We’ve all heard the saying at some point—do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. And while ostensibly true, it grossly minimizes the sheer amount of grit, hard work and determination required to turn one’s passion into a viable career. Blood, sweat and tears are an inevitable part of the entrepreneur’s journey. And to build your own business, you will have to put in a whole lot of hard work. It’s more that the work is endurable when it’s in service of something you’re passionate about. After all, if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, it’s pretty hard to justify the effort it’ll take to succeed.
As someone who was fortunate enough to turn my passion into my career, I am often asked how others can do the same. And while I could write an entire book on the subject (and in fact have), there are a few critical steps required to take an idea and bring it to life that can be more succinctly summed up. Without a clear vision, a thorough plan and a commitment to following the path you lay out for yourself, your dream will remain just that. The truth is, there’s no secret sauce, no magic recipe—just a heck of a lot of work. I learned a lot throughout the 25 years I spent transforming my dorm-room startup into a billion-dollar international business, and while an article can’t cover it all in just a few hundred words, the abbreviated version is a pretty good place to start.
You have to dream big (and have a follow-through to match) if you want to win big.
Give yourself the time and space to really dream, no limits, no judgment. Get clear on what you’re truly passionate about (not what your peers are doing, not what your family thinks you should do, not even those unhelpful expectations of success we often put on ourselves). If you aren’t doing it for yourself, if your heart really isn’t in it, you may find yourself in a critical make-it-or-break-it moment doing more breaking than making. Genuine passion is what will help you find a little more to give even when you think you have nothing left. It’s fuel, and there will be moments throughout your journey when you’re going to need it.
Once you know what you want, jump feet-first into action, starting with creating a concrete plan. The initial plan doesn’t have to be perfect (trust me, it will change many times), but it has to be solid enough that you know your north star and the main steps required to get there. The good news though is that you don’t have to formulate the plan all on your own. There are many fantastic books on how successful people brought their ideas to life (I read every one I could get my hands on when first starting my company). Like anything worth doing, it takes work, but if you’re on the right path, it shouldn’t feel like a chore. Cultivating a hunger to absorb, learn and grow as much as you possibly can is how you keep feeding your passion so you can see it through to actualization.
Stick to your blueprint, build a solid foundation, and then keep building and improving.
Once you have a concrete plan and know where you want to go, where you need to start, and all the steps in between, it’s time to really get to work. Make sure you’re learning with each new client or project—yes, you did a good job and the client was happy, but were there any breakdowns behind the scenes that can be better streamlined for next time? See if there is anywhere you can improve and do that—over and over and over again—always looking for kinks to iron out, improvements to be made, and opportunities for growth. Never stop refining your process.
When leading a business—especially in the beginning when your determination to bring your idea to fruition is the only boss to whom you have to answer—you have to take ownership and hold yourself accountable. Meet the deadlines you set or re-evaluate why you didn’t and adjust accordingly. Always go back to your plan. Are you meeting your goals on time? If not, why? How can you adjust to get back on course? Have your goals evolved? Is there new information you need to take into account? These are the kinds of questions every entrepreneur—budding or seasoned—must continually ask themselves.
Scale wisely, but never stop looking for ways to grow and evolve.
Stagnancy is the death of business. The moment you stop growing, stop looking for ways to be better, is the moment you lose your competitive edge. The world is constantly changing and progressing; if you stand still too long, you’ll find your business left behind.
It’s important to scale your business wisely; overextending is how many businesses lose their footing, but you have to balance that with keeping apace with your industry. The trick is having achievable goals and realistic plans that are also flexible enough for pivoting and evolving as needed. Life will always throw curveballs, but if you have a solid foundation and are scaling at a sustainable pace (while continuously looking for ways to improve and streamline) you will be in a much better position to handle them.
Keep learning, growing and investing in yourself. Differentiate your brand from the competition in ways that are authentic to you and your brand, adding personal touches wherever possible (for example, have an actual person answer the phone or include handwritten thank you notes with each delivery). This is absolutely crucial when you’re first starting your business and building relationships with clients, customers and partners.
Your clients are an incredible resource, so listen to them! Learn what other services, offerings, or resources your clients need, the gaps they need filled, and the problems they need solved. Whether your business is one that will evolve into a one-stop shop that handles everything or one that perfects a single service or product, listening to your customer base is how you carve out your own space in your industry; leaning into what only you can do is what will set you apart from your competitors. Listening to what our clients needed was precisely what propelled the dorm-room startup I cofounded into a billion-dollar international juggernaut.
Take calculated risks and know your boundaries.
One of the most important aspects of bringing your dream to fruition is knowing when and where to take calculated risks. There are no guarantees in life and when founding a company, there is inevitably a lot of risk involved. So yes, of course you need to push yourself, but make sure you don’t fall over the edge in doing so. Without boundaries, it’s far too easy to get lost and lose it all.
Have firm boundaries that you won’t cross, whether they be about how you initially fund your company, the types of partners and clients you work with, the percentage of revenue that goes back into the company, your hiring processes, or your standards of quality. For instance, a big part of the vision I had for my company was not being beholden to anyone else, so we committed to being entirely self-financed (no loans, no outside investors, no gifted seed money, and virtually everything we made went right back into the company).
Your integrity is one thing you should never risk, it’s far too valuable. Bringing a dream to fruition requires working outside of your comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean sacrificing your values. So take the right kinds of big risks, while safeguarding your integrity and honoring your boundaries no matter what.
The journey is long and arduous, so celebrate your achievements along the way.
Turning your dream into reality isn’t for the faint of heart, but those moments of victory, when you are quite literally living your dream, are priceless. There is nothing quite like building something out of nothing more than an idea. Seeing everything you have worked so hard for materialize and make a difference in people’s lives—all because of your determination and grit—is incredibly gratifying. It was possible for me, and I know it’s possible for you too. Now go get dreaming and make it a reality. You deserve to live the life of your dreams. We all do.