What Entrepreneurs Learn On the Job

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Here is my weekly email with some insights and ideas pulled from conversations I had on my podcast.


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What Entrepreneurs Learn On the Job

In my Success Story interviews, I’m used to hearing from people who’ve been in their respective businesses for many years. They’ve got immediate answers to all of my questions; no rock left unturned, no story left untold. They’re the veterans, the ones who have “been there and done that.”

But occasionally, I’ll talk to someone who is just starting out as an entrepreneur – and it’s fascinating to realize that, even one or two years into the job, the sheer amount of learning you undertake is monumental. 

Why do I bring this up? If you watched my late-July interview with Kurt Sowers (the president and founder of SOCO Group), you’ll have heard from a guy who really only started his entrepreneurial journey a couple of years ago. In that time, though, he’s already learned more about business than many people learn in a lifetime. 

As an entrepreneur myself, I can attest to the fact that you’re never done learning – even after many years in business. But what’s great about those first few years is that you have the chance to set the tone for your entire career. The lessons you learn early on will shape how you approach business for years to come.

In today’s newsletter, I want to talk through some of the key lessons Kurt reflected on in his interview. They’re immensely valuable, whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been at it for a while – and if we’re not continually learning from others and ourselves, we’re not doing our jobs as entrepreneurs, are we?

Let’s dive in to lesson number one: doing what you love. 

1. Pursue Your Underlying Passion

Most of us loved LEGO when we were kids, right? Well, when Kurt Sowers was a child, he was a LEGO fanatic – and not for the cool pre-made designs, but for the raw blocks that he could use to build whatever his imagination desired. That fascination led him down a path of continual construction. 

“Then in my teen years and into college, I worked as a handyman. I built furniture. I worked in and out of almost every trade in the construction industry. And it was always what kind of came natural to me; I was good at it.”

But, as so many of us experience in those secondary and tertiary years, Kurt was steered toward the idea of being a well-learned ‘businessperson’ rather than a tradesman.

“I veered away from [construction] for a little while. And in college I studied construction management and civil engineering technology, so I became very educated on the science of construction. But as I got older, I realized this was the only thing I’m actually really good at; I get inspired by construction and in the industry in itself.”

For a lot of us, we start our careers on the wrong foot. It might be thanks to someone influential talking into our ears, or a discouraging family member saying ‘you’ll never make it as a _______’. Whatever the case, something pushes us away from our childhood aspirations and onto a more ‘respectable’ path.

But it’s not until we get out into the workforce and start to realize that we’re not happy with what we’re doing that the regrets set in. We might have a great job on paper, but if our heart isn’t in it then what’s the point? It’s at this stage when many of us begin to long for a return to our passions. 

Thankfully, Kurt Sowers clung to his love of construction throughout his educational journey. He may have studied business and engineering, but he never lost sight of the industry that inspired him as a child. 

And when the time came to leave his 9-5 job and pursue entrepreneurship, he had no hesitation in getting back into construction. 

“I kind of have this ideology that people should do what they were inspired to do as a kid. Do what you wanted to do as a child.”

What’s the lesson?

Put simply, the lesson here is to constantly go back to your underlying passion. We’re not all going to remain interested in our childhood dreams, I know that – but too many of us are working jobs that don’t align with our interests, innate skills, and passions. 

What can you do about it?

I want this newsletter to pack plenty of value, so let’s talk practicalities. How can you actually test whether you should pivot your career to something you’re passionate about? It’s important to look at your childhood passions – but first, you need to look ahead. Let me explain.

In one of his studies, Prof. Hal Hershfield of UCLA found that people who used VR technology to view themselves and their lives at 70 years old became more aligned with their future reality. The idea is that when we can see ourselves benefiting – or suffering – from our current choices, it’s easier to make positive changes. 

So here’s what you can do. Visualize yourself in ten years’ time, assuming that you stay in your current job, and ask the following of yourself: 

  • What kind of lifestyle do I have? 
  • Do I really, truly, enjoy the work that I do?
  • Have I challenged myself?
  • Do I use my innate skills, and make the most of my natural abilities?

I thought this exercise was a bit silly at first, but I recommend you clear a few minutes of your schedule to give it an honest try. Genuinely ask yourself – if someone told me I’d still be doing this job in a few years’ time, would I be okay with that?

2. Don’t Wait ‘Til You’re Rich

Speaking with Kurt Sowers, I was inspired by the way he started his entrepreneurial journey. Because let me tell you, he didn’t wait for a huge financial backing; he saw his diving board and took the plunge. 

“It’s embarrassing to say, but I only had like, 15k in the bank to start. In liquid cash.”

That reminds me; I saw something crazy in my news feed today. Did you know that Apple’s headquarters cost literal billions of dollars to make? It’s sleek, it’s incredibly cutting-edge and high-tech. But for some reason, it oozes ‘startup’ energy.

And I got to thinking – maybe we’ve glamorized the startup aesthetic a little too much. Why is it that sleek, white countertops and glowing Macbooks have become the symbols of entrepreneurship? Why did my brain jump to associate Apple HQ with its origin story? The two couldn’t be further apart.

For someone like Kurt, there was no element of glamour to the way he started his entrepreneurial journey. It was humble, but it was well-calculated. And it’s a lot more common than we give credit for.

“I knew I could take my skillset and be successful if I wanted to do things on my own. So when the pandemic hit, my employer asked to furlough me; I was like, ‘man, this is the kick I needed.’ I just dug in and did it.”

What’s the lesson? 

If you want to be an entrepreneur, don’t wait around for the cash injection you’re incredibly unlikely to get in this climate. Take what you’ve got and run with it – and no, you don’t need a world-class HQ to get started.

What you really need, as it turns out, is people. 

What can you do about it?

“I don’t know how, but everything worked out. It was the relationships I built throughout the years; I reached out to people I had built for when I was working for other GCs. Everybody was happy to work with me. I’ve had plenty of business.”

The lesson I take from this – and the practical step you can take away – is to focus on building genuine relationships with the people you want to work with. That’s going to be immensely more valuable to you than $100k in the bank. Connections equal jobs, and jobs equal cash flow. 

If you’ve got experience, and you’ve got connections, my advice is to go ahead and take the plunge – the water’s just fine.

3. Study Other Companies

Kurt Sowers, if you haven’t seen our interview, has founded and is currently running SOCO Group. It’s a general contracting firm that offers design and build services specific to commercial upfit and interiors.

But what is so fascinating is that Kurt started all of this during the COVID-19 pandemic – and has reached incredible success, mind you. I asked what his main strategy was for continuing to bring in new business.

“I study other companies. I study people. My mentor was a great guy to study; he was a gunslinger,  always bringing in deals, always making it happen. And if he struck up a deal, he would then find a way to get it done, or he would build it. Studying him gave me inspiration; he didn’t always have the answers, but he always said, ‘It’s not rocket science. We’ll figure it out.'”

What’s the lesson?

Like I said in my intro, if we’re not learning from one another, what are we doing? Kurt touched on such an important point here – always, always be learning from the other people in your industry. Don’t get these ideas about ‘going it on your own’ and figuring things out from scratch. It’s romantic, but seriously… you don’t have to.

And the best part is, when you’re constantly learning from others and advancing in your knowledge, you open yourself up to new opportunities. You might find that there’s a way to do things better than anyone else in your industry. And that could be your big break.

What can you do about it?

So let’s talk mentorship. Right now, there’s going to be someone in your career circle you can connect with. They might be just outside your circle, or they could be right under your nose. It’s your job to reach out and ask for advice. 

Lean toward mentorship moments – a brief cup of coffee, a chat on the phone, a message back-and-forth on LinkedIn. There’s no need to find an ongoing relationship if you’re unable or don’t have time. But I cannot overstate the value of learning from someone else’s successes and failures.

Got an idea for a new branch of your company? Ask for outside opinions. Want to set up a better social media strategy? Connect with someone who’s doing it well. Don’t just lean on your underdog ‘entrepreneur magic’ – get some help from those who know more than you, because in doing so, you’ll become the person others reach out to.

4. Get Up and Go To Work

If you are making the decision to become an entrepreneur, understand that there will be many, many times where getting out of bed feels impossible. Let’s list a few incredibly likely scenarios:

  • Your key investor falls through last minute
  • Your biggest business deal to date crumbles
  • A key team player pulls the plug and leaves your startup in the lurch
  • You’ve been working 18 hour days for months on end and you’re seeing very little return

In these moments (and so many more), I posed a question to Kurt: what’s your strategy for continuing to move forward?

“As an entrepreneur, nothing gets around hard work,” he said. “Even when you don’t have the answers, and don’t know what to do. Just get to work. Because it’s better than sitting there spinning your wheels; just get to work and get something done.”

The simple act of crossing an item off your to-do list gives you a burst of satisfaction and motivation that can be hard to come by as an entrepreneur. Kurt has clung to this strategy unflinchingly, and it’s kept his business moving when the waters are stagnant.

What’s the lesson?

When you encounter something you don’t understand, go back and work on the things you do understand. Above all else, keep your momentum up; don’t allow yourself to hide away.

“I know how to build. So when I don’t have the solution to some of the business stuff, I’m just like, f*ck it, I’m gonna go to work. And I keep pushing along with the project.”

Think of it this way: if you encounter a problem in your business, big or small, you might lose some funding or a key team member. If you then throw in the towel and pull yourself out of the running, you’ve also lost your business.

But if you continue to make consistent progress in spite of big losses, you have something to show for it – and that’s valuable no matter what else happens.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to be a better businessman, but I’m finding success, because I get up and get the job done. I might not make as much money, but at least I’m keeping things moving along and trying to figure it out as I go.”

What can you do about it?

Here’s the thing – your business might flop. It might. But you can drastically improve your chances by setting up a roadmap and a disaster management plan. With something to fall back on, you’ll have the resources to continue doing your work and pushing projects forward. 

If you haven’t done so already, work an emergency fund into your startup budget. You won’t be able to save much, especially if you’re bootstrapping. But when it comes to crunch time, you’ll be glad for whatever cushion you’ve managed to put away.

Another practical step I’d take is to write out your roadmap for when things go wrong. If your key player leaves the team, who have you noted down as a potential replacement? If your big investor pulls out, have you been building connections with other potential sources of funding?

You can never predict everything, but you can always be prepared – and in doing so, you can continue to show up for your company when it matters most.

Wrap-Up

Believe it or not, I’ve only covered a sprinkling of the advice and lessons Kurt shared in our interview. This is what I mean; the first couple of years in entrepreneurship can throw an insane number of lessons your way. 

And that’s a good thing. If you’re paying attention, you’ll quickly learn what works for you and your business – and what doesn’t. These insights will be invaluable as you continue to grow and scale your company.

Interested in hearing more from Kurt? I enjoyed our interview a lot, and I think there’s plenty of value to gain from his insights. If you want to check it out, head over to my channel here

Thanks all for reading, and have a great week!


Success Story Podcast

If you like the content in this newsletter, I host a Top 10 Business podcast, (with over 20m downloads) called “Success Story”, where I interview entrepreneurs, executives and other high performing individuals so you can learn lessons and insights from the world-renowned leaders.

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