As a start-up founder, you probably would love to sit down with a successful entrepreneur and fire off your most burning questions. Even further, you’d likely jump at the chance to get insider information from an author and contributing writer to esteemed, well-respected business publications. Well, what if one person has all of these accomplishments under his belt? Wouldn't you be so eager to grab coffee with him and hear what he has to say? Lucky for you, there is such a person - and his name is Eric T. Wagner.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Eric and his lovely wife, Susan. We’ve kept in touch and Eric was gracious enough to help me out with my blog post today! If you’re looking for some motivating and attainable advice from a highly accomplished and inspiring individual, you’ve come to the right place. In the Q&A below, Eric answers questions about common start-up challenges, successful exits, how you can be better at pitching journalists and much more. Hope you enjoy!
You’ve been a successful entrepreneur for over 30 years. Do you think the challenges start-ups face have changed over time? What’s the biggest obstacle for today’s entrepreneur?
Absolutely yes, but not in the way you may think. When I started doing this thirty years ago, you had no Internet, no access to information, and most people looked at you with crazy eyes when you told them you were going to start a business. But today? Wow--so easy to start a business in comparison. The ability to learn the core principles of entrepreneurship by simply searching on Google, access to mentors, coaches and an entire ecosystem built specifically to help start-ups succeed, and last but not least--our ability today to 'rent' infrastructure makes it so you can start a company with little to no money.
So the biggest obstacle for today's entrepreneur? I'd say it's the same big obstacle that existed 30 years ago: founder dysfunction. Simply the reality that most entrepreneurs who fail today do so because of something wrong, but fixable, within themselves.
Many founders of start-ups would love to be acquired someday or make some other sort of “successful” exit. Do you have any advice for how to make sure your actions today are consistent with eventually reaching this kind of goal?
Yes--I would say the worst thing an entrepreneur of a start-up can do today would be to focus on some kind of future exit with big dollar signs as the only measure for success. Why? Mainly because the challenges and hardships of starting a business with any hope of it becoming successful depend on a founder's passion, purpose and tenacity. If the only thing sitting on the other side of success is the thought of some kind of successful exit, it's not enough.
Real success comes from pouring your heart and soul into a company whose mission and purpose you care deeply about. When an entrepreneur does this, the natural outcome can be a highly successful company where the founder ends up with multiple options to cash in, if he or she wishes to. But again, the hypothetical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow itself is not a good reason to start a business.
You have a unique position as both an entrepreneur and also a writer for Forbes. Do you have a tip or two for start-ups that are handling their own PR efforts? Any pet peeves as a journalist who gets pitched often or – conversely – anything that helps a business leader stand out in your crowded inbox?
Great question. Yes--crazy as it sounds, not only do most start-up businesses do it wrong when trying to get PR, but many professional PR people do as well. Listen, I'd offer these 3 tips to entrepreneurs looking to handle their own PR. And trust me, you can do it better than I've seen many pros do it.
- Build a list of the top 20 writers/journalists who cover your industry, niche, whatever.
- Focus on building a relationship with them. How? Read their articles. Subscribe to their newsletter. Follow them on social media and share their posts. Make a kind comment on something they've written. Reach out and start a conversation WITHOUT pitching them first. Ask them how you might be able to help them. And, for Pete's sake, never just send a cold press release and expect them to do anything with it. When I get those things myself via email, picture this: my index finger pressing the delete button.
- Stay in touch and become politely persistent. Trust me, if you have something worth writing about and you help the journalist find a great angle they can use, they will come back to you over and over and over as a resource. Your goal is not to get something published one time, it's to build a great relationship where they continue to use you and your business as part of their ongoing storytelling.
Through your program for entrepreneurs, Mighty Wise, you teach about the power of core principles, mentorship and connections. How can a founder start the process of finding a trusted mentor, or a network of likeminded folks, to rely upon?
Glad you mentioned this and before I answer, I want to back up the importance of mentorship with a quote from Richard Branson:
“Whenever I’m asked about the missing link between a promising entrepreneur and a successful one, mentoring is always my answer.”
I can't tell you how many entrepreneurs wait until it's too late to try to find help. This is sad to witness because they didn't have to wreck their company that way. So, our ability to connect and collaborate makes all the difference in the world. And we don't have to rely solely on local resources to fill this need because we can find mastermind groups, other entrepreneurs, and plenty of qualified advisors just a few keystrokes away on the Internet.
You authored the book Walk through Fire, which is an owner’s ally through the ups and downs of business. Is there one piece of wisdom you include in your book that has made the biggest difference for you personally in your own ventures?
Another great question and wow--hard to pick just one. However, having said that, I would go back to your previous question about mentorship and collaboration. In all the years I've been doing this, one thing is clear--entrepreneurship is a team sport. Yes--you can have a small company and of course, many start-ups have a total of one employee--namely the founder. But even in this situation, an entrepreneur must have a network of people they can turn to for help. Believe me, we all have blind spots and if we don't have people around us to give us a different perspective, we're setting ourselves up for failure. So my final piece of wisdom? Get connected with advisors and peer-group entrepreneurs starting today.
Eric T. Wagner considers himself a husband and father first, blessed with a loving wife and beautiful daughters. He has been a successful entrepreneur for 30+ years and is the founder and CEO of Mighty Wise. Eric authored the book Walk through Fire: Rise Up, Face the Inferno and Build your Dream Business, and is currently a contributing writer for Forbes and Entrepreneur. See more here: erictwagner.com.