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10 Back-to-School Lessons Entrepreneurs Need to Learn

image for panitanphoto/Shutterstock
panitanphoto/Shutterstock
  • Entrepreneurs should continue learning throughout their careers.
  • The best entrepreneurs always do their homework.
  • Preparation is key to building a successful business.
  • Entrepreneurs should strive to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

As the calendar approaches September, school is on the horizon for students across the country. The relaxing days of summer are coming to an end, and it's time to hit the books once again.

As an entrepreneur, you can learn a lot more than you think from back-to-school season. We've compiled a list of 10 school-inspired tips for entrepreneurs to better lead their businesses.

While no small business is guaranteed to be successful, one thing that will improve your odds is doing your "homework." For an entrepreneur, this means thoroughly researching your competition, financial options and target market, as well as having a solid business plan in place before you launch your startup.

"I would highly recommend drafting a business plan prior to starting a business," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com and a business.com community member. "This document gives you the chance to objectively view the feasibility of your company and outline its future a few years out in terms of understanding its cash flow, organization and management, target market, and goals for the future."

You'll have a much easier time passing the big tests of a startup – the elevator pitch, your marketing strategy, the first sale – if you're thoroughly prepared. 

Preparation is also key when you're establishing a business structure. Research which structure will work best for your business and go through the necessary steps to launch your business. It's easy to overlook the importance of selecting your business structure, but it’s important to do your homework on this topic.  

In addition to those elements of preparation, you can also prepare when it comes to deciding what type of business is best for you. Take time to research different industries, and you'll gain a better understanding of the type of business you may want to start. 

Providing exceptional customer service and going the extra mile for your customers can make all the difference in getting repeat business. Respond to questions and concerns quickly, express your appreciation for their business, and take the time to talk to your customers to learn about them and what they want. Friendly, personal interactions will earn you a solid A in your clients' minds (and probably a nice profit in your bank account, too). [Read related article: Understanding Your Customers' Experience.] 

If your website receives significant traffic, it might be worth implementing a live chatbot within your website to quickly respond to customer questions or complaints. If you don't use a live chatbot, regularly check your email, phone messages, social media feeds and direct messages to respond to customer questions and concerns. There are many ways to receive customer feedback, and it's critical to quickly respond to their concerns. Customers love when businesses quickly take care of their needs.

Mentorship is extremely important for entrepreneurs, especially when they're first starting out. Young entrepreneurs can really learn a lot from someone who's been in their shoes. A mentor can put you in touch with industry connections, help you through your startup growing pains, and give valuable insights for your present and future business goals. Even if you don't agree with all the advice you're given, respect your mentor's willingness to share the time and energy to help you learn and grow as a business owner. [Read related article: How to Find a Good Mentor.] 

"Mentors enhance entrepreneurs' motivation by sharing expertise, acting as a sounding board, and reminding them that they're not alone," said Olivia Boone, partnerships and services officer at MicroMentor.org. "An effective mentoring relationship creates a framework of accountability and support, completely free of charge." 

Mentors can help you set business goals, prepare for the future and tackle unusual problems. On the flip side, make sure the relationship is a give and take. Don't only receive advice. If there are ways you can help them or their business, don't hesitate to offer your services. The mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street, and you should try to give back to your mentor in some form.

Remember when you moved into your first college dorm and thought you brought way too much with you, only to discover that the extra screwdriver you packed came in handy midyear? Similarly, you can never be too prepared when it comes to running a business. 

Even if it seems like you're overthinking, it's good to be ready for even the unlikeliest of situations. What will you do if you don't raise all the funds you need? What if one of your team members unexpectedly bails on you? What if you need to rethink your entire branding strategy? Knowing what to do in the event of a crisis helps you navigate any obstacles you might encounter. 

The better you prepare, the better chance you'll have of finding success. Consider even the most basic questions. How will you make money? What happens if you make less money than initially expected? Ask yourself these uncomfortable questions and prepare for problems. 

"In order to keep from being paralyzed in fear, it can be useful to visualize the worst possible outcome and get comfortable with it to the point that it isn't as scary anymore," said Bethany Babcock, founder of Foresite Commercial Real Estate. "From that vantage point, you can better visualize ways to minimize the risks and proceed forward."

College students are constantly told to network with professionals in their future career fields. As many grads – and entrepreneurs – have learned, the right connections can open opportunities that would have remained closed otherwise. Take every chance you get to reach out to other small business owners, whether it's to get a few tips, do a small favor or just have a friendly conversation. You never know who might be able to lend a helping hand to you at some point down the road. [Read related article: 5 Strategies for Expanding Your Professional Network.] 

Forming business connections often means leaving your comfort zone. Consider attending conferences and maybe even participating in a panel related to your business expertise. While public speaking can be intimidating, it puts you in front of other business professionals with whom may want to connect. 

Try to carve out time for networking events. It can be difficult to pull yourself out of your business, but taking an hour to connect with business professionals in the area is a great idea. You may find that an hour of networking leads to multiple connections with people who can help move your business forward.

Think of your business plan as the syllabus for your startup. Like the syllabus for a class, your plan includes a description of your company, what you'll need to run the business, and your long-term goals. And, like a class, your business might end up taking a slightly different path from what you initially anticipated. Maybe you didn't meet your first-year projections, or you ended up having to change direction on a project halfway through. 

While a clear-cut strategy is crucial, part of running a startup is being able to adapt when things don't go according to plan. Students learn some of the most important and inspiring lessons when their professor veers from the syllabus; the same could be true of your business. 

It's helpful to have a business plan to guide your initial decisions, but every business goes off course at some point. Customer demands change and you need to react. 

Unfortunately, as an entrepreneur, you may find yourself even more cramped for time than you were as a student. It's important to remember to find the time to enjoy your personal life. There isn't a perfect division of your time, but studies have shown that burnout can be detrimental to your career if you don't take time for yourself.

When it comes to combatting burnout, it's important to separate work and business. This can be difficult when you're an entrepreneur, but setting aside time for hobbies or time with loved ones is crucial. Don't let your business completely consume your life. [Read related article: How to Overcome Workplace Burnout.]

It often takes students a few weeks to get back into the swing of things when the new school year begins. In the early stages of your business (and even later on if you make a drastic strategy change), you're likely to have a trial-and-error period before you figure out the best way to operate. This might be a frustrating time, but you just need to persevere and power through until you get onto steadier ground. 

Patience is an important attribute of successful entrepreneurs. You're going to make mistakes and adjustments. View those situations as opportunities rather than challenges, and you'll be better prepared to get through those business strategy adjustments.

In school, one failed test doesn't mean you should drop the entire class. Similarly, in business, one misstep doesn't necessarily mean you should give up on your entrepreneurial venture.

Take the experience and learn from it. Retrace your steps and figure out exactly where you went wrong. If you have the resources to immediately try again, do so, while employing the knowledge you gained from your mistakes. If you can't keep going right away, hold on to that knowledge and wait for your next opportunity. 

Finding success is challenging, and you're certain to go through failures along the way. View failures as learning experiences to remain positive and improve from mistakes. It takes a lot of hard work to build a successful business, and it's OK to fail. Learn from those failures to improve your business venture. 

"Hard work is never wasted," said Ata Khan, co-founder of Xoobo. "Every failure is a lesson that brings you closer to achieving your goals. You only fail when you quit."

While Khan makes a good point, there are times with it makes sense to call it quits. Some ventures don't succeed, and sometimes the lesson from failures is that it's time to move to a different venture. Other times, you should keep pushing like Khan suggests. Even if your business fails, you'll learn valuable lessons from the process of starting a business.  

You might have thought you knew everything when you were in high school, but you quickly discovered you were wrong. Having a successful startup doesn't mean you have nothing left to learn about entrepreneurship. Always be open to lessons from others in and out of your industry. The world is like a university, and your business is just one small course in it. 

"The best advice I can give to entrepreneurs is that you will never reach a point where you don't need to continue your education," said K.M. Robinson, a social media strategist. "Social media changes every single day between algorithms, trends and what viewers want to engage with. If you think you've figured it out, it's time to start researching again or you'll get left behind."

Social media isn't the only thing that changes. Industries are constantly changing, and the best businesses adjust based on changing customer desires. There's always something new to learn about leading your business to success.

"You'll always need to tweak and hone your products, services, and skills to best serve your clients, but if you spend all of your time striving for perfection, you'll never put your products or services out there to begin with," said Robinson. "Do your best, get your work out there, and then adapt and fix as you go."

Additional reporting by Carlyann Edwards and Nicole Fallon.

Bennett Conlin

Bennett is a B2B editorial assistant based in New York City. He graduated from James Madison University in 2018 with a degree in business management. During his time in Harrisonburg he worked extensively with The Breeze, JMU’s student-run newspaper. Bennett also worked at the Shenandoah Valley SBDC, where he helped small businesses with a variety of needs ranging from social media marketing to business plan writing.