CEO Confessions: 10 Business Lessons I Had to Learn Before I Could Succeed

Here's a look at ten business lessons, I've personally learned, that will serve you well in life and business.

Photo: Erica Nicole, Founder and CEO of YFS Magazine; Source: Jhnea Turner, Photographer

First confession: I love entrepreneurship.

Starting a business is nothing short of amazing. From ideation to creation, launching a startup is hard work, yet it is rewarding and exhilarating all at the same time.

While clever headlines will lead you to believe the entrepreneurship party is always in full swing and overnight success is par for the course, the reality is quite the opposite. Inevitably there are business lessons that every entrepreneur must learn before he or she can truly succeed.

Here’s a look at ten business lessons, I’ve personally learned, that will serve you well in life and business:


  1. A handshake is not a promise

    “But he said he’d have the supplies here on Friday!” “Don’t you remember, you told me that our rates would not increase this month?” These conversations happen all too often in business. In the world of a startup, it’s not an exception … it is the rule. Well meaning conversations are the very essence of business. But ultimately a handshake isn’t worth the paper it is written on. This is especially true for early-stage startups: never be aloof to the idea that because you are new to business some may presume your “feeble little mind” is unaware and easily conned. Prove them wrong. Before you walk away from the glossy table with dollar signs flashing in your eyes — get “it” in writing.

  2. People will overpromise and underdeliver

    For the most part, people you engage in business will have good intentions. In fact, their reputations depend on it. However, it’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to promise the world and underdeliver. It is not unheard of … as your business grows and you learn the necessity of scaling, that you too will overpromise and risk underdelivering. For this reason, it is always a good idea to leave room for human error. However, if this becomes the status quo, and you find yourself consistently lowering expectations, take your business elsewhere.

  3. Have more than you show, speak less than you now

    William Shakespeare said it best — “Have more than you show, speak less than you know.” We live in a digital age of over-sharing. What we ate for lunch, what we wore to that awesome conference, and how we think is all delivered on a silver social media platter for the world to know, hear and see. But, it would behoove you to understand that you are still in business, with a public to serve and brand value to protect. In a recent meeting with my business attorney, he said something that rang true. A reminder that every entrepreneur should take to heart: “Everyone doesn’t need to know, everything you know.” There is a stark difference between transparency and blissful ignorance.

  4. Read the fine print.

    The fine print is “so fine” for a reason. It is so small that you may think it is neglible. But while it is small it can pack a heavy punch. For example, you’re likely familiar with those glossy prescription drug ads that often print over several pages. One page of the ad is devoted to the reasons why you need the “super” drug, while the fine print reveals the horrors that may result should you ingest it. Business contracts are quite similar. So, do yourself a favor: Don’t wait until something goes wrong to discover you are powerless. Many businesses operate “with a set of rules that rig the game in their favor.”

  5. Customers want solutions, not excuses

    When customers give you their money in exchange for your product or service they pay for a promise. This promise sounds something like this: My widget does what it says it (i.e., our marketing campaign) will do. If it doesn’t — offer solutions instead of excuses. Customers don’t care that your dog is sick, a client is not concerned with your broken leg. It is a harsh reality; one side of a double-sided coin. So, before you start explaining why their shipment was 30 days late, just listen, empathize, apologize, and tell them precisely how you’ll make it right.

  1. Feelings are not a strategic plan

    It’s not unusual to let feelings rule the day — especially when they are out of control. But ultimately, when all else fails, head back to the drawing board and leave your feelings at the door. Don’t misunderstand. Feelings are important, but they should not act as a compass for your business … especially when you’re overwhelmed with a bout of negative ones. Remember, feelings come and go. What ailed you yesterday, you may feel differently about tomorrow. Stay focused on your vision, the road ahead and seek to glean lessons from the past but don’t dwell there.

  2. Business is unfair, but you don’t have to be

    Many entrepreneurs struggle with doing business in a highly competitive environment. Trust me: it’s not easy to see a copycat of your product sitting on shelves, or to see an odd resemblance to your last print ad with your competitors logo draped across the page. But it is business. It happens. However, unfair the landscape may be, you don’t have to be. Instead develop a remarkable company culture and stay in your lane. It simply means that the marketplace sees, and envies, what you have built. And as they say, “Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” (Fulton)

  3. Mental drift is a silent business killer, get focused

    In entrepreneurship, distractions abound. And most of them are “good” ones. You know the type: national press hits, revenue spikes, new opportunities, the urge to sit back and “relax”. Often distractions are drenched in honey, but when your eye is on the prize — stay the course. Business is a lot like running. Any professional marathon runner will tell you: “A great marathon requires consistent training with minimal to no injuries. It requires you to be able to merge long run training with quality intervals. And it demands that you are able to recover quickly especially during the final build to your race. Each of these elements might seem unique, but they all have one thing in common: great running form.” The same lesson applies to business. What’s your business “form”?

  4. Time is money; don’t let anyone waste yours

    Your time is an investment. In fact, if you knew how precious it was … you wouldn’t waste it. Average life expectancy, according to the CDC, is 78.7 years; this equates to 28,744.6 days … 944.4 months. The reality is, “Your time is limited.” If you’ve found what you love (and it is entrepreneurship) then spend your time wisely. Invest your time in what truly matters and build a business you (and generations to come) will be proud of.

  5. May the odds be ever in your favor.

    I sometimes hear entrepreneurs chock up success to luck. But when you take a closer look, you’ll find that “luck” is where preparation meets opportunity. Entrepreneurship is not a “luck of the draw” game. Sure you are talented. But ask any high performance athlete and they’ll attest to the fact that raw talent only takes you so far. You have to put in the work. Transform raw talent into skill and ability. When you’re prepared you don’t need luck. When you’re informed, you don’t need luck. And when you’ve built a world-class brand, you don’t need luck. While unforeseen opportunities will come your way, as this is life, you won’t be “lucky” at all if you don’t show up.

What have you learned along the way? What key lessons has entrepreneurship taught you? Let me know in the comments section below.


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