When Tom Scott and Tom First launched Nantucket Allserve in 1988, they had no great plans to build a world-class beverage company that many people recognize today as Nantucket Nectars. The two had both recently graduated from nearby Brown University, and they just wanted to run their own business. This urge, of course, was synonymous with a desire to run their own lives. Tom First always considered himself a “staircase person.” When confronted with the choice between an elevator and a staircase, “I will always take the stairs over the elevator,” he says, “because the elevator will stop anywhere—and on the stairs I can control my own destiny.”

And so the two formed the company to avoid having someone else tell them where to get off, as it were. In their early days they ran a boat business, hustling for any work they could find. They towed and fixed boats, hauled fish, and delivered everything from bread to newspapers to the fishermen in Nantucket Harbor. The two set up a shanty for fishermen to open their scallops; they helped people wrap their boats for the winter. And then, during a slow stretch in the winter of 1989, Tom First made a peach juice concoction at a dinner party that everybody liked. And right away the two said, “Let’s sell this off the boat next summer. We’ll call it Nantucket Nectars.” And from that spark they grew a company that today does more than $50 million in annual business, and is a model of spirited management.

John Sheridan was newly married and had a baby on the way. He only needed some extra income for his growing family. His night restaurant management job afforded him the opportunity to start a landscape maintenance garden business during the day. Gardening had always been a hobby and seemed a natural activity for a side business. In six months he left his restaurant job and dived full-time into the professional Green Industry. His small startup garden business grew within a year and half to a half million dollar adventure with over fifteen employees. Even with all the time spent on growing this startup garden John still had time for his new family while operating his business office from home. - Editor

Mary Baechler hadn’t intended to build a $10 million company with more than 100 employees when she first started selling baby strollers. She just wanted to save a little time. In 1984 she and her husband Phil, new parents at the time, were having trouble finding time to jog. So Phil cobbled together a device that let him combine his daily run with time with their new child. When people began asking where they could buy one of these strollers, the two would build one in their garage and sell it to the customer. Thus was born the Baby Jogger, Inc. Today the Yakima, Washington, company has diversified into crib liners and other baby gear. And Mary, who remains head of the company, has learned a great deal about business through a venture that in its early years was conducted at their kitchen table. Yet she credits the emergence of the thriving and complex enterprise to the simple impulse to combine her time for jogging and being with her children.

Finally, consider Amy Miller. While studying to become a doctor at Tufts University outside of Boston, Miller started scooping ice cream at a local ice cream store named Steve’s. At the time the store enjoyed the celebrity of being an early “boutique” ice creamery, offering high-premium sweets in a funky setting that drew crowds that formed lines literally around the block. The more Miller scooped, the more she fell in love with the business. And the more she discovered that she’d rather spend time tending to individual stomachs than to curing colds. Over time Miller learned the ins and outs of the business and in 1984 launched Amy’s Ice Cream in Austin, Texas. Today the company has eleven stores and does more than $3.5 million in annual sales.

Three different successful businesses–three different paths to success. None of these successful company builders were seasoned or experienced when they launched their nascent ventures. In fact, none of them had any practical experience about running a company. Rather, they were fueled by a passion for what they produced, and by a restless urge to control their own destinies. Though each brought different strengths and knowledge to their enterprise, they all grew their company at a pace comparable to their own personal development of skills. For each of them, as it will be for you, the simple process of running their company taught them what they needed to know. You can learn all you like from courses and books, but the act of running your company will always be the greatest source of growth and learning for you. It’s similar to the difference between reading about a foreign country through guidebooks and movies and actually traveling there. Proficiency comes through practice, and business will teach you what you need to know.

The experience of these three people, and of many more entrepreneurs, reveals a truism about business start-ups that flies in the face of most dreamy legends about perfect jobs and dream companies. Even though many small business owners report a sense of control and happiness with their companies, they aren’t all working on fantasy businesses based on childhood dreams or abstract ideals. Many of them “found” the right business through the process of being in business. This is not to say that they aren’t basing their businesses on something they care about deeply. The two Toms couldn’t be more passionate about making juice; to hear them talk about a new design for a bottle is not unlike a Formula One Race car driver praising his or her car. Although your passion for what you produce should be at the heart of your business, it might not be the sole factor in determining what kind of business you should start. There are other critical factors. Now is the time to look at what they may be.

Should You Keep Your Day Job?

Tempting as it is to jump into your new garden business with both feet, it makes sense for most people to hang on to their day jobs, at least for a while. Your new venture may very well be an extension of your activities at your current job. Maintaining continuity helps in several ways.

First and foremost is simple cash flow. Your business may not be profitable enough to pay you a salary for some time, and the longer you can keep regular income flowing in, the more time and energy you will be able to dedicate to refining your product and developing loyal customers.

Along with a salary, of course, are benefits—which should never be taken for granted. Health insurance is a major expense, assuming you can even qualify for the same level of coverage you have. If you have a chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, you may have trouble finding coverage at all. Moreover, having your company withhold taxes and pay half your social security is a blessing. Start-up entrepreneurs are often shocked by their first year of taxes as a separate enterprise; having extra taxes withheld from your salary can soften the blow.

Finally, existing businesses often root you in the industry you want to be in, and keep you connected with potential customers, partners, and other supporters. For many small-business owners, especially in service sectors, their employer may be their first and most important client, or may even be an initial source of capital. And the right day job can be an apprenticeship as valuable as a graduate degree. While you’re working, you may also be able to take advantage of job-related training programs that will help you later on: professional continuing education, computer training, human resources workshops, and more

There’s no reason you can’t start a garden business while holding on to a job. Yet if you choose to do so, you need to be honest with your employer about your plans. “You have to have an agreement with your present employer, because starting a business is time-consuming,” says Ann Marie Stanton, who was able to start her own business as a Los Angeles–based antique jewelry dealer, while working as an assistant to HMS, an established dealer. Stanton kept close ties with her former employer after branching out on her own. “It was important not to burn any bridges,” she said, “and Harriet [her former employer] is a big supporter of mine”

This chapter will teach you to listen to your own dreams and passions, link them to skills you have, identify your resources and opportunities, set personal goals and a mission, and then determine the most likely business that arises from this gumbo.

Or…not?

But before you start borrowing money and building storefronts in the air, it’s a good idea to be sure that you really want to embark on this journey. Before we analyze your individual venture, you must ask one fundamental question. Do you really want to start your own garden business? Launching a business is a massively time- and soul-consuming project with the potential to destroy your personal life, cripple your self-confidence, obliterate your personal (and family) resources, and pretty much leave you with nothing to show for it. It’s wise to think long and hard about whether you really want to embark on this journey. (See the sidebar “Should You Keep Your Day Job?”)

Personally, I don’t believe that there’s one easy-to-define “entrepreneurial type.” Rather, anybody with commitment and the right mindset can master the skills and take the actions that make one an entrepreneur. As Peter Drucker puts it, “Everyone who can face up to decision making can learn to be an entrepreneur and to behave entrepreneurially. Entrepreneurship, then, is behavior rather than personality trait.”

Is a startup garden business or landscape maintenance business for you? - Editor

Which is not to say that starting a company is for everybody. There are many considerations to take into account when considering whether to launch a business at all. First, you should match up whether you are at some fundamental level a good fit with starting a company. Try looking back over your life, for example, and asking whether you have acted entrepreneurially before—in anything from finding or creating a market for funky earrings to creating something you wanted but couldn’t find elsewhere. For a quick check on how you might be tested with your endeavor, see the sidebar “Who Wants to Be an Entrepreneur?”

Launching a garden business is not as risky as you might imagine. There’s a huge distinction between risk, which can be characterized as the possibility of loss, and uncertainty, which refers to the lack of knowing what lies in your short- and near-term future. In many ways, launching a business is less risky than sticking it out at an uncertain job in today’s fast economy. Just look at the continued layoffs from established companies, which even in the best of times are striving for ways to streamline staff in the name of efficiency.

Moreover, the startup business is more resilient than most people think. Research done by economists at the Small Business Administration (SBA) shows that more than half of all businesses last for more than two years, while another half of that number lasts for four years. The actual stories behind these statistics reveal a healthier scenario than these numbers indicate. These statistics include the large number of businesses that are sold, or whose owners retire, or close shop for greater opportunities. Granted, certain industries are more failure-prone than others. But don’t forget: You aren’t starting a statistical probability. You’re starting your own unique garden business.

As opposed to risk, start-ups do introduce a highly revved-up uncertainty to your life. You will have to learn to get better at answering questions and get better at figuring out what the salient questions in your business life are. You’ll have no guarantee of steady income, professional validation, or the simple psychic comfort that comes with having an established job. You may not know where your next round of capital will come from, or how you will produce the next generation of your product, or whom you will be working with tomorrow, or next month. And you may just not know how you’ll solve some pressing problems—life will come to resemble my favorite exchange from Shakespeare in Love, where Henslowe assures Fennyman that, “Strangely enough it all turns out well.” When asked how, he replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Design the job you want… in your own startup garden business. - Editor

Just remember that you will be making a conscious decision to integrate your personal and work life with your company. This decision brings both pros and cons. On the plus side, you have more control over your own destiny—and realize a more immediate link between your behavior and the success of your business. You enjoy greater ownership, both literal and psychological, over your work. You increase your opportunity for wealth. You have the chance to truly design the job you want, and to create a product or service you deeply believe in. You pursue knowledge and increase your expertise on an ongoing basis. You satisfy people.

Of course most of these conditions bring with them a dark side. Owning the company, for example, often results in just the opposite—feeling completely possessed in life by a time- and energy-sucking enterprise that leaves you with no other life whatsoever. Moreover, launching a company often deprives you of all those lovely perks and benefits that are second nature to established companies. (Are you prepared to fix your copier when it breaks down and do your own FICA paperwork?) Starting a company means abandoning all the fixed structures and the order they bring into your life. Finally, starting a company can be an invitation to loneliness—not merely because you give up the water cooler and other huddles of friendly support, but because you will be constantly asking strangers to validate your endeavor, and only sometimes succeeding.

For these reasons, and many others, launching a garden business just isn’t right for everybody. There’s nothing dishonorable about working for others, nor is there any shame in honestly assessing the toll that running a business takes—and deciding against it. Consider the choices made by Jim Collins. This former Stanford Business School professor had the opportunity to build a lucrative consulting company based on the success of his book Built to Last. After the book’s 1994 publication, Collins could have earned significant money consulting, training, and going on the lecture tour. Yet he chose to follow the precepts he laid out in his book. And so he defined his own mission and values, and chose his life accordingly. This meant being an educator above all else, which forced him to make a few key decisions.

First off, Collins decided not to hire anybody full-time. “If you start hiring people full-time and building a firm you build in fixed overhead, which means that you’ll have to sell something to support it,” he says. And Collins couldn’t do this and remain aligned with his personal goals. “I don’t sell and I have no interest in selling,” he says. While he does see some clients and gives an occasional lecture, he has set ground rules for himself. He limits all clients to a maximum of three days per year. He limits his consulting or teaching activities to less than 25 percent of his time. And he devotes at least 50 percent of his time to the creative work that is at the heart of his books. The tradeoffs for him have been to forgo greater financial gain for a better realization of what he values most. “If I were to start a Built to Last consulting company I would have made five to twenty times what I made over the past five years,” he said recently. “Instead I am my own self-endowed chair.”

Collins understands that building a business calls for a massive commitment in terms of time, resources, and attention. Don’t kid yourself—starting a business is a huge leap, and it’s critical that you be clear about the demands that starting a business imposes on your life and on those around you.