Five Business Lessons I Learned from March Madness

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UnknownIt’s the most wonderful time of the year! March Madness. Bracket City. Nonstop hoops.

I love college basketball. It’s the only sport I can sit and watch two teams for whom I have no rooting interest and enjoy the game. Given the fact that I don’t even watch other sports so much anymore, including my hometown pro teams, that’s saying a lot.

College basketball gets me through my most hated season on the calendar – winter – and when March Madness is upon us, it’s like nirvana with the weather improving and more basketball than even I can consume on a daily basis.

But basketball has also taught me some important lessons that I can carry through to my 10-year-old public relations and writing practice.

Be In the Moment

Don’t’ be looking for the next big thing. Enjoy what you have now. When your team is having an up and down year, it’s tough to appreciate the positive moments and fans get down on the team, criticize the coach and make themselves miserable. Imagine that day when you lose a client just as you are starting a couple of new projects with another prospect. It’s easy to obsess about the one client you lost and not appreciate – or pay enough attention – to the exciting new opportunities in front of you. Don’t miss that moment to excel and shine.

Don’t Mail it in

Maybe your favorite team is facing an opponent it thinks it can handle easily because they are seeded 12th and you are seeded fifth. Know how many upsets there have been in NCAA history in that match up? It’s happened 44 times in 120 games. Play your best against any team. And if you have a project that you think is a slam-dunk and you can do in your sleep – don’t do it in your sleep. Have your eyes wide open and your brain firing on all cylinders to provide the best possible outcome for your client. Every. Single. Time.

Be a Cheerleader

Everyone who loves college basketball and March Madness loves the whole scene, the bands, the fans and yes, the cheerleaders. Every team needs a great fan base and someone to serve as cheerleader. In business, who else is going to cheer for you if you don’t do some of that yourself? So make sure that you toot your own horn when you have a great success and let people know so that they can pass the word on or bring you on themselves for that next big project.

Be a Good Team Player.

Many an NCAA game has had a guy go off for 36 points but his team loses because everyone else is standing around watching and not contributing. He may make the all-region team for his performance but if his team is going home on the first weekend, no one is happy. In business, make sure you have the right team assembled to serve every client the right way and that every part is working at full speed. If you have a huge collateral project and the writing is spot on but the design is so-so, your team isn’t going to win any new business from that client. Individuals win awards. Teams win championships.

The Other Guy Wants to Win Too.

Fans of basketball teams can’t understand why the other team made a big comeback to tie the game – or why their team can’t always catch up to an opponent. Silly, the other guy is trying to win as well. And the same is true of business. Whether you are pitching a new client or working with an editor on a great story placement, you better bring your “A” game or you might find yourself on the losing end of the proposition.

To all the entrepreneurs out there, make sure you keep your eye on the ball – and I don’t mean the orange round one that will be everywhere over the next few weeks. Let the madness begin!

Five PR Truths of the Donald Trump Campaign

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canstockphoto19349780I’m no fan of Donald Trump – well, I did watch Celebrity Apprentice – but no matter what you think about Trump or his politics, there has probably never been a political campaign that has benefited more from employing solid public relations principles. While there may be some cracks appearing in what had been a machine for many months, the campaign’s success continues to baffle everyone and the constant assumption that his demise is imminent are fading into the background.

Here are five truths of the Trump PR campaign.

  1. Confidence is King

If you appear unflappable, people will believe anything you say. Never has a candidate been so unwilling to backtrack on an absurd statement and get away with it. Whether he’s attacking immigrants or calling people nasty names, Trump just stands there with that smirk on his face and insists he’s right. And he loses nothing in the polls.

  1. Good Messaging Rules

A good message that resonates with your target audience can go a long way and Trump appears to be taking his “Make America Great Again” message all the way to November. So far, it hasn’t mattered that he can’t tell you how he is going to make America better. It just seems that a lot of America is willing to give him a pass on the substance as long as it looks good on a hat.

  1. Fear Motivates

The Donald has played on the fear of everyday Americans about everything from immigration to terrorism to shore up and expand his support. Companies that sell products and services ranging from insurance to pharmaceuticals can identify with this tactic. Fear can be a successful motivator to garner support.

  1. Star Power

Get a celebrity pitchman to help. In this case, the celebrity is Trump himself. He doesn’t have to hire a Hollywood star to tell his story. Celebrity sometimes beats substance and America has become a celebrity driven country. Witness Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and every other politician who courts time on Saturday Night Live, Ellen and The Tonight Show. Trump came into this thing as a celebrity of sorts so he already had a leg up on the competition.

  1. PR > Advertising

A solid PR campaign beats advertising every time. Just ask Jeb Bush who spent millions trying to make a dent in the Trump machine and is now licking his wounds back home. Trump just kept saying what he says, always on the offense and put every competitor on the defense.

While I don’t have a crystal ball to see how this all comes out, I don’t think that the Trump PR machine is going to be beaten. Recent history will tell you that the man is vulnerable in several places, but the voters keep putting his name on the ballot. The GOP may have not taken this interloper seriously enough soon enough and now they are playing defense while Trump’s PR machine rolls on.


My Back to School Wish

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IMG_1601Another year has come and gone. I don’t find myself marking the passing of time on New Year’s Day, but instead with the start of the new school year.

Every summer flies by but this summer was truly the blink of an eye. And it scares me that this is the new norm. My two precious daughters headed back to school this morning – both to brand new buildings.

My oldest daughter drove herself to senior high school in our district that splits the grades between buildings (9 and 10 in intermediate high school and 11 and 12 in senor high school). Yes, she drove herself and I kind of have no words for that.

My youngest enters middle school this year and the challenge is that she is not just heading to a new building but to a new middle school for our family due to our school district’s ill-conceived redistricting plan. But that’s another subject for another day.

But I have only one wish for my two girls as they start off another school year. Have fun and enjoy every moment. Sure, work hard and do your best – but to me that’s the sub headline. Time goes too fast to not enjoy every moment that you have and there’s no better time to start thinking that way than when you are young and your whole life is ahead of you.

I’ve written before that I’m a sentimental dad and this year is no exception. We had an amazing summer filled with great vacations and lots of family time. I worry that summers like this are dwindling and that embracing the opportunity to travel and enjoy each other is more important every day.

So to my girls and all who have gone back to school today or will do so in the coming days, I wish the same – have fun and lots of it. Let yourself be a kid because you have plenty of time to be a grown up. Enjoy every moment. And be happy.

The Joy of Public Relations

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canstockphoto27613609That’s right, the PR world can be a lot of fun – really – especially when you have clients who are engaged, interested and ready to respond when opportunities pop up. PR can also be incredibly frustrating when you have none of these but that’s another blog for another day.

Here are my top five Joys of PR.

The Write Stuff. For me, nothing makes me happier than a meaty writing assignment that requires research and a great deal of planning and foresight. Nothing beats taking reams of information and nailing down the right message at the right time and delivering it to the right audience. Call me a nerd, but when I put together a feature story, a brochure, an annual report, a newsletter, a book – whatever the assignment – and deliver it knowing that it nails exactly what the client was seeking, I dance a little happy dance in my head.

When it Hits the Fan. CEOs often quiver in their $600 loafers when crisis visits their organization – and what they sometimes forget is it is a matter of when not if. Clients who have great crisis plans in place can’t rest easy but at least they have a roadmap of where to start – which is generally the most frightening part of any crisis situation. But for me, put me in the middle of it. Next to writing, there is nothing more satisfying than helping a client manage a bad situation by doing the right thing all the time, every time.

Hitting the Right Note. Whether it’s a media relations plan, a special event, an employee communications program or any of the many other tactics that we employ, when you have the right strategy along with a client who is part of the process, there is nothing sweeter. Watching a strategy you created in concert with an engaged client roll out exactly as you had envisioned makes this PR guy’s heart beat a little faster.

Winning the Business. When I launched my company, I was sure that the part I was going to hate the most was the chase of new business. I wanted to “do” not pitch and chase. But I guess what I forgot is that I had been doing this my whole career. Whether it was seeking a new job to move up the corporate ladder or pitching the news media great stories from my clients, I was selling something or someone for decades. Selling myself and my skills is so much easier than that since I believe in me more than anything I’ve ever pitched before. So the chase is fun but when a prospect turns into a client, giving me the chance to treat her or him like the ONLY client I have, I absolutely love it.

The Big Hit. While the media landscape has changed dramatically opening up so many alternatives to the PR professional, I have to confess that I still get goosebumps from the big media hit. And while I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in some of the biggest media opportunities over my career – from the Today Show to CNN; USA Today to the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal; from the Ellen Degeneres Show to Parade Magazine – it’s hitting the right media outlet for any particular client that makes most sense and is truly the most satisfying. Though social media and web-based media have also become important tools of our trade, there is still nothing like hitting some of the more traditional holy grails of news media.

Like any business, PR can be frustrating at times and I know it’s easy to get caught up in the nonsense. Just remember the reasons why you got into the business in the first place and embrace the many joys of PR.

Should Caitlyn Jenner Dance?

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canstockphoto3250584Almost as soon as the Vanity Fair cover appeared, the speculation began about Caitlyn Jenner’s next move and among the speculation was a possible appearance on the next season of Dancing with the Stars. Whether or not it makes sense for Jenner to appear on the popular show can be argued both ways, particularly from a public relations perspective.

The carefully orchestrated campaign by Bruce Jenner and his camp to announce the transition and then Caitlyn Jenner’s subsequent first photos on the cover of Vanity Fair have been nothing short of brilliant when it comes to PR value. And it’s for that reason that I believe there are still skeptics who amazingly (and wrongfully) believe that this is all a publicity stunt. Great publicity can be orchestrated given the right sense of circumstances and a stunt is not a necessity. Jenner and her advisors have done all the right things at the right time to treat a potentially volatile story with the utmost of sensitivity and sensibility.

But whether or not the next step of high profile appearances should include a season on Dancing With The Stars has to be something that if the Jenner camp is considering – that it is considering with a great deal of thought and running a good old list of pros and cons.

Why Caitlyn Jenner Should Appear on DWTS

Like everything else in this well-thought-out series of events, an appearance on DWTS in October could revive a storyline that may have gotten a little stale by then. If Jenner’s true to her word that this is all about happiness and a little education on the side, then DWTS could thrust her story back into the spotlight right about the time that it may be off most people’s radar screen.

In addition, DWTS is a softball way to get herself in the entertainment spotlight without facing tough questions from reporters. Jenner would, in effect, get to script her own story and tell America – and the world – what she wants it to hear, when she wants everyone to hear it. Even as a castoff appearing on Good Morning America, Jenner isn’t going to deal with anything even semi-tough when the morning crew gushes over her dancing skills and talks to her professional dance partner about what a great job she did in tough circumstances. While careers haven’t been revived on the show, some of the stars from DWTS have become more a part of the public conscious than they had been for years. And while Jenner doesn’t need to be thrust back into the scene, an appearance can certainly keep her relevant for a longer period of time.

Why Caitlyn Jenner Should Avoid DTWS

It can be argued that Jenner’s story has already risen to a point that it supersedes an entertainment show like DWTS. Her story has been told in serious tones, in serious venues and DWTS may be a little too soft to keep going the narrative that has evolved.

Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t need DWTS. With millions upon millions of Twitter followers and a carefully crafted messaging campaign, Jenner’s story may have already jumped the likes of DWTS and an appearance may only bring down the narrative to a level of entertainment fluff that will take away the impact that has grown over the past several months.

Whether it’s the right move or not, it won’t surprise me if Jenner dances or if she chooses to sit this one out. My best guess? If Jenner’s PR machine keeps up its magnificent record of success as the reality show launches this summer, I don’t think you’ll see her in high heels dancing the cha cha to a Disney song this fall. To dance or not to dance? That is the question.

Sorry (Not Sorry)

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imagesWhere do I begin with George Stephanopoulos? While he isn’t exactly a great journalist, he is a fine newsreader, who can dance and giggle just as well as any morning show host. I actually sort of like his presence on Good Morning America because it makes it seem that they take news more seriously than they really do.

But today’s revelations bring up so many questions. Is it that he “forgot” that he gave $50,000 – oh no $75,000 – to the Clinton Foundation? Is it the fact that he is a former White House operative who covers presidential politics? Is it the fact that he lets himself be embarrassed to the point of sullying his credibility every morning on GMA? No, for today let’s focus on one thing: his non-apology.

Dear George is only the latest example of a public figure who gets caught with his or her hand in the cookie jar in some way and then dramatically sets up an apology – that really only partially take accountability. Every apology today is paired with a “but” and in my opinion that makes it a non-apology. There’s always a but – an excuse for bad behavior – which you can bet comes with every public apology by a celebrity, athlete or “journalist.” NBC’s Brian Williams? Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Erdely? And now Stephanopoulos. All delivered either no apology or a non-apology.

Just in case you hadn’t heard it, here is what Stephanopoulos said after admitting to making the contributions: “Even though I made them strictly to support work done to stop the spread of AIDS, help children, and protect the environment in poor countries, I should have gone the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. I apologize to all of you for failing to do that.”

Ok then George. Because the money you forgot about went to great causes that we all support, it’s all right and all is forgiven. Or at least that is what he would want us to come away thinking. Nevermind that you chose your former employer’s foundation – instead of the hundreds of other ways to help those same causes. And you didn’t even remember that you gave that money – so have you done the follow up to ensure that your money did indeed go specifically to those causes?  I doubt it. .

You screwed up on a number of different levels George but the biggest sin in my eyes is that you couldn’t just straight up explain and apologize, that you had to couch it in the excuse for your bad behavior. How about this? How about public figures stop exhibiting bad behavior for which they have to apologize?

Baltimore Mayor Spins Out of Control

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Unknown-1There is no word that raises the hair on the back of my neck more than “spin” when I am talking about messaging or story angles with a new client. Not every client, mind you, but over the past few years I’ve had at least a handful of individuals ask me how we should “spin a story” or demand that I “put the right spin on that for us.”

When you are dealing with the news media, there is no room for “spin” in my world. The first rule of media relations is to tell the truth. Period. The second rule is to be prepared. The third is to never say anything out loud that you don’t want to see in print because backtracking on a misstatement (note I didn’t say a misquote) is tougher than sucking it up and doing the right thing in the first place.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is a walking advertisement for those of us who do spokesperson training on what not to do. I suspect her fateful week in April 2015 will make it into many PR 101 courses on college campuses this fall. How did she fail? Let me count the ways – or at least cover four biggies.

  1. At the very top of the hit list is her “space to destroy” quote. I’m guessing this was not a well thought-out moment in the Mayor’s life. I sincerely hope that she didn’t run that past any advisors who agreed it was the right thing to say. But as bad as saying it was, defending it was even worse.
  2. Calling out the news media for mischaracterizing her quote was baffling. Just roll back the cameras and see what you said, which was “We also gave those who wished to destroy, space to do that as well.” Again, don’t say something that you don’t want to read in print.
  3. Use of the word “thug” to describe rioters. She wasn’t the only one to use this term. Even President Obama used this term. But as soon as she came under fire from a Baltimore city councilman, the Mayor backed off her words with a tweet that read, “I wanted to clarify my comments on “thugs.” When you speak out of frustration and anger, one can say things in a way that you don’t mean.” Backtracking like this makes her look weak and that she is more worried about political correctness than being tough on people destroying her city.
  4. Press conference pushing match – I read and then saw video of a Fox News reporter being shoved by police and even Al Sharpton when he tried to ask the Mayor questions at a press conference. Now, I’m not exactly a huge fan of the narrative that Fox brings to this (and many) stories but did the Mayor and her staff not realize that any public appearance was going to elicit reporters who may not be friendly to the event that she is attending, asking tough questions. The pushing match was ugly to watch when the reporter was pretty much behaving himself, just trying to ask questions.

Unfortunately, the administration of this truly great American city showed it really wasn’t prepared tactically, but it may have even been less ready from a communications standpoint. When Ray Lewis is a voice of reason in your city, that becomes clear. Mayor, please get yourself some good crisis communications training if it’s not already too late for your administration to save face.

So, Yeah, Right

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images-1One of my guilty pleasures is watching Shark Tank almost every week. I know, crazy stuff for a Friday night. I started to notice that every person who appears on the show answers questions asked by the Sharks with So, Yeah or Right. Every one. It generally sounds like this:

Shark: What does it cost to make your product and for how much do you sell it?

Entrepreneur: Right. It costs me $20 and I sell it for $40.

In what world does saying “Right” make sense there? I know that many of these people prepare for the show by doing some form of spokesperson training and it seems like someone out there is teaching them to answer questions this way. I thought it was a weird phenomenon of Shark Tank media training, but I was wrong.


I have now started to notice the exact same bad habit on the Today Show, Good Morning America and CNN. This could certainly just be a case of the bad grammar we are all getting numb to just getting a bright light shining on it via national television exposure. However, I believe that this nonsense is way too pervasive for that and I really think that some spokesperson training firms may be giving their clients the option to use these words as transitions to make them feel more comfortable. That makes me sad.

What should they do instead? Just answer the questions asked with the information requested. Good spokesperson training will tell you that all day long. In fact, here are five of my favorite tips to give to clients when they are preparing for interviews.

  1. A media interview isn’t really new. You talk about your product in a variety of environments to anyone who will listen. This is just a new audience to whom you are speaking. There is no need to change your normal pitch, your normal enthusiasm for your product simply because there is a microphone.
  2. Take control of the conversation. Know the three key points that you want to make and then make them several times throughout the interview without appearing to be scripted. Don’t answer every question with a key message point if it isn’t applicable. Mix it up and at the end of the interview, restate your three key points.
  1. Watch your gestures. For example, if you nod your head in agreement with a reporter when she is asking a question, you are implicitly agreeing with whatever she is saying. That becomes a problem when you are in an adversarial interview because the agreeing head nod when you are disagreeing with a point can be misconstrued as lying.
  2. Don’t get caught by long pauses. Some reporters will use the long pause as a tactic to get you to ramble on even after you have succinctly answered a question and that is often when people claim they are “misquoted” because they said something they didn’t mean to say. Wait out the pause and let the reporter ask a new question.
  1. Your words can come back to haunt you. The number one thing to remember when talking to a reporter is that nothing is off the record. If you don’t want to see it appear in print or be broadcast out over the air for all to hear, don’t say it. This is one huge reason why every business leader should go through some form of spokesperson training on a regular basis.

A media interview doesn’t have to be a scary thing and good spokesperson training, done regularly, can keep you on top of your game. So..Yeah..Right.




You Can’t Vacation When You’re Dead

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DSCN1070 There is a popular saying among hard charging, ladder-climbing executives – “I can sleep when I’m dead” they say as they burn the candle at both ends. I guess I can appreciate that mentality to some degree, although my relationship with the importance of sleep to my life is a different topic for a different day.

I take a lot of heat for being away a lot. Most of it is good-natured ribbing from friends but some of the snarky comments are “mind your own business” moments. Anyone who knows me knows how important it is for me to take trips away from the grind of daily life. Indeed we do travel a lot. Most of the vacations are 3-5 day recharging moments centered around the kids’ days off school or holidays, often to the Orlando resort area and sometimes to the beach, like this past week’s five-night trip to Cancun. I love and appreciate these trips for how they impact our family dynamic – forced quality time together that gets better every time. But we also take longer trips – like a week-long cruise at Thanksgiving, or a Christmas break at Disney World or the long 2.5 weeks in Greece to visit family in the summer.

You see, I’m a big “live for today” kind of guy. I’m not going to ever assume that my golden years will be spent traveling the world with my wife. I hope that’s what will take place. But I don’t want to take it for granted that I am somehow entitled to have that experience. Too many people make that assumption and find themselves too ill, too poor or too disinterested to do so when their time has come. Others find themselves, well, not here anymore. That’s what happened to my mom, who loved travel but put it off to take care of her family and then passed away suddenly at age 50.

By traveling now, when we can, we are exposing our children to worlds that I couldn’t have dreamed of as a kid and making family memories that will last us all a lifetime.

In addition, as a small businessman, I am never off. Never. Because of the kind of work I do, I can really get 95 percent of it done from anywhere so taking days here and there to be in a different zip code has no impact. In fact, I’ve written a full-blown strategic communications plan for a client from the lobby of a tiny hotel on a tiny island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. I’ve written and edited an employee magazine for a client from the lounge at a Disney resort hotel. When a campus crisis literally blew up in the media, I managed all communications execution from the deck of a cruise ship. I’m always available; always “on” and always keeping on top of every ongoing project. I’ve even made new business calls while in a warmer weather location for a few days. While most people get to fully unplug when they vacation, I don’t – and I’m not complaining as I wouldn’t trade this life for any other.

I confess that I love to spend time away – generally in warmer weather – with my family. I’m pretty sure that when I am ready to meet my maker I won’t say, “I really wish I hadn’t vacationed so much.”

Do Sweat the Small Stuff: Seven Little Things You Don’t’ Want to Forget When Launching Your Business

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UnknownAs a follow up to my earlier piece on “Taking the Plunge: Top 6 Tips to Launching Your Own Consulting Business,” I wanted to cover one key area in more detail. And that’s the small stuff. Everyone always talks about not sweating the small stuff and that’s something that I have to think about every day as I am a natural worrier.

But when you are launching a consulting business, if you forget about the small stuff, you may just doom yourself to failure. As a writer and communications professional, I knew what I wanted to do, started telling everyone I knew and generally thought I had everything set up for success. And then I remembered some of what you may consider secondary considerations and doubled back to make sure those details were also handled.

Here are seven little things that you’d better have in mind before you move from the relative comfort of a corporate job to the unknown world of an entrepreneurial consultancy like mine.

  1. Have the right tools – For me, it was updating my technology to make sure that I was set to hit the ground running. I purchased a new laptop, switched my phone service on my second line to Vonage and subscribed to an e-fax service. Over the nearly 10 years that I have been in business, I have made tweaks to the mix of providers but getting things set at the beginning was an important way to focus.
  2. Am I ready to market? – I immediately went to work getting business cards, website and a brochure to start the process. In hindsight, the brochure was a complete waste of money and time but it did help me to focus on the key functions I wanted to provide. I have tweaked this through the years, changing my look completely, creating a new website, delving into social media and a blog. Don’t assume when you get something ready to market that you are “done.”
  3. Insurance and healthcare – After decades in agency and corporate communications, I always had great benefits and more insurance than I ever really needed. Leaving that behind could have been scary but I have a spouse who now carries our family’s benefits and I have supplemented that with long-term disability and life insurance through a trade association to which I belong. Having that set up when I walked out the door of my comfy office made me sleep a little better at night.
  4. Additional tax consequences – In America, the entrepreneur doesn’t get many tax breaks and you are now responsible for the full amount of social security tax (instead of a 50/50 split with your employer). Make sure you understand how your income will be taxed – and a lot of that depends on how you set up your business, whether it’s a corporation, LLC or other entity.
  5. Your retirement plan – It sure was easy when a certain percentage of your income was taken out every month and sent directly to a 401(K) plan. As a self-employed individual, you have several options, but the tough lesson is that you have to make the contribution, no matter how difficult it is to send away any percentage of your hard earned dollars. No one is matching it either, so you have to allow for that when putting your plan together.
  6. Vacation planning – Anyone who knows me knows that I am not about to give up opportunities to get away, recharge the batteries and enjoy my family. The tough thing about entrepreneurship is that you never ever really can turn off completely – that you are constantly engaged in your business even if you are on vacation half way around the world. As long as you understand that this is all on you, it’s easy to stay connected and keep your clients happy. I always make sure that I also have a subcontractor who can back me up in case of emergency – or something that I can’t physically get to because I am out of town.
  7. Where will I work? Can I work from my home office? Do I need to rent a space? Will I be able to keep motivated working this way and working alone? In my last corporate job, I had some flexibility to work from home when needed and I used that time to test the waters and almost pretend that this was my life now and determine if I could accomplish great things working this way. Much to my delight I found that my most productive days were my work-at-home days and this gave me the confidence to know that I could do it when I launched my own company.

As you can see, these small details mean big decisions and no one can know how you will handle these situations except for you. Think it through and make sure you are ready for all that entrepreneurship throws your way.



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