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In a hectic few career years, I went from a glass office overlooking Central Park, through my MBA from Wharton, to a series of tech startups in Silicon Valley.
Now I acquire and improve trailer parks in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas, among other places. Our social mission is to expand the range of affordable housing. My blue suits are packed away. My fingernails get dirty.
And I couldn’t be happier.
This is the time of year when thousands of new finance and economics students pour into university lecture halls with dreams of great careers. Most are expected to follow the traditional path – Wall Street, the consulting firms, the corporate ladder.
But I’m here to say that there’s plenty of pride and satisfaction — even prosperity — for business students who are willing to forego the worn white gloves of finance for something more sinister. I am my own boss. I have more responsibility and less bureaucracy. I am making and managing something real here.
If you think a little differently – and are willing to take a risk and put your own skin in the game – then it pays to go your own way.
Here are four key lessons I learned while transitioning from a corporate career to entrepreneurship.
See also: 4 Essentials for Moving from Corporate Job to Entrepreneur
Value is about numbers, not glamour
Like many in business, I’m a fan of Warren Buffett’s philosophy of finding undervalued assets and sticking with them. More recently, he’s found value at renowned giants like Apple, Chevron, Paramount, and big pharma.
I applied the same value philosophy to real estate, where I started looking at traditional apartment buildings, but kept finding mobile home parks that were 20-25% undervalued on the listings. This was not the asset class I wanted to study. In fact, I had never set foot in an RV park at that point. However, the numbers always speak. You just have to hear them, especially when the numbers speak in unexpected ways.
Entrepreneurship is for people who don’t follow the herd
Believe me, nobody at the country club brags about owning trailer parks. If you were one of those kids who always wanted to fit in, wear the same clothes as everyone else and join the same fraternity or sorority, then starting your own entrepreneurial path might not be for you.
You have to be comfortable enough in your own skin and confident enough to forge your own path – to do something in the business that you believe in, regardless of what others think. You also need the courage to stick with it, even when the doubters speak up. Entrepreneurship is not for people who like to play it safe.
Be honest about what you don’t know – and then work to fix it
Even if the investment numbers make sense, you have to know what to do with them.
The reality was that when I got into this industry, I knew little about operating RV parks. Business schools tend to focus on doing spreadsheets and creating marketing plans—my curriculum at Wharton didn’t have RV park case studies. So I attended seminars, read every book I could find, and assembled an unofficial advisory board of 10 park-owners. I then asked lots of stupid questions and eventually better questions, and my discovery process revealed an overlooked asset class and better ways to manage it.
See also: 10 questions to ask yourself before starting your entrepreneurial journey
Understand and accept the new culture
The numbers in your business may be compelling, but spreadsheets alone don’t make businesses run—people do. No matter where your MBA comes from, a successful entrepreneur must meet employees and customers where they are.
I’ve traded in shiny loafers for dusty cowboy boots, and I’m hiring people without a fancy college degree like mine—or even a college degree at all. The field folks who manage RV parks may have different life experiences than the folks who run corporate offices, but the job is still to keep a team on track to achieve goals.
Communication skills are key. A successful entrepreneur must be able to provide clear direction to both the high net worth investor and the young professional. You also need to be able to listen and learn. Book learning can give you the basics in a new sector, but so many of the toughest lessons come from experience in the field.
Entrepreneurship is not for people who covet the traditional rewards of business success. My company name doesn’t shine on a skyscraper; I have no stock options; and a large HR department does not negotiate my health plan or adjust my 401(k) posts.
But the decisions here are made by me, not by someone I’ve never met in an office far away. This is my vision, my plan and my responsibility. The result is mine. And so is pride – and contentment.
The transition from corporate America to entrepreneurial America is a road less traveled. But even off the traditional business highway, there is good luck for those with the desire and ability to turn their own steering wheel.