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  • Writer's pictureChristine King

5 Things You Need to Know When Starting a Business

What you might not know about my career journey is that in 1980, I took a significant detour to start my own business. After years on IBM's fast-track development plan, I found myself disenchanted. The opportunities no longer excited me. Workplace competition was straining my marriage, and my daughter Megan was nearing her formative years, so I wanted to spend more time with her. 


So, in a move that was quintessential Chris King, I left IBM to venture into the unknown world of entrepreneurship. Thinking back now, I've thought about what I would have told my younger self when I was starting my own business so I'd better understand what was to come. Starting a business isn't for the faint of heart, but it can be extremely rewarding in the long run. Here are five things you need to know when starting a business.


five things you need to know when starting a business

5 things you need to know when starting a business


While you can read about this transformative time for me in my upcoming book, Breaking Through the Silicon Ceiling, I thought I'd go ahead and share five things you need to know when starting a business: 


1. Find where your experience and the white space intersect


It's crucial for your business to have an open runway and for you to have the necessary expertise to drive the plane. Look for the white spaces–the unmet needs–in your industry where you can introduce something new and valuable. This approach will help set your business apart and allow you to utilize your strengths in areas with less competition.


My significant white space opportunity was leveraging microprocessors to control and automate machines beyond just semiconductor manufacturing. With my background and a trusty EC1000 in hand, I aimed to innovate in business signage. Focusing on designing and manufacturing business signage, I aimed to create one of the early Computer-Aided Design (CAD) systems. Ultimately, we were unable to follow through on our initial vision due to a lack of finances, however, we pivoted in a direction that was better for the business. Every setback is a learning opportunity!  



2. Look for resources wherever you can find them


Starting a business requires more than a great idea; you'll need capital. I drafted a business plan and presented it to the local Small Business Association, securing a $20,000 loan. Knowing this amount wouldn't cover our needs to break even, we took out a second mortgage on our home for an additional $25,000. Space was another resource we needed. Our basement no longer sufficed, so we found and rented a space above a liquor store in Jericho, Vermont, where we were based. This location, complete with a neighboring hairdresser, became the new home for our team of five.


Finding resources isn't just about money—it's also about the physical and human resources you need to grow your business. If you need cash flow to start, explore different funding opportunities, such as loans from small business associations, local grants, or investments from individuals. Be open and creative in your approach and think outside the box to gather the resources necessary to support your business venture. Equally important is evaluating the feasibility of your business model. Is there a realistic path to profitability? While returns are never guaranteed, you can reduce risks by carefully analyzing the potential return on your investments. 



3. Be prepared to wear a lot of hats


In the early stages of a business, being the founder often means being a jack-of-all-trades. After founding my company, my initial responsibilities varied from serving as president and assembling a solid team to securing our first office space. Handling multiple roles extended to the financial side as well. I took pleasure in monitoring our sales achievements, but the responsibility of bidding on new jobs brought its stress. Bidding too high risked losing potential business and laying off staff, while a low bid could mean not being able to pay those staff adequately for their hard work.


Starting and running a business means acting as an HR manager, administrator, sales manager, finance director, and CEO. Embrace these roles enthusiastically and be willing to tackle the myriad tasks you'll face. This adaptability is crucial for navigating a new business's early and often unpredictable days.



4. Bring in people who have the right attitude and are the right fit


When building your team,  select individuals for their skills, fit with the company culture, and readiness for the challenges ahead. Initially, I sought out bright, challenge-ready individuals who didn't have families to support due to the high-risk nature of the startup. We often joked that everyone at Expedition Electronics needed another breadwinner in the family due to our uncertain payment schedules. As you'll read in the book, we discovered that we wouldn't receive payment until a project was completely finished, which often created financial strain. Once a project wrapped, the wait for the payment check was agonizing, involving many anxious trips to the mailbox.


To help grow the business, I hired a freshly graduated MBA student to add a marketing professional to our team. While the rest of the team focused on completing one of our first major client projects, Debbie developed our sales brochure, began cold-calling potential customers, and traveled extensively to meet them. Her ability to dive into the challenges, despite the delayed payment structure, underscored the importance of team members who were skilled, financially flexible, and patient. Her ambitious attitude was the perfect fit for our startup and helped us tremendously in those early days. 



5. Don't be afraid to pivot


Pivoting in business isn't a sign of failure but a strategic move essential for survival and success. Initially, we had a solid idea for a graphics system targeted at the signage industry. As we delved into the market realities and timelines through detailed spreadsheet analysis, it became clear that reaching the market would take too long.


Confronted with this reality, we recognized the need to expand our focus. Previous work made us realize the demand for microprocessor-driven systems, suggesting other companies might need similar solutions. We decided to pivot our business model to operate as an electronics design-for-hire company. This pivot allowed us to refine our offerings and better align with market needs, creating a new path forward. It's important to understand that pivoting lets you adjust your business strategy to meet market demands and opportunities, often crucial for long-term success.



Conclusion


The first four years after leaving IBM to start Expedition Electronics were arduous but transformative. This period taught me to build a business from scratch, manage razor-thin margins, and handle the pressures of being the ultimate decision-maker. Above all, I learned the critical importance of delivering projects on time to ensure payment, leaving no room for complacency. 


For the first time in my career, the buck stopped with me. This all-encompassing experience of running the business gave me the courage I needed when returning to IBM, not to mention a leg-up against the other executives. After all, none of them had experienced the pressure of waiting at the mailbox simply so they could pay their teams! 


My decision to start my own company instead of staying on the path at IBM was risky, but it was motivated by my North Star, which was to run my own business. This decision has deeply influenced my career, showing me the journey itself, with all its ups and downs, is just as important as the end goal. Every experience has taught me that staying true to your main goals while being open to new opportunities can lead to outcomes more extraordinary than you could ever imagine. 


You can preorder individual copies of Breaking Through the Silicon Ceiling on Amazon. If you'd like to bulk order for your group, team, or organization, click here.


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