Ten Entrepreneurs, Ten Years in Business, Ten Keys to Success

Experienced Renaissance entrepreneurs share their advice for business success

You have a business idea. You want to be your own boss. You think you’ve got what it takes to start and run a successful business. Exciting! After a round of high-fives or imaginary congratulations on your brave decision to strike out on your own, you start asking yourself questions. Doubts creep in. What sounded so exhilarating a minute ago, now feels like a world of uncertainties and responsibilities weighing down on your shoulders. You are not alone – we at Renaissance know what you’re going through and the roller-coaster of thoughts and feelings you experience as you embark on the path of entrepreneurship. We are here for you when you first get the idea. We are with you when you serve your first customer or ship the first order. We celebrate your business success and watch you become a role-model for those at the beginning of the journey you know so well.

So in the spirit of sharing the collective wisdom of Renaissance entrepreneurs, we interviewed ten business owners, who have been in business for over a decade. We asked for their advice, useful skills and lessons learned as their shared their unique stories for you – one of their own – an entrepreneur.

We couldn’t possibly include all of their experiences and insights in a single article, so we decided to publish a two-part series. Here’s a list of top ten tips from Renaissance entrepreneurs.

Commit to your idea. “Starting a business is no different than being a musician or becoming a doctor – you have to believe that you can do it,” says Vince Perrine, owner of Eternity Telecommunications. You may make mistakes and have failures along the way, but that’s just part of the journey.

“There is never a purpose for giving up if you truly believe in something. You keep trying different alternatives until you find what works,” says Alexander Bell, owner of Bell’s Dry Cleaning & Laundry.

Each of the entrepreneurs we interviewed had to take a financial risk, change a lifestyle and/or and make sacrifices to be their own boss. None regretted the decision. But if you’re thinking about starting a business, you’ve got to be passionate about the idea and commit to it.

“I used my savings to start the business and had to reduce my expenses, living like a college student. I made a game out of how little I could spend and get by,” remembers Trish Tunney, owner of Trish Tunney Photography. Trish was gainfully employed as an engineer when she realized she wasn’t happy with what she was doing. She took time to figure out her passion and took pictures. Once Trish began to shoot for commercial clients, she realized that she could earn a living as a photographer. She enrolled in Renaissance’s Business Planning class to build her business so that she could earn a living by doing something she truly enjoyed.

And, just like any profession or skill, starting a business requires learning and research.

Do the research. “Educate yourself to the fullest extent on what is it you intend to do. Stay open and filter knowledge,” advises Joe Meisch, founder and owner of Meisch Temple Massager.

The knowledge may be in your industry, customer needs, competition, business skills or even learning to lead a life as a business owner. That’s a lot of different kind of learning!

“A great way to learn what it means to run a business is to interview every successful business owner you know. In the Renaissance Business Planning class we ask students to do just that. We also invite graduates to come back to Renaissance and share their experiences with current students,” says Paul Terry, owner of Paul Terry & Associates and a Renaissance Senior Business Consultant and lead instructor (for over 30 years) of our Business Planning class.

The learning never stops. And one of the most important learning moments for an entrepreneur is testing the idea.

Test your idea. “We tested our idea for two years before committing to it. The idea doesn’t have to be unique, but it has to meet your customers’ needs,” says Kelly Kozak, owner of Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco.

Joe tested his temple massager for years before he felt satisfied with the product and could take it to consumer market. For Joe, a military veteran, it was about creating something of a value before it became about making money. His approach worked — the user feedback showed him a viable business opportunity.

“Most people live in a fiction world. If I build it, people will come. If I offer the product, they will pay,” says Paul. “Question your assumptions. Look at the difference between what people want and what you are offering them.”

And the best way to organize and make use of your idea and research is to create a plan.

Plan. “Start with a business plan. You fail to plan, you plan to fail,” says Clifton Burch, owner of Empire Engineering & Construction.

For Paige Barrows, owner of Paige Barrows Coaching, having a business plan was “hugely important.” Years later she still refers to it. “Now I can implement some aspects I couldn’t before,” says Paige.

A business plan helps to clarify your goals and adjust when necessary to stay on the right course and make profit. This brings us to the next point.

Adjust. Be ready for challenges and changes outside of your control and adjust to keep your business on track. “A business you’re in now may not even exist in five years. Don’t get complacent – learn about the industry, get new tools, improve systems to stay atop,” says DeeDee Hunt, owner of ARTdeezine LLC.

“Your business is never static, things change. And they (and you) should too! Every December and January I rethink my strategy for the next year,” says Paul.

Kelly and her husband tried a few things before they found their niche, adjusting their business model along the way. “We tried to expand our service area, using other shops as a knife drop-off location – that was disastrous. We were no longer in control of our customer service and experience. People didn’t understand what we did. We decided to change the direction and take charge of our brand.”

Changes, whether sought after or unexpected, can be scary. Renaissance entrepreneurs, each in their own way, follow uncharted territories and manage their fears to persevere.

Manage your fears. As far as Alexander is concerned, fear is ‘False Evidence Appearing Real.’ “Like any other person, I have many fears and self-doubts. The point is to know that fear doesn’t really exist because it’s a systematic conception designed to keep you from manifesting your goals and dreams,” he says. “The way to manage it is to do the complete opposite: move past the fear by taking a step in direction you want to go.”

Put away negative thinking, surround yourself with positive people and persevere through setbacks to manage fears.

“My greatest fear is losing my sterling reputation, somehow sabotaging my good name. When this fear comes up in me, I talk to friends and family, as supposed to letting it fester in my mind,” says Paige.

After the 2009 economic downturn, Trish had lost all her clients, it happened at once – something she had never experienced before, something that planted a fear deep in her mind. But Trish learned to treat it as a math problem. She heard someone say that fear and faith cannot coexist, so she keeps her faith to keep away the fear. Sometimes Trish writes to get rid of fears as they come up.

Along with fears come frustrations and discouragement that will make you want to quit. But, Renaissance entrepreneurs insist that you persevere! Here’s why and how.

Persevere. In Clifton’s mind, quitting is easy. “When I look at my guys and how hard they work, how they believe in me and I believe in them – I realize it’s a team effort and everyone has a role to play. I see my responsibility as a business owner and keep moving forward despite challenges and fears.”

Perseverance is one of the keys to success and the only way to overcome obstacles and grow a business. Don’t let perfectionism, under the disguise of excellence, get in your way.

“I was coaching math for months or a year before my website went up, because I wanted it to be perfect – that was a mistake. In all aspects, so much of the confidence, referrals and the technical know-how come from doing the work,” says Paige.

And sometimes you may have to give up on an idea. “You give up when you’re not learning anymore and/or you’re not making money. There should be a reason to keep you going, if none exists – then give up,” says Vince.

“I think if you put your ego aside, you’ll know if and when to give up. If you give up, learn the lesson and don’t look back, move forward. You give up the idea but never give up on yourself,” says Simla Akyol, owner of It’s a Piece of Cake.

Joining a community like Renaissance and building a peer network can keep you motivated and help your business tremendously.

Connect. “Everyone who is successful in business got advice or help from others,” says Paul. “Find other small business owners who are ready to help you. Talk about your business idea all the time and have informed business conversations.”

Renaissance entrepreneurs emphasize the importance of connecting with people –whether it’s for inspiration, moral or business support, advice, or to build your customer base – you need a supportive community to thrive and a network to grow your business.

Focus on your customer. “It’s not about me. It’s always about people. Satisfying the customer is always rewarding,” says Alexander about his customer strategy.

Kelly and her husband focus on empowering customers by sharing knowledge and skills. “We know who our clients are – creative, constantly learning people, what their needs are and what they can or cannot afford, what skills they have,” says Kelly.

“Recognize that owning and running a business doesn’t ever stop – you are always ‘on’. You can run into people on the street and they could one day be your client or customer,” says Paul.

Simla built her customer base in a “super old-fashioned way” — by word of mouth.

“People make mistakes. As long as your intentions are good, people forgive and forget. I’ve made mistakes, went back to the same customers, and they were happy to see me again,” says Vince. “I believe in what I do and have a moral sense about doing business – my customers value that.”

Define what success means to you. We asked Renaissance entrepreneurs what success meant to them and here’s what they had to say.

“Life is a success. Every day you get up is another chance to do better! Success can be material or immaterial, depending on how you define yourself and what you believe in,” says Alexander.

“At the beginning, I defined success in terms of retiring out of the union (construction), which I’ve achieved. Today I think that if I can pass the business from generation to generation, then I’ve accomplished my goal and reached my dream,” says Clifton.

For Simla, success is being able to get a good night sleep, spend time with family and friends, and being passionate and determined about your business. And there are moments along the way that make you feel successful. “The most satisfying moment was seeing my company profile on a leading industry magazine for the first time. It touched me quite a bit. Starting It’s a Piece of Cake had been so difficult, yet so magical. I had to pinch myself here and there to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Seeing my company profile in writing made me realize that it was real and I was on the right track.”

What sets entrepreneurs apart from everyone else? What books inspire them the most? What is one word that describes a life as an entrepreneur? What were their biggest failures and how did they bounce back? Stay tuned for part two of the interview series!