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Want to Be an Entrepreneur? 4 Things You Must Know

A new book from Encore helps you vet your idea – and figure out whether being your own boss is the right step for you.

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by Susan Crandell

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One in four Americans between 44 and 70 is thinking about launching a business or a nonprofit venture in the next five to ten years, according to a MetLife/Encore survey. If you're among them, listen up. Encore, an organization with the tagline, Second Acts for the Greater Good, supports that mission two ways: with advice for transitioning to a good-for-the-world career: and with the Purpose Prize, a $100,000 award given to five reinventers each year for “improving their communities and the world.”

New from Encore is a valuable resource for work reimaginers called The Encore Career Handbook, brimming with practical guidance that includes a workbook chapter with exercises to determine the best career move for you. I caught up with author Marci Alboher on the afternoon of her second Today show appearance for the book. We talked about four key things an aspiring entrepreneur must know before pulling the rip cord on a new venture. (You can catch more of Alboher's advice by listening to the career change webinar she hosted on Work Reimagined.)

#1 You Must Know: How You Will Support Yourself Until Your Venture Starts Making Money. Sounds obvious, but Alboher says many aspiring entrepreneurs don't consider that it may take three to five years to get their business off the ground. You can have the best idea on the planet, but if you run out of money at 18 months, it doesn't matter that you'd be in the black next year.

The answer, Alboher says, is often to start your new venture before you leave your current job. “You do double duty until you're ready to say goodbye to your old career. Yes, you risk not giving the new venture your complete attention, but you have to realize that you are also giving your new business the breathing room it needs to succeed.

#2 You Must Know: How Big You Want To Be. The watchword here is Know Thyself. Do you envision battalions of employees, a cosy business with a handful of workers, or a solopreneurship? No choice is right or wrong so long as it suits the type of business you want to launch; what's critical is to figure out what's right or wrong for you. Alboher offers an example from her own life. “My husband has a business that he's not scaling in a way other people think he should. Bergino Baseball Clubhouse is an art gallery, an event place and a store about baseball in New York. People tell him, 'You need to expand to another city.'” But her husband will never do that. He has made the decision not to have employees. “He doesn't like managing people. He doesn't want to see them do things not the way he wants to. He can make that choice.”

You too might want to make unconventional choices that fit with your personality or the lifestyle you want. The key is to not to kid yourself about which scenario is right for you, Alboher says, pointing out that one big advantage of being seasoned is that you know yourself. “Build something that fits the way you want to live and work. You don't have to get bigger just to get bigger.”

#3 You Must Know: Where Your Venture Ends and You Begin. The answer is different for each of us. For some people there is no border between life and work; they wouldn't have it any other way. Other people like boundaries. Think about where you fall on that continuum. Do you want work to blend seamlessly with your life, flowing into every corner? Or do you want to shut your office door and not think about your venture overnight or on the weekend?

There's another, equally important, aspect to deciding where your venture ends and you begin: the branding. Ask yourself how identified with your venture you want to be – do you want your name publicly linked to it? “Recognize that if you're putting yourself out there with a business that has a social mission, people will expect you to walk the walk and be the public face of your venture,” Alboher says, giving an example where you would want to give your decision careful thought. “Let's say you're setting up a venture that involves an issue of personal safety, like protecting victims of domestic violence. You may choose to protect your privacy in certain ways that you wouldn't do otherwise, like making the choice that you're not going to be active on social media or reveal the state you live in.”

As you make the decision about how entwined you want your business, your life and your image to be, understand that you are not the only stakeholder. “If you're part of a relationship, you have to sort it out with them too. You have to work these details out with your partner and your family.”

#4 You Must Know: What You're Good At and What You Aren't. Starting a business requires wearing many hats. There's no accounting department. That would be you. There's no marketing department. You again. Legal team? You. The list goes on. Some of these functions will come naturally to you; for others, you will need expert assistance. Don't waste time worrying about this; nobody fits every last hat.

Instead, congratulate yourself on the decades you've spent in the work force: By now you know what you're good at and bad at, what you like and don't like. You won't have the ability to avoid or delegate the way you would at a larger company where you're a senior person so you've got to figure out how to get help with the stuff you're not good at. “You have to be your CFO. You have to get good office space. And these tasks must be handled right,” Alboher says. When you think you can't afford to hire a job out, remember that what you really can't afford is to have it done wrong. When money is tight you can consider creative ways to get the work done, like bartering services.