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A Survival Guide to Starting a Successful Small Business

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By Joseph Fusco

If you’re reading this, you have an itch that may need scratching — the desire to start and run your own business, which is one of life’s most noble impulses. Running your own business is not just a way to make a living, it’s also a path to making a life. In Vermont, making a life is just as important and fulfilling as making a living.

Scratching that itch in Vermont (or elsewhere, to be honest) is not often easy, and I want you to be successful. And, of course, it’s very tempting to rattle off a “Top 10” list of small business tips.

But beyond the sugary, conventional advice you could certainly find somewhere, anywhere else, there are four things – not often talked about – that I’ve watched every successful business owner or leader do very well. You’ll need to master these things as well.

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground
We value the entrepreneurial spirit for its embrace of risk, its willingness to roll the dice, to go “all in.” Certainly, “taking a chance” is an inescapable part of starting your own business. But great business owners and leaders are really doing something much more complex, which is successfully navigating the tension between risk and reward. They stretch, and dream big, but they strive to bring calm, stability, and sustainability to their enterprise as well. With the risks, the commitment, and the audacious goals comes a talent for rest and renewal, and recognizing personal and organizational limits.

Mastery Over Freedom and Boundaries
As an entrepreneur, you may have one, or both, of the following impulses: to soak in the freedom, fun, and creativity of owning your own business and to exercise control over every last excruciating detail of your enterprise. You must find the sweet spot between the two. You must be great at the details and the big picture, too. Be disciplined, and flexible. Seek accountability, but give your people freedom to solve your problems. If you don’t find that sweet spot, you will have neither the freedom nor control you seek.

Balance Popularity and Integrity
This is another of life’s tensions that great leaders and businesses navigate beautifully. Sales and profits (“popularity”) matter, but never at the expense of your integrity, and your belief that there is a right way to work and live. Sometimes your beliefs will cost you sales and profits, and isolate you from the “crowd.” You will have to make tough decisions, and people may be unhappy with you. You must be comfortable, as all great leaders and entrepreneurs are, as you struggle to balance doing the right thing and doing the popular, easy thing. This is not a marketing problem. This is your name and your soul.

Fall in Love with the Truth
For me, this is the most important tip of all. Great entrepreneurial leaders have a love affair with the truth. The survival of your business depends on it. You must become obsessed with the truth of your markets, your customers, your products and services and the changes that are happening every day in the environment around your business. When we become disconnected from the truth, every decision we make is wrong, and our business begins to die. You must fall in love with the truth of who you are, how you behave, and how you impact the people around you. All your results come from who you are, a truth magnified in the leader of a small business.

Finding and loving the truth is really hard, by the way.

Bonus Tip
Read, and reread, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Whenever you start to follow your heart, and do the thing you were meant to do in this world, for the benefit of the world, there is a malevolent force that shows up in your life, determined to see you fail. It’s called resistance, and it shows up to do its best to block every worthwhile endeavor, from writing a novel to starting a business to building tighter abs. You must be prepared for it, and to fight it.

Go, scratch that itch.

Joe Fusco
Joe Fusco

Joseph Fusco serves on the Board of Advisors for the University of Vermont’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA). He is an advisor to the chairman and chief executive officer of Casella Waste Systems, Inc., and is currently chairman of Vermont’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy steering committee.