Before Becoming An Entrepreneur, Work For One

The unobstructed views of how we approach running a small company surely outweighs what they might’ve otherwise seen making Excel files at LPL Financial.

Every summer, my business partner and I pull interns from a local university. The students get a two solid months of experience in the “real world”. In return, we have the opportunity to utilize some cheap, attentive labor, and potentially find our next hire.

Nothing amazing or surprising about it. These days, internships are required by most business schools. Some 1.5 million college students will complete an internship this year alone.

What is unique about our company, and our value proposition to interns, is that we are a small company ran by born entrepreneurs.


Discover What It ‘Really’ Takes

Traditional internships are with big law firms, accounting firms, and corporations. They are often filled by students who follow the common path, who want a career by the book. We (generally) attract students with a different mindset.

They want to own their own business some day. And like anything, if you want to learn how to do something the right way, it’s best to learn from those who have done it before.

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, work for one first.” It’s the easiest, direct-to-the-point method to see first hand the highs and lows experienced by someone running their own business. I think some would argue that it’s more important to gain expert-level knowledge in a field or industry before striking out on your own. You may accomplish that in different ways – academic study, working for a larger company, self-teaching, or working for another entrepreneur.

My contention has always been that if you want to break out on your own, it’s best to get your experience under the wing of someone who also has done that. The academic world and the big corporate world do little to illuminate what it takes to be responsible for an entire business.


Direct Access, In the Trenches

You need direct, one-on-one access to a man or woman who is in the trenches, or has been through them en route to building their business.

It’s that level of access that we provide via our internships. I sit in the same room as our interns. We talked frequently. They can observe my behavior on a minute-by-minute basis. Listen to my phone calls. See how I handle the myriad of situations that come up when you own a small business.


Photo: © astrosystem
Photo: © astrosystem

“Even though I’ve gained plenty of entrepreneurial experience through being an Amazon Merchant the past 6 years, I still choose to work with and learn from two first rate entrepreneurs; Danny DeMichele at Elevated and John Carder at Mogl. It was working at their companies where I learned the lessons that ultimately helped me grow my current business to where it is today,” says Ryan Mulvany, Partner at Quiverr.

I wish I had that when I was younger.

My path as a journalist was more classical. The early years of my career spent penning articles for behemoths like the Los Angeles Times, and later as a freelancer covering the music industry.

Sure, I was somewhat independent and had control over my situation. But I didn’t have to worry about retaining dozens of clients, managing employees, or keeping the books. Those are all things that we must deal with now – and luckily, my partner spent many years working inside small companies as a founder or high-level manager.


A Glimpse of Reality

Working directly for an entrepreneur, or as this argument obviously delineates, a “small” business owner instead of a corporate beast, provides a glimpse of reality.

Before founding a business, you’re always giddy about the prospect of being in charge of your own schedule, and making all the untold riches that will flow to your genius idea. Rarely do you think about HR issues. Your first client conflict. The first time you get sued. Those things will all happen, and they will all have to be dealt with by you directly. There is likely no legal department at your young company to be.

The corporate world fails to paint the right picture of what it’s like to run your own business. A friend of mine works at a big ad agency. One of the big 4 (or however many there are these days.) He’s talked about going off on his own with me many times.

But I can tell he has the wrong idea about what it takes to run a business. For the past 10 years, he’s enjoyed a steady paycheck, a sleek office, a design staff, an HR department, a 401k, and clients that simply show up on their doorstep because of their reputation.

Sure, he has the technical skill set to design and execute ad campaigns for any client. He has some sales ability. Rather than start his own agency, I tend to suggest he should first join a smaller shop where he can be a key member and work directly with the owner.

He may learn that being “the guy” at his own agency is not the best idea. And it sure is easier to keep that job, or simply avoid the situation of being stuck with a business you own that you no longer want.


I suppose it’s an incomplete argument and there are plenty of reasons that finding an opportunity to work directly for an entrepreneur are hard to find. I just know the value it can bring, and am proud of the experience our interns receive.

Some have gone on to start their own businesses in the years since their summer with us. The unobstructed views of how we approach running a small company surely outweighs what they might’ve otherwise seen making Excel files at LPL Financial.


This article has been edited and condensed.

Paul Saitowitz spent 15 years a journalist before founding a research company in the finance industry. He has contributed to the LA Times, OC Register, OC Business Journal, and more. Connect with @saitowitzpaul on Twitter.


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