When you take a step back and look at entrepreneurship, it becomes apparent that there is no single formula or process for success. In fact, if you try to follow another individual’s game plan, you’ll quickly discover that what works for them likely doesn’t work for you. That’s just the nature of entrepreneurship.
However, in the midst of your own unique process, you can find solace in the fact that all successful entrepreneurs share similar experiences.
Entrepreneurship — like life — is broken down into stages. And while some people experience more hardship than others, the truth of the matter is that every successful entrepreneur goes through a variation of the following stages. For those just starting out, it can be helpful to peek ahead for context, while those established in their careers may enjoy reviewing where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Let’s check out the nine entrepreneurial stages (virtually) all entrepreneurs go through at one point or another.
1. Working for “The Man”
Every now and then you’ll hear about child entrepreneurs and college dropouts who build million-dollar businesses, but these are exceptions to the rule. In 99 percent of situations, entrepreneurs start their careers working for someone else before launching their own businesses.
If you find yourself in this entrepreneurial stage, don’t fret. Working for someone else can be a wonderful and necessary learning opportunity. Here are a few of the specific reasons why:
- Allows for specialization. As the founder of a business, you could eventually find yourself tasked with managing 5, 10, or 50-plus employees at a time. When this moment comes, you’ll have little time to hone your own skills or seclude yourself from outside noise. However, when you’re working for someone else, you get time to just be you. This can be a valuable stage of learning and growing.
- Teaches you about leadership. Each time you work under a founder, you learn something new. “Allowing yourself to let someone else lead, while you sit back and watch closely, will teach you new things about leadership you could never learn from a book,” writes marketer Daria Shualy. “It’s called experiential learning — you can really get it only once you experienced it.”
- Lets you understand employees. If you only understand life as a business owner or leader, you can’t possibly treat your employees correctly. Every business founder needs to understand who his employees are and what makes them tick. The only way to do this is to stand in their shoes. As an employee, you learn a lot about why employees feel, act, and work the way they do. This is a tremendous asset in the long run.
As you can see, there are many different benefits that come with working for someone else. Instead of detesting these years, learn to appreciate them. You’ll find these lessons incredibly valuable down the road.
2. Developing a Skill Set
As you work for other companies and begin climbing the corporate latter – or at least earning the occasional promotion – you’ll begin to specialize. For example, you may begin your career with a generic label like marketing assistant. As you take on more responsibility, though, you’ll quickly develop skillsets that specialize your title. Instead of marketing assistant, you may end up being the director of marketing for social media content and paid advertising.
Aside from sounding much more important, new titles like these indicate that you’re narrowing your focus and becoming really good at one thing. While it may seem like it’s better to have a broad knowledge of a lot of different things, the reality is that entrepreneurs should strive to become really good at one thing.
The reason is that you can always hire people to do other things once you launch a business. You need to be the authority figure on one aspect of your business so that your company has tangible value.
3. Recognizing a Need
As you begin to specialize and really take control of a single aspect of your job, you’ll likely enter an entrepreneurial stage where you recognize a need or pain point in your industry. Using the previous example of working with social media marketing, you may identify an opportunity within Facebook’s advertising platform that’s allowing you to increase the cost-effectiveness of your company’s PPC strategy.
Over time, you realize that similar opportunities exist across other platforms and begin brainstorming ideas for creating a tool that lets other businesses leverage them.
When you recognize a need, pain point, solution, or idea, you find yourself at a curious fork in the road. You can either continue moving along the path you’re on and earn comfortable promotions, or you can branch out and start your own business using the skills you’ve acquired. This is known as the pivot stage.
The pivot stage looks different for everyone, but almost every entrepreneur experiences a pivot in one way or another – and the moment it happens is usually quite memorable.
Take Albert Scaglione as an example. He’s the founder of the world’s largest art dealer, but was once a teacher in a previous career. He told the Huffington Post, “I think that dropping my books and opening an art gallery [was the most memorable experience that shaped my career]. The defining moment was saying that this is my new career and I see blue skies and good things happening and then decided to walk away from my doctorate and 11 years in Academia. I did it cold turkey, took a mortgage on my house and it worked!”
Everyone’s pivot may not happen so suddenly, but every entrepreneur is bound to have one. Capitalizing on an opportunity to pivot is what sets the successful apart from the rest of the pack.
Now comes the launch phase. And while this is the entrepreneurial stage most people start with when discussing an entrepreneur’s career path, you now know that there are actually a handful of preceding stages. With that being said, the launch stage is still one of the most important.
“While you may not be crystal clear on how you’re going to get it done, there is a natural drive to start something that doesn’t exist,” writes Bill Carmody, founder and CEO of the digital marketing company Trepoint. “When you take this step, you are seeking your independence in the business world and creating opportunity for others to join your mission and vision.”
During launch, you may feel equal parts excitement and nausea. Don’t worry — this is totally natural. The important thing is that you keep moving forward. Because once you move out of this stage, you get to enjoy the thrill of growth.
If you look at the launch of your first business like the birth of a newborn, the next stage involves the baby growing into a child, teenager, and ultimately, an adult. Depending on how successful your business is, this growth stage could take one year, five years, or multiple decades.
As Carmody says, “Survival is the name of the game at this stage.” While this is certainly true early on, there comes a point where growing also involves a healthy amount of adventure and confidence. You’ll experience a wide array of emotions during this stage, so be prepared for anything.
7. Moving On
While many entrepreneurs are happy building a single business and operating it until they retire, other entrepreneurs enjoy the thrill of ideation and growth. These serial entrepreneurs eventually reach a stage where they move on. This comes in the form of selling the business.
Selling your first business can be very emotional, stressful, and scary. It’s like sending a child off to college for the first time. You know that child is still going to be there — and you can visit any time you’d like — but you’re relinquishing control and parting ways.
While this is the ideal scenario, it’s also possible that your business might fail. In this case, you’re forced to move on and don’t have the luxury of a large check to fall back on. This is much more stressful, but requires similar strength to move on.
“Losing your business is painful, but it isn’t the end of the world,” says marketing executive Pratik Dholakiya. “Give yourself the time and space to grieve your failure but don’t forget that there is still a lot of fight left in you. Bounce back because the world moves on and so must you.”
8. Starting Fresh
This entrepreneurial stage may seem familiar in many respects — and that’s because it is. Whether your previous business flopped or your sold it to an investor, now comes the time where you start fresh. While this will resemble the launch phase you experienced years ago, it will also come with a fresh perspective. You’ve now been on both sides of the business world — working for the man and being the man — and have a better idea of what you’re doing.
When starting fresh, the key is to leverage past experiences while avoiding the mistakes that tripped you up. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, your second, third, or fourth business idea will actually be much more successful than the first.
9. Mentoring Others
Late in your career — once you’ve experienced financial success — you’ll realize that there’s more to entrepreneurship than simply growing a business and making money. You’ll come to the conclusion that helping others achieve their dreams is equally powerful (and, let’s be honest, it can be lucrative in its own right).
At this stage, you’ll begin mentoring others and helping those around you achieve the skills needed to become successful entrepreneurs themselves. This may look like one-on-one mentoring, speaking, writing books, or even teaching classes. It’ll look different for everyone.
Relish Each Entrepreneurial Stage
While there is no standard formula for what life looks like as an entrepreneur, it’s clear that many enjoy the same experiences and similar paths. If you’re in the game long enough, it’s quite likely that you’ll go through each of these nine entrepreneurial stages at one point or another.
By understanding what these stages consist of ahead of time, you can have a little insight into what the crazy world of entrepreneurship holds for you.