The Real Dirt On Being An Entrepreneur (A Founder’s Story)

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By Heather Hilleren (Founder, Local Dirt)

Sometimes you come across an idea that seems so simple, so obvious, that you think “why has no one done this before?” leaving you no choice but to do it yourself. It would simply be criminal not to solve this problem.

This was the start of Local Dirt.

The idea came after working at a natural foods grocery store and watching their best intentions fall flat. They started buying from two dozen local farms when they opened, dropping more each year until they were down to two. It wasn’t quality, quantity or price that was the issue, it was convenience. Every time the produce buyer went to make an order, they gathered up all price sheets had been faxed, emailed, or dropped off. They put together a wish list, and then played phone tag all day long with the farmers figuring out quantities left, and if the prices had changed as they often do during the season. This took all day.

The easy solution was to get the farmers to upload their price sheets online, with quantities and prices. Buyers log on to see products, prices, and quantities. As they order, a purchase order is generated, emailed to both sides, and the order amount is taken off the quantity. Simple. In actuality, starting a business is anything but easy and I soon found out why no one had done this before.

Challenges arose from every angle. Just one example is development. As my deadline quickly approached, my overseas development team got a better offer on a project and decided to put my project on “vacation” forcing my lead developer to finish it. His wife had just gone through brain surgery, didn’t recover well, and decided to divorce him while making his life impossible as he worked a full time job during the day and coded my software at night. He resigned and I replaced him with a brilliant programmer. One month before she started, a speeding car hit her while she was out walking her dog. They found the driver, with a revoked license and still high on heroine.

Let’s face it, as a small company you are expected to deal with all challenges in all areas. You are marketing, finance, business development, tech, human resources, and any of the countless other tasks a business has to engage in. And as an entrepreneur, none of this is going to discourage you from accepting the challenge.

Here are five tips that will keep you sane on your journey:

  1. Draw a line, stick to it. My company nearly ran out of money three times in as many years. I cashed in all my stocks, threw in my savings, and eventually emptied our family retirement. When the mission mean so much to you, it’s hard to know when to stop. Decide early on where that point is, and tell your family.
  2. You are not an island –- get help. The lone wolf entrepreneur who single-handedly built an empire is a fairy tale. Let’s face it, no one is good at everything. Put together an advisory board, get a mentor, and hire people who have talents where you don’t. Share ownership, but avoid partnerships.
  3. Trust yourself. There are so many well-meaning armchair coaches who want to tell you how you should be running your business. Sometimes they will give you advice just for the sake of giving you advice. Listen, think about it, then do what you believe to be right.
  4. Reflect, and celebrate. Less than 2 minutes after receiving a six-digit grant, I started planning the next phase application, due the following year. Those close to me dragged me out of my workaholic frenzy long enough to have a celebration dinner, narrowly escaping burnout. Your team needs those celebrations too.
  5. It is a marathon, not a sprint. There are ups, there are downs, and things usually take longer than expected. Don’t skip your daily run, dinner with your family, or whatever it is that will keep you energized. You may be at this longer than you think.

Occasionally, there comes that dark day when I think “why am I doing this?” and start dreaming about retirement so I can do what I really love only to realize that, in retirement, this is what I’d be doing.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Heather Hilleren is the founder of Local Dirt, an online local food marketplace for individuals (open access) and wholesale (registration). The mobile app version, Locavore, uses GPS location to show seasons and nearby farmers’ markets. Local Dirt is funded by the National Science Foundation. Heather holds an MBA in Entrepreneurship from UW-Madison.

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  • Lana

    Why avoid partnerships?

  • http://www.bluevolcanomedia.com Marjorie Asturias

    I think she’s referring to partners who not only own a piece of the business but are involved in the decision-making aspects of it as well. For example, I’m negotiating with my mentor for an equity stake in my company, but she only wants equity partnership, not a business one. While she will be available to mentor me, the decisions are mine and mine alone. That’s totally fine with me because I’ve heard enough horror stories about business partnerships gone awry, some of which actually ended up destroying the business.