Making the Leap
Summer 2014 went by fast. It seems like just yesterday I was quoting Yoda in my first blog post. Since then I’ve written and Tweeted a lot, always with an eye on that first post. Now that my internship is coming to a close, I can look back at one of my favorite experiences — interviewing successful Pittsburgh entrepreneurs for our blog series. These interviews have added a lot to the conversation I started in that first post. What should aspiring entrepreneurs know before launching a business? What kind of preparation is involved? Here is what they had to say:
1. Stick to your principles
Every business idea started with a goal in mind. Many of these goals sought to change or address a pressing issue or problem. The founders of Imagine Careers, for example, saw a need for a service that could recruit young people for tech industry jobs. Innovesca founder Mary Beth Wilson wanted to optimize nutrition in the developing world. Anne Melnyk wanted to uplift people with her art.
These goals not only served as the foundations of the entrepreneurs’ respective businesses, they also stayed with the businesses as they moved from idea to launch to expansion. Imagine Careers, for example, hopes to expand to other states and widen their reach to high school students. Innovesca hopes to utilize resources from numerous areas of Latin America and Africa. Thus at the end of the day, money is important but nurturing your goals and their underlying principles is what contributes to meaningful success.
2. Location matters
The entrepreneurs I interviewed found ways to integrate their ideas with the local community. Tom Pollard of Popular Pittsburgh wanted to develop a central online resource for all things Pittsburgh and Southwestern PA. Imagine Careers founders Mark Heckmann and Eric Harvey saw the need for job placement services in the growing technology industry in Pittsburgh. Likewise, the Working Order Incubator, headed by Marty Stahl, seeks to improve employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities in the Pittsburgh area. These entrepreneurs sought to establish a foothold in the area by addressing the needs of the community and providing those services to Pittsburgh residents.
3. Don’t be afraid to pivot
Many of our entrepreneurs had different professions or variations of their current businesses at one point or another. Marty Stahl worked in marketing and graphic design before becoming director of Working Order…her background helps the organization’s aspiring entrepreneurs develop their business strategies. Mary Beth Wilson’s background in biomedical research gives her an edge when pitching her business to grant foundations and prospective clients. Tom Pollard has operated an ornament company, Tom Pollard Designs, for many years. His skills in design and business certainly contributes to the longevity of Popular Pittsburgh.
4. Team building is critical
Developing the right team was another commonality. When asked about his biggest strength, Pollard said, “What I do really well is find good people to work with me. My staff consists of an artist, an office administrator, an assistant, a bookkeeper, and a business coach. I’m very lucky to work with these people.” Pollard says finding the right team has helped his company grow: after hiring a writer in April to produce more articles, the number of visitors per month jumped from 10,000 that month to 17,500 the next. Likewise, Mary Beth Wilson cites managing people and building as one of the tasks that adds diversity and excitement to her role as an entrepreneur. “I think that’s the exciting part of starting a company too,” she said. Her plans for international expansion include building strong teams for research and development and international development.
5. Keep learning
Our entrepreneurs hope to keep growing personally and professionally. Anne Melnyk said she hopes to keep developing her craft, especially by learning from other artists in the community. “I don’t want to feel that I have mastered something but that I always have a lot to learn,” she said. Freelance work has also benefitted Becca Selah who says, “I don’t think I could learn this much in-house and I’d miss the face to face client interactions.” Tom Pollard says his goal remains the same every month, asking himself how he can improve Popular Pittsburgh.
There are several ways these points have broadened my thoughts in my first blog post. First, it’s obvious that entrepreneurship is a running process of growth. It’s not about simply launching a business and watching the money come in. Often that business has to change at some point. Often business ideas lead to other business ideas. Imagine Careers is the unified product of two separate startups, for example. Popular Pittsburgh has it’s roots in Tom Pollard’s long-time ornament design company. Marty Stahl’s marketing and design background continues to influence her work at Working Order. Pivoting and embracing change often leads to the next stage.
Second, it’s not all about you. You have to give people a reason to pay attention to your business. Innovesca seeks to improve nutrition and entrepreneurship for people in both the developing and developed world. Imagine Careers provides a critical service for young people in a tough job market. Anne Melnyk understands how important art is to young people and gives her time and skills generously to disadvantaged communities. Learn what your target audience needs — and how they can benefit from your services. It’s not only gives you business, it builds a loyal following that will help grow your business in the long run.
Third, it’s okay to learn from and depend on others. Tom Pollard leverages his staff members’ skills to grow Popular Pittsburgh. Mary Beth Wilson’s future plans include building the right teams to launch her business globally. Sometimes to make that leap into business, you need a few hands to help.
Finally, trust yourself. The entrepreneurs we interviewed all relied on their passions and their varied skills to launch and grow their businesses. Your business idea is really an extension of your thoughts — embrace your unique qualities and let that set you apart from the competition. In a tough market, you are truly your own best asset. I consider myself fortunate to have learned so much the past three months and I look forward to taking these lessons with me as I take the next leap in my career.