Business Lessons From the World's Top Entrepreneurs
Want to start your own business? Heed this advice from the pros.
You can learn business lessons in many different ways.
You can go to college for four years and earn a business degree. I did that.
You can get a job working with a talented small business owner whom you have a deep respect for. I've done that too.
You can start a business and learn from your own personal experience. Riskier, but likely less expensive than most four-year colleges in the U.S. and I've done this many times too.
And to be honest, the most meaningful business tips I now give to other entrepreneurs, have come from learning these lessons for myself the hard way with a few epic failures.
Here’s the first piece of advice I want to share: You don’t need to make the same mistakes I did.
But don’t take it from me. I reached out to dozens of the world's most successful entrepreneurs from Richard Branson to Arianna Huffington, Mark Cuban, Tim Ferriss and more. Let's learn the ropes from a few entrepreneurs who seem to become successful with everything they touch.
Here are 10 key business lessons that will help you start a business and grow it the right way.
1. Success Happens Where Your Skills Meet Your Interests
The business lesson: Don't chase meaningless money-making opportunities. That path will lead to eventual failure if you're not truly engaged in what you're doing. This was a dramatic business lesson I learned early on in my entrepreneurial career with the failure of my first business.
You must build a business only around the things that you love, you're good at, or are determined to learn to the point of mastery.
Sir Richard Branson, billionaire serial entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group feels very strongly about pursuing business opportunities based on your own personal frustrations.
He shares, “The best businesses come from people’s bad personal experiences. If you just keep your eyes open, you’re going to find something that frustrates you, and then you think, ‘well I could maybe do it better than it’s being done,’ and there you have a business.”
Media icon and entrepreneur Arianna Huffington shares, "If you're going to start a business, you need to really love it, because not everybody is going to love it. When The Huffington Post was first launched in 2005, there were so many detractors. I remember a critic who wrote that The Huffington Post was an unsurvivable failure. But when you really believe in your product, you are willing to deal with all the naysayers and persevere."
Asked to give advice to young entrepreneurs looking to start a business, billionaire investor Mark Cuban of ABC's Shark Tank replied, "What I always ask people is, (1) is it something you love to do and (2) is this something you're good at?"
Without that innate level of interest and a drive to learn the skills that'll help you become the best within your field, you'll have a very difficult time becoming successful.
2. Mindset and Attitude Matter More Than Business Knowledge
The business lesson: Success in business depends more on your psychology and determination than it does on having a working knowledge of your industry.
You can always build your industry knowledge, but developing the mindset and psychology that's necessary for success is a much more arduous task.
Sophia Amoruso, bestselling author and founder of the multi-million dollar clothing line Nasty Gal says, “Don't give up, don't take anything personally, and don't take no for an answer; you never know what you're going to learn along the way. The people who told me no, were the people that eventually told me yes; so don't forget it." Developing a thick skin and dedicating yourself to achieving your goals despite all obstacles is a daily pursuit.
Businessman, speaker, and philanthropist Tony Robbins shares, "The most painful mistake I see in first-time entrepreneurs is thinking that just having a business plan or a great concept is enough to guarantee success.
It’s not. Business success is 80% psychology and 20% mechanics. And, frankly, most people’s psychology is not meant for building a business."
3. Business Ideas Alone Won’t Get You Very Far
The business lesson: To drive business success, you need to actually solve problems that matter to your audience. How you turn your business idea into a real world solution matters a lot.
Author and top-notch brand evangelist Guy Kawasaki has this to say: “My best business tip is to focus on the prototype. Don't focus on your pitch deck, business plan or financial projections … If you get a prototype out and you get enough people using it, you never have to write a business plan, do a forecast or do anything like that. A prototype is where you separate the BS from the reality.”
Serial entrepreneur and Loka CEO Bobby Mukherjee also believes ideas are worthless and that you shouldn’t be afraid someone will steal your business concept. Here’s why: "It's the execution beyond the idea that really brings home the gold. So focus on getting out there and meeting as many folks as possible to join your team, give you feedback and point you in the right direction. Any successful entrepreneurial journey is the sum total of a rather large (and under-appreciated) team that came together in a magical way. Get cracking on building yours."
4. Start Today
The business lesson: You can either execute on your business idea or make an endless stream of excuses: you lack funding, you don’t have the experience, you can’t run the startup on your own, what if you’re really not cut out to be an entrepreneur and so on. You won’t learn anything or accomplish much by just sitting around waiting for something to happen.
Musician, entrepreneur, and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers believes you shouldn’t wait for funding to get started on a business idea. He says, "For an idea to get big, it has to be something useful—and being useful doesn't need funding. If you want to be useful, you can always start right now with just 1% of what you have in your grand vision. It'll be a humble prototype of your grand vision, but you'll be in the game. You'll be ahead of the rest because you actually started when others waited for the finish line to magically appear at the starting line."
Serial entrepreneur Sol Orwell of Examine.com believes inaction is the worst mistake anyone planning to launch a product or service can make. He said, “Don’t overthink the things that don’t matter. Just do it. Do a minimum version, talk to some friends, and see if they would be interested in it. If so, make a quick version, and go from there."
5. Launch Fast and Adapt
The business lesson: Don’t wait until you feel you're 100 percent ready. That'll be too late. Many successful entrepreneurs advise that the desire for perfection bogs down business success. If you wait until your product or service feels perfect, someone else would have already launched a viable solution to your customers’ problems.
When asked about what keeps would-be entrepreneurs from achieving success, Tara Gentile, an author, speaker and business strategist replied, "They wait to get started. They wait until they have more information, more experience, more money, and a more perfect version of whatever they have created. All that waiting means they're not really learning. When you're an entrepreneur, the best way to learn is to do something, to put your idea into someone's hands, or to talk to the people you want to serve. Stop waiting and do something."
Meanwhile, bestselling author and top-ranked podcast host Lewis Howes has this to say about perfectionism: "Perfectionism cripples a lot of entrepreneurs. They won't launch their site or put their product for sale until they think it's perfect, which is a big waste of time. It's never going to be perfect."
Teachable founder and CEO Ankur Nagpal once said it pains him to see people striving for perfection over getting things done. Here’s his advice: "Go out and break shit. It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission when you start a business. The only way your project, your business idea or whatever is in your mind is going to become better, is by having people use it in the real-world. Listen to them and iterate until you have a solid product."
6. Manage Your Time Like a Precious Resource
The business lesson: Time is an entrepreneur’s most valuable resource by far. If you spend it doing things that have little impact on your business, the cost in lost opportunities will pile up. How you manage your time strongly influences whether or not (and how soon) you'll achieve success in business. Whenever possible, outsource non-core tasks, so that you can focus on doing what only you can do best within your business.
Bestselling author and brand storyteller Jon Acuff recommends doing things thoughtfully, which he calls hustling. "What I've learned, and what you're going to learn too, is that being an entrepreneur takes hustle. And here's the problem: Sometimes we think hustle is about becoming a workaholic or adding a lot of stuff to our lives. Hustle is an act of focus, not frenzy. Hustle is about subtraction and addition. It’s not about doing more, it’s about focusing on the things that you need to do, in order to move your business forward.”
Meanwhile, Graeme Austen, a career coach serving millennials, suggests taking small logical steps that eventually take you to success. These steps include 1) setting an overarching goal that is specific and tangible 2) setting and meeting daily targets that lead to the overarching goal and 3) creating a schedule that allows you to meet targets consistently.
7. Set Small Incremental Goals
The business lesson: Focus your energy and resources on achieving reasonable goals over the short-term instead of chasing a grand vision of what your company should be in the distant future. Learn how to set time-bound goals and milestones to move closer to your business goals every day.
Coach.me founder and CEO Tony Stubblebine believes planning too far ahead is a common mistake among new entrepreneurs. He explains, “They’re trying to make the five-year version of the company happen tomorrow. What they need to realize is that if you have no customers, the next milestone is one customer. A very powerful tactic to overcome this is to help young entrepreneurs focus on building on momentum. That means focusing on the next step and trusting that those first few steps will build to the speed and impact you want."
Accomplished virtual summit producer and entrepreneur Navid Moazzez laments how new entrepreneurs usually attempt to do so many things at once. He gives this advice: “Focus on just one project and strategy at a time, [and] you're more likely to succeed. Choose the one thing that will move the needle for you and your business. When you try to be the best podcaster, blogger, author, business coach and event producer all at the same time, you end up being mediocre at all of them."
8. Keep Business Costs at a Minimum
The business lesson: Avoid spending money as much as you can by 1) adopting lean solutions, and 2) releasing money only for absolute essentials and at the moment you need them.
Inc contributing editor, bestselling author, and LinkedIn Influencer Jeff Haden advises new entrepreneurs to find solutions that cost little to no money and to always spend less than they earn. He says, “Never forget that your business needs to take in more money than it spends. I know that sounds too simple, but so many people lose sight of that."
The Storyteller Marketer’s Jason Quey gives a related observation: "The most painful mistake I see first-time entrepreneurs make is that they don't count the cost or figure out how they'll actually make money ahead of time."
9. Network and Build Meaningful Relationships
The business lesson: Never cease to build meaningful relationships with customers, thought leaders, competitors, and other people in your industry.
Acclaimed financial blogger Michelle Schroeder says this about positive relationships: "The most painful mistake I see first-time (or inexperienced) entrepreneurs make is that they see others in their industry or niche as competition. This can significantly hold you back, as you may never learn industry secrets and tips, make genuine friends and more. Instead, I think you should see others in your industry or niche as colleagues and friends. You should network with others, attend conferences, reach out to people, and more."
Silas Moser is the co-founder of the lifestyle blog Chasing Foxes with his wife, Grace. He shares, "Shutting people down because of their position within the company doesn't express value to them. My suggestion to young entrepreneurs is to treat people well and stay humble, you never know where you could learn something."
Life, productivity, and success coach Chris Winfield believes that first-time entrepreneurs lose big time when they fail to ask for the right help from the right people. Another epic blunder is when they fail to nurture relationships when they do ask for help. He explains, "Pretty much anything you are going to go through, someone else has already gone through. Pretty much any feeling you are going to have, someone else has already had. Any obstacle, any roadblock, ANYTHING! Someone has come up against them and figured out a way to get around them. Tap into that. Whether it's reading a book, reaching out or shadowing someone, get help and then do it better."
A full-stack marketer and contributor to notable publications like Business Insider and Entrepreneur, Lauren Holliday recommends spending time with people who are different than you. She explains, “This will open up your mind to different people and different problems, allowing you to connect the dots faster and make a real contribution to the world, as opposed to just being the next Mark Zuck."
10. Become an Expert at the Tools of Your Trade
The business lesson: Discover and utilize the right tools, frameworks, and services that can make you more effective, efficient and profitable.
William Harris is the founder of Elumynt, and he is a huge fan of employing processes and tools that help you organize tasks and strategize better within your business. He says, "I advise entrepreneurs who struggle with this problem to first get their tasks organized and written down. I like Asana for this. The tasks that they find themselves adding repeatedly are tasks that they should think about delegating. At the end of the month, you need to send out invoices, add numbers to your analytics spreadsheet, etc. Find someone else to do that. The hours you save by outsourcing these types of tasks will help you focus on the things that only you can do—like plan the strategy and direction of the business."
Bizzy co-founder and COO Chiara McPhee observed that first-time business owners often struggle in gathering and processing feedback. She offers a solution: "I've found it incredibly helpful to have a framework in place to systematically collect, prioritize, and implement product features based on customer feedback—both from customers you have, and the customers you want!"
The expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” dates back in the 12th century but is more popularly attributed to Isaac Newton, who credited his groundbreaking scientific work to the efforts of scientists before him.
Apparently, what’s true in science works just as well in business, with Tony Robbins also adopting the expression when acknowledging the contribution of other business thinkers to his entrepreneurial success.
There’s nothing wrong with learning business lessons from others, especially when they’re at the top of their fields. Take these business lessons to heart, and you’ll make far less costly mistakes in the long run, but remember that nothing will be more impactful than experiencing entrepreneurship for yourself.