How to succeed in business by really trying

Man with arms outstretched looking jubilant

When I tell people that I'm self-employed, they often look jealous.

Sometimes they make comments of the "must be nice" variety. Many of them seem to envision me in my yoga togs, answering to no one, free to do whatever I want with my time.

Sometimes they tell me about their business ideas, the ones they hope will get them out from under the thumb of a micromanaging boss.

A handful of these people have a great idea for a product. But if they ever get it past the idea stage, they almost certainly will fail.

This is why a global training program called the Founder Institute could be the best thing that ever happened to folks with great ideas.

The Founder Institute got its start in 2009 and has since helped create at least 500 companies and attract students in 14 countries, a recent New York Times profile noted.

For tuition of less than $1,000, future entrepreneurs learn to create a fully functional company.

Subjects include fund-raising, revenue, publicity, presentation, marketing, sales, costs and profits, with adjustments to fit local markets.

The curriculum is geared to the technology industry, but those topics are important for any business, in any field.

The work and pace are grueling.

About 60% of the institute's students never graduate. Those who do must start a company first, incorporating before they receive a diploma.

Now, I don't think anyone can teach you to be Steve Jobs, with his unique combination of jerk and genius.

I do think, however, that a place like the Founder Institute can do some important stuff.

It can challenge an entrepreneur's ideas and potentially save him or her from slapdash websites, marketing that falls flat or corporate structures that don't fit. All that stuff is fixable, but fixing it costs money and momentum.

It forces entrepreneurs to think hard and talk about the results out loud, in front of other people. That tends to correct a lot of fuzzy thinking all by itself.

It creates foxhole friendships with other entrepreneurs and can help people get the mentors and other connections they'll need to succeed.

It can emphasize just how hard students will work in order to have a chance at building a profitable company.

The most important thing it can do, I think, is to explain to budding entrepreneurs that the thing they think is the job is not actually the job.

Not all of it, anyway. Not even most of it.

A person who starts a restaurant probably believes that he is a good cook. Without good food, the restaurant will fail.

But raising investor money, controlling cockroaches, keeping the dishwashers from going on strike and learning to bribe the produce wholesalers are all equally important skills — and a person who focuses on cooking and nothing else is in for a rude wake-up.

Plenty of people don't understand that.

On an average day, I may or may not get to write.

I also have to come up with good ideas, sell some of those ideas, write contracts, chase and interview sources, invoice clients, bug late payers, spot potential deadbeats, deal with technology glitches, keep the books and hit the deadlines.

Sometimes those parts of my job eat a whole day, and the best thing I write is an email.

There is no guaranteed income, no paid sick or vacation days, no matching contributions to my retirement plan, no one but me who will make the tea or develop the new product.

I spend plenty of time in yoga pants, but I answer to lots of people. If I don't work, we can't pay the bills.

But if I work more, I get paid more. There are no office politics. If I don't want to work for someone (rare, but it happens), I don't have to.

In nearly 13 years, I have never asked anyone's permission to walk the dog or see my kid's events.

To me, that's priceless.

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