20 Years As An Entrepreneur: The Top 5 Lessons I Learned Along the Way
I remember it like it was yesterday. My partners and I signed the papers with our attorney on a Tuesday to officially start our business. Right after, we went out to breakfast to celebrate. It was my first day as a business owner and new entrepreneur. How could I forget?
However, breakfast ended up being far from a celebration. As we were waiting for our food, our waitress yelled, “Two planes just hit the twin towers in New York City!” Shortly after, the restaurant closed, and I raced home to see what had happened.
It’s hard to believe that day was now 20+ years ago. As I reflect on the tragedy of 9/11 along with the start of my entrepreneurial journey, I want to share the top 5 lessons I’ve learned along the way that have helped shape who I am today.
The past 20 years have been far from a smooth ride, but I’m grateful for the relationships that I’ve built and proud of the growth we’ve achieved as a team. I also want to share a few stories that have made me a better leader and how our companies, Versique and Parqa, have evolved along the way.
Lesson 1: Mistakes Don’t Define You. How You Grow from Them Does.
I was fired from my first job out of college.
In 1997 I was working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car when I got caught cheating the system. I vividly remember my boss dropping me off at home after lunch. I was embarrassed, humiliated, and thought to myself, “How could this have just happened?” At the time, I remember thinking it was just a little lie, but what I learned from that incident, I take with me every day.
Ultimately, if I wasn’t caught, I may never have made my way into the recruiting industry. And when I made the decision to resign from my first recruiting job to start my own company, I learned from my initial mistake and was honest with the owners. I sat down with them, thanked them for giving me a start in recruiting, and told them I would abide by the employment agreement and sit out the non-compete clause for a year.
Ever since that day I was fired, I’ve had a little birdie with me constantly reminding me to do “The Right Thing.”
Lesson 2: You’re Always Either Growing or Dying. It’s Your Choice.
When I first started recruiting, I never planned on being an entrepreneur. Looking back, I had 4 great years at the Minnesota search firm where I got my start. While there, I met one of my best friends and eventual business partner Chris Ohlendorf, I made my first $100K, and I was among the top 1 or 2 recruiters every year.
But something was missing.
I specifically remember coming off my best year yet and being on a plane with the owner of the firm. He said to me, “Great year Tony, but what are you going to do next year?”
There’s nothing wrong with that mindset. I regretfully try to motivate my daughters like this to this day.
But at the time, I remember feeling burned out. I felt I wasn’t growing professionally or learning. I was simply working for a paycheck. It was at that time that I made the decision to take a chance and start something new where I could be challenged and be genuinely passionate about what I was doing.
If you feel stuck like I did, I suggest you take a chance, too. Life is too short to work in an area you’re not passionate about. You are worth it.
For the past 20 years my family has celebrated Thanksgiving with the same family. And every year I ask my friend, “How many days until retirement?” He always replies, “Let me check,” and then he pulls out his phone to look at his “Retirement Countdown” app. He then tells me down to the second when he’s going to retire.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with that mindset for some. But to me, life is simply too short to work for a paycheck.
A favorite quote of mine, which I display in my office as a constant reminder is, “Don’t just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference.”
Lesson 3: Always Invest in Yourself
One of our Core Values at Versique and Parqa is “Continuous Improvement.” When I first went out on my own to be an entrepreneur, I was just a salesperson. But I needed to learn how to be an entrepreneur, a business owner, a leader, etc.
I remember shortly after starting my first company, I decided I wanted to join a leadership group called Entrepreneur Organization (EO). This was a group of about 100 owners and once a month they got together to talk about their businesses.
However, to be admitted into an EO group, I had to pass an interview with 10 entrepreneurs where they peppered me with questions like:
- What is your gross profit?
- Net income?
- Year over year growth?
- 3 year plan?
- Etc. Etc.
I left that initial interview feeling really embarrassed. Needless to say, I was declined entry to the group.
Afterwards, I remember thinking I have one of two choices to make:
- Realize I had a lot to learn and work hard at being a business owner, or
- Quit and be okay with just being a sales producer
The next week I picked myself up and had an opportunity to interview again. This time I was prepared and was accepted to the group.
To this day I still meet with a peer entrepreneur group to share ideas and continue growing. Joining the group was one of the best things to happen to me as a business owner and entrepreneur. Thank you, EO.
Lesson 4: Listen to Others and Be Open to Change
One of our other Core Values at Versique & Parqa used to be simply “Winning.” Anyone who knows me can’t argue that I love to win and hate to lose even more.
When we hired Chris Dardis (now our President of Consulting Services) at Versique 8+ years ago, he mentioned that he didn’t like “Winning” as a Core Value. Of course, he loves winning just like me (who doesn’t?), but he suggested we expand the Core Value to “Winning Through Service and Trust.” While this could be considered a small change, it’s had a significant impact on our business.
Today, it’s essential that we always “deliver a client and candidate experience worthy of a referral.” At Versique, we want to be viewed as a consultant not a recruiter. We may have grown a little slower at the beginning by doing it his way, but I believe there is no other way.
This is one of many examples of empowering our employees and making sure their voice is heard. While it’s easy to adopt a “my way or the highway” mentality as a leader, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the input and ideas from our team. As a result, one of our other Core Values is “Collaboration.”
Lesson 5: It’s Never Too Late to Change Your Situation
Just because you aren’t happy with your current work situation, doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. I still feel like I’m constantly evolving. Ultimately, work shouldn’t feel like “work” when you’re surrounded by people that share the same values.
However, I was a part of a company before Versique that didn’t have shared values. In fact, every year one of our longest tenured employees says, “I hated you back then, Tony.” That may seem harsh, but it was true. The reason, he says, is, “You were checked out, you didn’t care, and you golfed 120+ times a year.” He was right, I was miserable. I left that company, and it was the best career decision I have ever made. Today, I’m closer than ever to the employee who once hated me.
If your career isn’t bringing you energy, know that you have the power to change it. It won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it.
Last (bonus) lesson: Don’t give up and don’t settle. It would have been so easy for me to stay at my previous jobs and be like my unhappy Thanksgiving friend counting the seconds until retirement.
In closing, I am very lucky and blessed to be surrounded by great employees that I enjoy being around, and who get me excited to keep learning. Thank you to everyone that had a part in helping shape me the last 20 years. I have never felt more energized, and I can’t wait to see what the next 20 brings (okay, maybe the next 10 for now).
The best part? I feel like we are just getting started.
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