Which Came First, the ‘C-word’ or the ‘E-word’?

Originally Published in HVACR Business Magazine.

Once upon a time, a young entrepreneur decided to start his own hvacr business. So he rented some office space with a little warehouse attached. Sitting in his small office the first day looking over his business plan, he saw a potential customer about to enter his office. In order to appear busy and important, he picked up the phone and started to pretend he had a big deal in the works.

While pretending to talk on the phone, he said, “I will have four of my best crews out there next week and we will get those 20 systems installed for your new facility Mr. Jones,” When he finally hung up the phone and asked the visitor what he could do for him, the man said, ”I’m here to hook up the phones.”

We’ve probably all done something similar in the business world. When I started McAfee Heating and Air Conditioning Co. in 1990, I was 27 years old. I didn’t have a business degree or enough experience, but my inner drive and passion continues to lead me above and beyond my original goals.

So, what came first…the “Contractor” or the “Entrepreneur”? For some reason, business owners in the HVAC industry see themselves more as contractors then entreprenuers. Should they? The definition of a contractor is, “a tradesman who works in the construction industry under a contract with the owner or manager of the property.”

An entrepreneur is “one who assumes the financial risk of starting and operating a business venture. Usually carries the connotation of being creative, self-motivated and visionary.”

Which one are you? Whether you founded, purchased or inherited your business, someone with entrepreneurial traits has to lead it in order for it to succeed.

According to a survey done by Northeastern University’s School of Technological Entrepreneurship in Boston, Massaschusetts, of the more than 200 entrepreneurs in the U.S., nearly two-thirds claim they were inspired to start their own companies by their desire and determination, rather than by their education or work experience.

According to the same survey, only 1 percent cited higher education as a significant motivator for starting their own venture, while 61 percent talked about their “inborn drive.” Other motivators cited were work experience (2 percent) and success of entrepreneurial peers within their industry (16 percent).

While entrepreneurship skills can be taught, the survey results suggest that the desire to be an entrepreneur usually is not. Rather, as 42 percent of respondents said they launched their first venture in childhood. So research suggests that the enterprising spirit is discovered within the individual, not developed by the individual’s experience.

Having had the privilege of meeting several business owners in the hvacr industry, I’ve noticed that many enjoy the technical/mechanical aspects of the business more than running it.

For some, running a business is like fitting a square peg in a round hole, but they still struggle to make it work. This may be why so many owners would rather sell the business or close if they could. However, it would be better to hire an entrepreneurial Operations/General Manager to run the business. By doing so, owners could focus on what they do best, which is the service/installation or sales side of the business.

With a good business plan in place and a few more positions filled, their businesses would not only be stronger, but it would thrive! Success should be measured by the liveliness of our business, not from the title we wear.

For some small businesses, the depth of a management team may be limited. For example, the owner is required to be there most of the time, and the company may not be able to afford a support staff to cover all business functions. Therefore, owners will need to work long hours.

We all know people who use part of their sick leave each year when they are not sick. Entrepreneurs are not among this group. In the early morning before most people arrive at work or after an eight-hour day when everyone goes home, the entrepreneur will be at the office working and developing new business ideas.

Others may say that owners should be working less and playing golf more. Yes, there should be a balance of work and family time, because our loved ones do like to see us once in a while. But for the truly successful companies, owners/leaders, whether he or she is working on their business or in it, will be working longer hours than the rest of the team. It’s been said that if you own your own business, you only work half days..but just pick which 12 hours you want to work. The first half of the day or the second.

Entrepreneurs are unique in their own way, and each has his or her own set of strengths, weaknesses, talents and abilities. Although there is no single characteristic or skill that will guarantee business success, the entrepreneurs who stand the test of time, and make a difference in their communities and industries do share some common traits. Displaying a good mixture of the following traits will mean growth for your company:

1. Persistence – There are many ups and downs, as well as challenges you will face. You may not like everthing you do, but by working hard and not giving up will improve your chances of success.

2. Strong Drive to Achieve – It’s that inner drive that keeps us going even when sales are down and cash is low. That drive and need to achieve success is better than coffee or drugs. It motivates owners to keep moving forward.

3. High-Energy – There are “morning people” and “night people”, but regardless of which one you are, it takes a lot of energy to start and run a business. Having a high energy level can take you to the next level and it’s contagious.

4. Goal-oriented Behavior – If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. Writing down goals creates a visual and forces you to commit to them. Reviewing and fine-tuning those goals often creates a successful future.

5. Self-Confidence – If you don’t believe in yourself and your business, don’t expect your team to either. Tackling problems immediately with confidence and being persistent in pursuit of objectives are common traits of a winner.

6. Strong Integrity – No one will last long without it. It’s doing what is right even when no one is looking, like reporting all income to the IRS, pulling permits, treating and paying coworkers fairly and paying suppliers on time. These are just a few of the right things we do because integrity matters.

7. Competitive – Knowing the competition and treating them fairly is good business. Wanting to win and get ahead of the competition is good as well. It energizes our inner drive to constantly improve and succeed in our business. Most competitive people don’t like losing.

8. Change Agent – Changing direction is easy if and when it improves your chances for achieving goals. You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read. Why and what you change will have an impact on your success or failure.

9. Tolerance for Failure – Entrepreneurs have to experience failure in order to appreciate success. Most see failure as an experience to learn something new. James Dyson, the inventor of the famous Dyson Vacuum Cleaner, once said, ”I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that children should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had in school. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…”

10. Dream – Dream? This aspect is not talked about at association meetings, but without a dream, nothing happens. When he was growing up in Houston, Michael Dell once said tht he used to look at the modern, shiny buildings being built along the Interstate-610 loop, and that he would imagine himself as owning one of them someday. “I’ve never imagined myself not doing something significant,” says Dell. So if you want to achieve your goals, create a mindset of dreams and beliefs to support the truth that you want in your future.” Dream big!

Are we not great or what? Before our egos get too big, let’s take a look at the other side. We may lack sensitivity to other people’s feelings, which can cause turmoil and turnover in our organization.

Entrepreneurs can be impatient and drive themselves and everyone around them crazy. We may not have the tolerance or empathy necessary for team building unless it’s our own team, and we can be difficult to work with.

As the business grows and assumes an organizational structure, owners may experience a classic management crisis. For many of us, the need for control makes it difficult to delegate authority in the way that a structured organization demands.

Our strong, direct approach means that we seek information directly from its source, thus bypassing the structured chains of authority and responsibility we have worked hard to form within the company. Our moderate interpersonal skills, which were adequate during the start-up phase, will cause problems as we adjust to the new structure and/or corporate organization.

However, entrepreneurs with good interpersonal skills will be able to adjust and survive as their organization grows. The rest won’t make it. Taking classes, reading good business books and having great business mentors can improve these skills. Also, see article in previous HVACR Business magazine about how forming an objective board of advisors can help form a structure and lead to success in your business.

Holding the title of contractor is fine, but remember that we are first and foremost entrepreneurs. We must think and act like business professionals who take companies to the next level, regardless of the title we hold.