5 Lessons on Life as an Entrepreneur That You Don’t Learn in School

As we focus on continuing to elevate entrepreneurs from all parts of the world and from all backgrounds, I’m reflecting a lot on how nontraditional entrepreneurs can realize their dreams. Sometimes that means unlearning lessons we were taught in school.   

On the day you graduate and enter the professional world, there is no instruction manual waiting for you. (If only!) There is so much I wish I’d known at the start of my own career, and I wish I could spare young entrepreneurs that same learning curve. Below are a few key lessons about entrepreneurship that aren’t taught in school.

1. Your wins will not always be linear

As students, we’re told that if we study hard enough, we’ll ace the test, and that if we turn in all of our assignments, we’ll get full credit. In school, you tend to get out what you put in, often in a very predictable and measurable way. You know that x amount of preparation will probably get you y grade on the exam.

In entrepreneurship, that’s often not the case. You can work incredibly hard and still not see results, and vice versa. Some opportunities can fall in your lap and can feel like a “right place, right time” situation. Other opportunities can completely evade you no matter how hard you reach for them.

When I first started To the Market, I was working 12-14 hour days, doing everything within my control to have as many sales and eyeballs on the business as possible. But that didn’t always get me the results I wanted. It was hard to process that I was competing in a much broader landscape with variables like competitors having more funding, or competitors being better networked. My work ethic wasn’t enough.

I ultimately realized that when entrepreneurs create formulas for success, we’re not the only variable. Some of the variables that factor into our final result are within our control, but many are not. The effort put in does always lead to a commensurate result. I needed to broaden my formula and make space for a lot of other variables to go into the equation.

2. Rejection is going to be part of your regular routine

If you are a driven student and are used to getting a consistently positive outcome from your efforts in school, rejection is hard to accept at first. But the vast majority of people you try to sell to, be it consumers, buyers or investors, are going to say no. That’s the nature of entrepreneurship. Rejection is normal and consistent.

The first time my company pitched a wholesale account, it was to a big retailer that I really admired. I felt really good about our pitch. I felt that our products and prices were compelling. But after the pitch, I didn’t hear back…and didn’t hear back…and didn’t hear back. Still, I had hope. And then finally, I got a no.

At the time, I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. But that’s because I hadn’t built up enough scar tissue around rejection yet. The longer you’re in business, the easier it gets. Rejection becomes a normal part of the growth process.

3. Not everyone will like you — and that’s okay

No matter who you are, what you do, and how you treat people, there are going to be people who just don’t like you. That’s hard at first, because when I started out in the working world, I thought, If I’m nice to everybody, everybody will be nice to me. That’s unfortunately not always the case.

That doesn’t mean I would suggest changing your attitude toward people or turning away from kindness. But you also have to accept that regardless of how virtuous, warm or easygoing you might aspire to be, there will be people who simply do not like you. And that’s okay!

Not only is this a reality, but it’s also one that’s perfectly acceptable. There is no one on this planet that everybody likes. And the more success that you might enjoy — meaning a larger organization or more exposure across the business community — the number of people who don’t like you could grow, simply because the number of people who know about you increases. 

4. Managing people is just as important as managing your work

When I first started my career, I didn’t understand what managing people meant.  In school, we’re taught to focus on our own workflows. So much of our training as young people is around becoming excellent in subject matters rather than becoming excellent at delegation, team cohesion and team management.

But as I got older, I came to learn that managing people is equally, if not more important, than your work portfolio. This doesn’t just mean your direct reports: It’s also professional interpersonal relationships and managing in a way that maximizes value creation among all parties.

This is especially true for entrepreneurs. When you build an organization, you become a leader of leaders. Your job is to enable the entire organization to flourish, and your first line of defense is the leaders who report to you.

When To the Market reached the stage of our journey where we grew to have an executive leadership team, I was so used to managing my own workflows that I had to make a shift. I started allocating far more time to empowering and enabling the other leaders in the company.

Thinking about direct reports used to be a relatively small part of my workday, and now it’s the majority of it. Most of my time goes into working directly with the leaders of the organization and ensuring they’re getting what they need to go out and empower their teams.

5. Be your biggest champion

Growing up, there was an emphasis at home on humility and thinking of others rather than yourself. In school, there was rarely a need to promote myself, as teachers are required to give you feedback. But when I got into the business world, the rules were different. I realized it was critical for me to be my own champion, not only for myself but also for my ideas.

In high school and college, I was used to getting feedback on my work from instructors. As an entrepreneur, there was suddenly zero compulsory feedback. In the professional world, there is no forced review process where your work is being considered. For people to even consider saying yes or no to my business, I had to actively tell them about what I was doing. I had to learn to reach out to people, show up at events and outwardly advance my own goals.

No matter how old you are or how much of your career is ahead of you, the important thing to remember is that it’s okay to have questions. It’s okay to not know how to do everything. The key is to never hesitate to raise your hand, let your work be seen, and be willing to unlearn ideas that are no longer serving you.