You can talk your way into an opportunity, just be prepared to back it up.
A long time ago I read that Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour, carried a stack of different business cards in his pocket when he was first starting out. He was the president, vice president, director of operations, R&D, he went into every meeting pretending to be someone else to make Under Armour look like more than what it really was, an idea. Sure, he came up with a revolutionary new fabric to keep athletes cool, but before he was a top brand in athletic performance clothing, he was essentially hustling.
When I started my law firm right out of law school, I did the same. I was a divorce attorney on Monday, a criminal attorney on Tuesday, an injury attorney Wednesday, a paralegal Thursday, and a legal assistant Friday. Sometimes in order to get people to believe in you, you have to wear different hats at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey. That’s part of what I like to call, the bullshit quotient.
For instance, I made the decision to start my law firm after I read a book on how to do so. Of course, I realized half way through, the book was for someone with 5–8 years experience in the field. But by then I was hooked on the idea, so I did it anyway. Sometimes you have to BS your way into an opportunity.
It’s not all BS
But there’s a difference between a little fast talking and actual BS. You can talk your way in the door, but you still have to believe what you’re doing to the extent that it becomes real, and you have to back it up. When you’re just starting out in a business, there’s a lot of on-the-fly learning, figuring out what you need to be an expert in on that particular day, or even at a particular moment.
It’s exhaustive evenings, staying at the office late, there are no regular working hours. I remember getting into my law office at 6 am, and I would leave at 11 or 12 o’clock every night for the first 12 to 18 months as I built the business. But the BS quickly faded.
I surrounded myself with people who knew more than I did, and in hindsight, I had great timing. When I went to law school at Illinois Institute of Technology, they were moving away from traditional books for research. I never had to go to a library. I had LexisNexis and Westlaw, which still exists, and I became a master at researching.
While in law school I also worked for the largest plaintiff’s firm in the city at that time writing appeal briefs every day. It taught me a lot about how trials go in the lower courts, how juries make decisions, and how the higher courts interpret those rulings. By the time I started my firm, the only thing I didn’t have to BS my way through was injury law.
That wasn’t helpful because you could get 25 injury cases in a day, and starve to death. Those are contingency fee agreement cases you have to fund and litigate, and it can take years to get paid. Fortunately, I recognized that early.
I marketed myself as an injury attorney, got a ton of cases, but I fed myself learning areas of law where you could get cash upfront and hourly fees. The injury cases I accumulated in the first six months in my practice started to turn over two or three years later. Then I started pushing the other cases to different attorneys — which also proved lucrative because I established referral agreements — and had them start sending me injury cases.
BS can’t cover a bad team — or no team
My law firm taught me a lot. But the greatest mistake I’ve made as an entrepreneur is trying to do everything myself. You can’t always go at it alone. There’s no way to BS your way out of an inability to deliver because you simply don’t have enough hours or hands to do what you promised.
The right partners can be critical to avoid that type of scenario. Ideally, you want people who are loyal to the cause, people you know and are comfortable with, who have the same drive, motivation and ‘no quit’ in them. Also, you have to be honest with yourself about the resources that you need in order to be successful, and scale accordingly.
Let’s say you want to start a bakery. As a baker just starting out you’re probably not in a position to hire a sales manager to reach out to various entities and secure contracts to engage your services. You have to be the sales representative. You might have to play that role while running to the back to make sure you get a certain pan out of the oven on time.
That is the bullshit factor. You have to be a jack of all trades in the startup phases of any entrepreneurial endeavor. You do that until you can afford to surround yourself with participants who actually have knowledge in particular segments of your business. I might be a highly qualified pastry chef, but who meets the customers? Who handles the bookkeeping? Who does the food orders and makes sure that I get good deals, so food costs don’t put me out of business?
Last I checked, restaurants had the highest failure rate of any kind of business endeavor. That’s because most of the time you start a restaurant or a bakery because you can cook — not because you know how to run it.
I once had a person who had an incredible recipe for pizza. I felt it was original, that there was a dearth of pizza places in the area, and this place could fill a gap. I equipped the place with the best pizza oven on the market, a $50,000 oven. Carpenters built out an incredible space for in-restaurant dining. We had several other things on the menu that were also superior items.
But the customer service was unengaging, and the people I brought in to manage the front and back of the restaurant were unreliable. I didn’t have time to oversee all that, and with that kind of an endeavor you typically only have one opportunity. So, it flopped.
Risk and failure are real — that’s no BS
Now, the second time I jumped into the restaurant arena I did it from a completely different perspective. I was the full financial support and backing in the initial stages, but I already had two very important partners. They were highly skilled in managing restaurants and having already made a name for themselves, they had a book of followers. So, that time, we won.
But things happen. Entrepreneurs can’t be afraid to risk, to fail. You have to be nimble, prepared to change with the market. If you’re the type of person who creates a plan and says, “this is how it’s gonna work.” Then six weeks or six months into it, you get thrown a curveball, what is your ability to pivot and course correct? It’s the difference between focusing only on the problem to the detriment of the solution. Successful entrepreneurs know this, and surround themselves with problem solvers.
Some things you can’t bullshit you’re way out of. A lot of new — and experienced — entrepreneurs fail. But trying to build a business once doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. Trying it multiple times, failing, and continuing to forge ahead is essential to successful entrepreneurship.