Five Success Strategies From an Accidental Entrepreneur

Many of us don't set out to become entrepreneurs running companies and managing scores of people. Often we're simply great technicians -- people who are excellent at what we do -- who find ourselves having so much success that we're essentially pushed into entrepreneurship. And often it's these "accidental entrepreneurs" who have the best advice to offer other business owners.

That's certainly the case with Sally Colocho. The owner and Chairman of Huntsville, Alabama-based deciBel Research, Colocho is one of the nation's top experts in the field of radar systems for the aerospace and defense industries. During the past eleven years, she has helped build deciBel from a startup to a 120-employee company that has been instrumental in key strategies for missile defense initiatives.

That said, Sally (who started her career in petroleum engineering) didn't initially envision becoming a top entrepreneur. But along the way, she's learned several key lessons that have helped her generate tremendous success.


1. Be ready to seize opportunities. We don't always get to pick our shot, but we need to know how to respond when a door opens. When the radar testing company Sally worked for was bought by an aerospace manufacturer, a conflict of interest arose -- the manufacturer couldn't test its own systems -- and Sally saw that the government would award her contract to another firm. Seeking to keep the project herself, she and some others decided they would have to jump ship in order to win the bid. Sally didn't hesitate to go from technician to entrepreneur. "I had no fear. It was just by virtue of my confidence in the work that I was doing that I didn't even cringe at the thought of doing something I had never done," she says.

2. Don't go it alone -- get the expertise you need. So many entrepreneurs -- particularly in the early stages -- feel that they have to do everything on their own, and they get stuck in that mindset. But when you finally get some traction, a bootstrap mentality can hold you back. Instead, bring in the right talent to help you. Says Colocho: "We didn't have an IT department in the early days. We didn't do hardware and our CFO ran cable in the ceilings while we were trying to get our work done. We quickly saw that we needed to hire a variety of experts in areas that weren't our core focus."

One key to finding great experts is to build a great network of contacts, of course. Being involved in the community and in your industry will help connect with the true experts who are right for you, and avoid the less qualified candidates who will create more headaches than solutions for your company. "We had been in the Huntsville area for so long that we knew the right people and they knew us," says Colocho. "Most of the people we were able to bring in are people we had worked with before."

3. Take gender out of the mix. As a woman in the defense industry, it's perhaps not surprising that Colocho has opinions about how to create a work environment that emphasizes top talent regardless of gender. "My number one rule is to treat me for who I am as an expert and don't worry about the male/female part of it. When I'm in a room full of men, don't bother saying 'Hello, gentlemen, and lady.' Just acknowledge me for what I've done -- my talent -- and we can go on from there."

Another example: note taking. "In big meetings when someone suggests taking notes, nine times out of 10 they'll look around the room to find a woman to do the job. Instead, try turning to the person next to you, man or woman, and asking them."

The upshot: We've got to create environments that make people want to be on our team so that we can do the amazing things we need to get done.

4. Build a team that complements each other. The right mix of people can ensure you fire on all cylinders. And yet, many business owners hire only those people who "look and feel" like themselves. That can lead to groupthink and stagnation since there's no one around to bring fresh, unexpected ideas to the table. Better to build a team of people who problem solve using different approaches and figure out to best group them together.

For example, some people (such as the engineers at deciBel) are highly process driven and detail oriented, while others are fueled by big, high-concept ideas but aren't big on follow through. (Tests like the Kolbe Index can identify your team members' key traits.) Combining those personalities to work together can yield bigger results than they could achieve by themselves. Just as important, understanding the different ways that team member approach problems and opportunities can help facilitate better communication and avoid misunderstandings that erode team harmony.

5. Prime your brain for success. Every night, Colocho writes down three big wins she wants to achieve the next day -- which usually reflect issues or problems she wants to solve. This primes her brain to find answers. "I think somehow by going to bed on that note, my brain is working on the issues overnight. My subconscious starts working and when I wake up in the morning I basically have the answers and the issues are no longer big deals."

Colocho is definitely on to something. Many experts in the field of positive psychology are finding that taking steps such as expressing gratitude each day can essentially shift your thinking to be better at solving problems and staying positive in the face of challenges.

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