Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a communications company offering custom content and expert insight designed to help entrepreneurs build their businesses and achieve success. Before she started her own business, she spent 26 years at Entrepreneur magazine, providing advice, profiling entrepreneurs and helping people understand how to make their business a success. We sat down with her to talk shop, swap stories, and glean some great insights for you.
So, every entrepreneur has a story. What is yours? How did you get started? What moment made you stop and think, “I’m going to start my own business”?
Well, the “a ha” moment took a while! I graduated college as a journalism major with no job. I found a job in publishing in NY, but I hated winter. So I started over and moved to California with no job, and then I got a job as a researcher at Entrepreneur in December of 1978. It’s funny - no one knew even knew what the word entrepreneur meant – I had to look up the word myself! Got laid off in March of 1980 and realized that bad things happen in life. I freelanced for a while and then in 1983 I went back to Entrepreneur as the research editor.
Wasn’t it strange to go back after being fired?
Not really because everyone I had worked with was gone, so it was a whole new group of people – new players. I’ll never forget that this woman in editorial asked me why I was trying so hard to be an editor because she said no woman would be an editor. It surprised me. And you know what? I became editor in 1988.
1988 was an interesting time for me – people started using the word “entrepreneur”, it was part of our society. People were considering it as a career path versus going the corporate route. And then in the 90s it became a real viable option, with lots of attention on women as entrepreneurs. You could tell that there was interest from women and from marketers taking them seriously. I don’t know of it was a gender or generational shift, but it changed the business world. I feel privileged that I was part of the revolution.
In the early 2000s I started realizing that as much as I loved what I was doing, I was putting my money in someone else’s pockets. I was writing about entrepreneurs, talking to them, but started to wonder why I was not one of them. I impacted a lot of people with my speeches and articles and when in 2007 the corporate culture at the magazine started to change, the noise in my head was getting really loud to go off and do my own thing. The management was changing the way things were done and not for the better, so I wanted to do my own thing and bring some of my team with me. These young women I hired right out of college that had been with me for 20 plus years. Pulled my top three editors and told them I had a plan to leave and that I needed some patience from them, but that we could do it. In February 2008 one of my editors quit, then I took the plunge in March, and the other gals followed suit. I was almost 56 years old, and I finally took my life and career into my own hands.
Sounds both scary and exciting.
Actually, it was just darn slow at the beginning. It takes time. I learned some hard lessons along the way about what we wanted to do that both paid the bills and helped us grow. Then I realized people were willing to pay for content, so we decided to focus on that and it really started to come together. Starting my own business was my big, bold gesture.
Did you have any inspirations along the way? Are there any female business owners you admire?
When I was coming up as a student in college, Watergate was going on. I looked at Katharine Graham, and although she inherited The Washington Post, she didn’t care what you were supposed to do or behave or how to grow it. She did it her own way. And The Post played a key role in unveiling the Watergate conspiracy, which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. Huge! She wasn’t loud or noisy about it, but it was definitely inspiring.
Coco Chanel is another person I admire. She started her own business when women simply did not do that. Things were so stacked against her.
I also admire Martha Stewart. When I met her she was nice. In the face of adversity, she had gumption – she had the fortitude not to care what people thought about her. Nothing stopped her – not even a jail sentence. Sure, she went into hibernation while in jail but her company kept going.
OK, let’s switch gears a bit. You spend a majority of your time helping other small business owner’s deal with common challenges. What is a challenge you find yourself facing?
Despite 20+ years of telling business owners what to do, the thing that is still surprising to me is how time consuming it is to run a business. You literally have to do everything.
I know, it’s sort of like running your own nation. You are the President, Secretary of State, the Treasury, and oh, the janitor too. So, in your opinion does it take as much time to run your business as it does to actually “do” your business?
That’s exactly it - particularly at the beginning. I always thought it was interesting that people underestimate that. At the beginning there is so much research – which Web host, PC, telephones, location– you spend more time building your infrastructure yet you also have to do your job. People really need to see the difference between running your business and doing your business. These are two distinct parts and you can’t slack on either.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?
I’ve been given a lot of advice. I’ve always remembered Fred DeLuca of Subway saying that at the beginning he didn’t really know what he was doing. He was losing money and opened a second store. He said if he knew then what he knows now, he said he wouldn’t have done it. Then he told me he knew he was going to be ok when he opened his fifth store. So sometimes ignorance is bliss and you just do it. Plunge ahead.
The other piece is to be yourself. You got to where you are because you are yourself. If you are true to yourself, it will come. Also, karma is a big component. If you want to get, you have to give. It always comes back.
Any words of wisdom for budding female entrepreneurs?
A few things. Women tend to personalize things more, which can help and hurt. You need to remember you are not your business. You may emblemize it, but if you make a pitch or try to sell something and someone doesn’t like it, it’s not you. If you think it is you, that can sap all your energy.
Also, don’t mourn anything for more than three days. A deal, a client, whatever. At the end of three days, you need to get back on the bike and get out there. Don’t analyze too much. I think younger women can learn a lot from playing team sports. Team sports help you separate the activity and the person. The team loses, you don’t lose.
The last thing I’ll mention is don’t try and measure yourself against anyone else. Set benchmarks for your business – your business is what you choose to make it. Benchmark how you accomplish your goals and not against other people because you don’t know everything that is going on with them or how they got there. Set a series of goals and make sure you have new ones before you achieve the old ones. Having goals all along the way will be a snowball towards success.
Do you have questions for Rieva? Drop us a line in the comments section!