People often ask me how I became an entrepreneur.
My path has been a bit under the radar. I left college from boredom and traveled the next 5 years intentionally holding a different job everywhere I went — night auditor, proofreader, clown, ad designer, farmer, and a dozen more. With each one I realized how quickly I became bored with repetition (except for at the farms).
In year 5, when I came back home, I became a staff member at a very small ($300K/year) natural foods coop, and quickly was made assistant manager; a year later the manager recommended I take over and I did.
The great thing about running a very small business is that you have to be competent at everything, just like an entrepreneur. Because of the structure of coops, and because of the timeframe (this was 1985-1997, back when the manager was usually just the person who stuck around the longest), I was given a great deal of room for leadership. Because I was able to grow personally and professionally in the business, and was successful at meeting customer needs — the most important skill for any entrepreneur — the little food store grew to 500% of sales in my 8 years of management, and for the first time, I never had a boring day at work.
Those years honed my financial analysis, personnel management, operations skills, planning capacity, and customer service grasp in a way that very few positions could have. With our tiny budgets, I learned about risk management. And of course, there was a great deal of ethics, board management, and microeconomic development in there as well. And my mentors were the managers of bigger coops, who, because of the cooperative principles, were always great at returning phone calls.
When I next moved on to develop some programs at a local community based nonprofit, I learned yet more skills: grant writing (making a pitch), nonprofit financials, being mission-driven. Again, the culture strongly supported info sharing and professional development.
Although my current business is my first true biz of my own, I’ve treated every job I’ve ever had as if I were its entrepreneur, learning everything out of an insane curiosity and enough ego to believe I could be good at it all — more signs of affinity toward entrepreneurship.
Some of us aren’t cut out for work at a big biz, and crave instead the passionate community-based organizations. My experience is that running small operations with someone else’s money prepared me beautifully for entrepreneurship, in every way except how to survive the stress of personal and family financial risk. I feel as ready now for full-on entrepreneurship as any B-school grad. Probably a lot more.
Lisa Johnson, Y’Ambassador, Yummy Yammy