
Lastly, don’t overthink it. If you ask yourself too many questions, you’ll never get them answered and wind up never starting anything at all.