There are many reasons for starting a new business. Building wealth, becoming famous, working your own hours, working in your own home, and “changing the world” are all good reasons for starting your own business.
Mine were somewhat different.
I spent eleven years working for large corporations, such as IBM, Singer, and Sara Lee. During that time, I learned a lot but felt like I wasn’t getting an opportunity to use what I had learned. I wanted to make a difference. Everywhere I turned, I saw too many people doing too little meaningful work.
In my eleven-year corporate career, I held many management positions, including Production and Inventory Control manager and Materials manager. My first job was at IBM as an industrial engineer and later a cost estimator.
Anyone who has ever worked for a large organization knows what I’m talking about. There was something about working in this environment that bored and frustrated me.
I don’t think I realized it early in my career, but I really needed to do my own thing. I began thinking about starting some kind of a business about five years before I actually made the break.
Don’t get me wrong—there were many things I learned along the way that ultimately helped me become a successful entrepreneur. I learned the right way and the wrong way to do things. I certainly received a solid foundation in management, managing both people and money.
For example, at IBM I learned how to treat employees with respect. I also saw a company that had become bloated, a victim of its own success. I used to tell my coworkers and manager that IBM had twice as many employees as it needed. There were 400,000 employees worldwide. Lou Gerstner, IBM’s CEO from 1993 to 2002, eventually fixed that problem by cutting the workforce by 40 percent and repositioning the company to sell more services and rely less on hardware revenue.
At Singer, I learned how to introduce and manage change in an old-line organization that was highly resistant to change. I also learned how to manage and motivate people of various backgrounds, points of views, and capabilities. At age twenty-nine, I had 120 people reporting to me. My area of responsibility included both union and nonunion workers. It was a great learning experience.
At Sara Lee, I saw how one person could make a difference by taking some risks. This led me to totally automate the manpower-planning process and reduce monthly planning time by 90 percent.
Work for one or more companies before starting your own business. You’ll learn the right way and the wrong way to do things. These insights will help you build a solid foundation for starting your own business.
Ultimately, my experience in these larger companies inspired me to start my own software company, PurchasingNet, Inc. During my corporate career, I had come to learn firsthand how a purchasing department (sometimes procurement department) functions within a large company. This experience helped me develop personal-computer applications to automate the procurement process in midsized to large companies. (More on this in a future blog.)
I acknowledge that when the economy is soft and few jobs are available for recent graduates, there is a temptation to start your own company rather than find a job. Unfortunately, starting a business with no previous business experience is a prescription for disaster for most people. If you do go down this path, make sure you build a business around things you have personally experienced, such as college life, online experiences, or games.
One of the most important things you can do in building your own company is to learn all you can about your potential customers before starting your business. You have to know what makes them tick, what problems they need to solve, and how they go about making decisions.
In our case, I had experienced the challenges of being a procurement manager in a midsized to large company. Procurement managers spent lots of time on routine administrative tasks, lacked timely and accurate information, and were under incredible pressures to get things delivered on time (or early)—all without the lead time or tools to do the job. They were always stressed!
These insights were critical in the formation of our company. After considering a number of other products and services (such as software for hazardous-waste management), we decided to develop a software package we later named P.O. Writer. The original vision was to help purchasing departments automate the preparation of Purchase Orders (POs) and generate meaningful management summary reports.