Leadership: Question & Answer with Stan Mitchell

The following question and answer exchange took place with Stan Mitchell. Stan is the editor and publisher of The Oak Ridge Observer. The Observer is a locally owned, weekly newspaper with distribution 4,000 copies which was launched in 2004.

Chuck: What advice would you give someone who is considering starting their own business?

Stan: Don’t. Seriously, almost certainly, you shouldn’t. And if you still think you should, here’s something to consider. Most businesses don’t even make it five years. Something like 80 percent fail. Those that continue still usually don’t make very much. So starting a business if very risky, to say the least.

But if after a month you still can’t sleep, then here are the steps you need to follow: Listen to Dave Ramsey for three months straight. (If you don’t know who Dave Ramsey is, then you don’t need to start a business.) In addition, you should read “Think and Grow Rich,” and if you’re still feeling the urge, research online for the top business books to read and don’t launch your business until you’ve read about ten of them. Maybe twenty. (And the whole time you’re reading, you better be saving your money for your launch. It will take twice as long to succeed and cost twice as much as your “conservative” figures you’re adding together. Believe me, and every other small business owner out there on this.)

Chuck: What is the greatest business challenge you have faced?

Stan: The entire thing. No kidding, it hasn’t been easy a single day. As the owner, you have to drive the pace of your company. And if you’re not careful, as you start to get the revenue situation fixed (which takes months if not years), you’ll find your energy and enthusiasm sapped. Why? Because you can forget taking vacations. Or working less than seventy or eighty hours a week. Think I’m kidding? Ask someone who launched a start up (who didn’t buy a franchise like Subway) about their first five years.

Chuck: How significant has perseverance been in your journey?

Stan: Huge. Imagine running out of money and having to go make a presentation to a banker explaining how if they lend you more, you can pull it off. (Oh, and you better appear confident and completely with it when you show up.) And then not reaching your goals and trying to make the same presentation to people who you know and respect, and who you’re hoping will invest in your company. I’ve done both of these things more times than I care to think about and they’re immensely stressful.

And the worst thing is after you actually get the money. If you thought the pressure was bad before, just wait until you’ve borrowed more or taken money from friends or family. Bankruptcy and failure – if you have any integrity – isn’t an option. So, see the above answer about vacations, hours worked, and lack of energy/enthusiasm. And in my case, you have to throw in a divorce, living in someone’s basement while being broke beyond belief, and pushing your luck living without medical insurance or other safeguards.

Chuck: Share one or two of your core leadership principles? Principles that regardless of the arena would be applicable.

Stan: Great question.

1) Be the tortoise, not the hare.

2) There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.

Bottom line, had I discovered Dave Ramsey two years earlier, I wouldn’t have had even half of my problems.

Chuck:: Would you take the plunge to start The Observer again?

Stan: I didn’t know when I took the plunge what I know now. Would anyone, who knows what I know now, take the plunge again in the same manner I did? Absolutely not. And if you answered “yes,” you’d be certifiably insane.

But I do believe I was meant to do this. That I was called to take that plunge. I just really wish I’d not gone into debt, that I’d followed the path of the tortoise and not the hare.

For instance, what if I’d just started with a website while keeping a job on the side and then slowly grew into a full-time job? The path would have been so much easier and certain.

Bottom line, I launched this company when I was 27 and I’ve learned some brutal lessons. That was six years ago and thankfully the company continues to grow and get stronger. But still to this day, even as the rewards start to grow, I get petrified with fear when someone comes up to me asking if they should start their own company.

Take this as your final lesson if you think I’m being too cautious. Research the story of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart’s founder. You have to figure the man who launched the largest retail company in the world must have been smart and made it fairly easily, right? Wrong. Once you’re done researching how he nearly lost his company at the five year mark, then research Milton Hershey, the guy behind the Hershey’s company. He failed completely twice. These guys weren’t idiots. They were geniuses, and they proved it’s not easy.

Listen to my advice and be cautious, and if after listening to my advice you launch something and it proves easy, come buy me lunch. I only wish someone had told me similar advice six years ago.

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