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This post is the first in a four-part series about creating a new entrepreneurship program, the Missouri Women’s Business Center, while simultaneously helping entrepreneurs start and grow their own businesses.
“When you take a leap, you may fall flat on your face.”
That’s the phrase I was trying desperately to get out of my head a little over a year ago when I was deciding whether to accept my current job. That’s also the fear I’ve seen in countless faces over the past year as I’ve worked with women (and some men) who are considering, or who have made, their own leap. It’s an easy fear to recognize because it doesn’t go away once you decide to jump. In my experience, after you make the decision and take the first action (in my case, resigning from a secure position I loved), the fear gets even worse.
As director of the Missouri Women’s Business Center, I get to work with people who are either standing on the edge or have already made the leap to become entrepreneurs. They are women who are willing to leave behind comfort, security, and sleep to follow their dreams of starting a business or social enterprise.
I want to say they are fearless, but that would be a lie. I know because I’m one of them.
The women I work with come from diverse backgrounds: many are moms, some have jobs with incomes they hope to replace with their businesses. Others are looking to get on their feet. Most have never owned a business before. All of them come with something to lose, whether that’s money, time, the opportunity cost of starting or staying in a business rather than pursuing traditional employment or enjoying more time with their families. Every single person I work with is conscious of the risk she’s taking, and most are willing to jump anyway.
I leapt just over a year ago when I said yes to becoming the first director of the Women’s Business Center, a project of Central Missouri Community Action. I left a job of 13 years at an organization I loved to take on something I knew very little about. I left security to pursue a passion for empowering women and to experience the challenge of creating something new.
It’s not exactly the same as what my clients are facing — I continue to have the benefits of being a W-2 employee at a fairly large organization. I have a dedicated infrastructure provided by CMCA, including back office support, assistance with fundraising, and a sweet deal on office space. I also had the advantage of a strong foundation — when I started last June, CMCA already had a staff member, Teri Roberts, who was working with a few aspiring entrepreneurs and providing business education through our six-week LaunchU course. She was ready and willing to share her wisdom with me. And I was welcomed with open arms into Columbia’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem led by REDI, The Small Business and Technology Development Centers, Missouri Innovation Center, 1 Million Cups, SCORE, our Chamber of Commerce, and many others. I had the benefit of dozens of people offering me advice, mentorship, and support.
That circumstance is not unique to my story. Most successful entrepreneurs (at least the smart ones) start with some kind of base. They find mentors. They connect with programs. They tap into resources that have already been established rather than trying to recreate every wheel.
This is the No. 1 piece of advice I give my clients who are considering starting a business: Establish your foundation before you leap. Find others who are doing what you want to do and ask them for advice or mentorship. (My informal study reveals that people say yes to this kind of request 99 percent of the time and even thank you for asking them.) Find specialists for things like bookkeeping and marketing — those things you don’t have time to learn but are essential to your business. Don’t try to be an expert at everything or pretend you know all the answers. Focus on your product or service and your customers. (Better yet, focus on your customers first, and then your product or service.) All these strategies help mitigate your initial risk.
But it’s still a leap. And you still might fall flat on your face. I still might fall flat on my face. More than a year into this program, that fear hasn’t gone away.
“Fear regret more than failure” is one of my favorite quotes of inspiration (from Taryn Rose, a woman entrepreneur, of course). I think it drives a lot of the women we work with at the Missouri Women’s Business Center too. It doesn’t just apply to entrepreneurs. We all have dreams that can be scary to reach out and grab. What will you regret if you don’t take the leap?
Jaime Freidrichs is the director of the Missouri Women’s Business Center. She blogs about women in entrepreneurship for CBT.