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If you ask Natalie MacNeil when she realized she was an entrepreneur, she has to think back a while. "I was the kid with the lemonade stand," she says, "then the business selling stationery and gifts to neighbors, then the customer service auditing business as a teen."
But as far as co-founding Imaginarius, the digital media company which won an Emmy award for producing Out My Window, the world's first 360-degree interactive documentary (like a web-based choose-your-own-adventure film) or authoring She Takes On the World, her popular blog and best-selling book about women and entrepreneurship, there was one moment that started it all.
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While traveling after college graduation, unsure of her next move, Natalie saw what she considers to be a sign. "I was driving through the Czech Republic listening to David Guetta's 'The World Is Mine' and I saw this enormous, two-story globe out the window that said, 'The World Is Yours,'" Natalie explains. "I pulled over the car and knew in that moment that I had to follow my dream of becoming an entrepreneur."
She still has a picture of that moment, and has used it as inspiration while founding both Imaginarius and She Takes On the World. But one moment isn't what won her an Emmy, made her a best-selling author or allowed her to co-found Y.E.C. women, an organization to provide young women with the mentorship and support needed to grow their own businesses. Natalie shared with us her top secrets to being a successful female entrepreneur.
Could you please explain the idea of working on your business, instead of in it, a concept you bring up in your book?
When you’re working in your business, you get really occupied trying to do it all, and a lot of that is busywork that makes you lose sight of the bigger picture. To grow your revenue potential you need to be working on your business—focusing on where you want to go by working on revenue-generating activities like reaching out to clients and following new leads. You can outsource the little things to someone else. It doesn't have to be expensive: You can even hire a virtual assistant a few hours each week and use that time to work on your business. If you want your company to grow, it has to happen beyond just you.
In the book, you mention a few of your favorite tech resources that help you run your business. Which are your top three?
- Shoeboxed: You send all of your receipts in an envelope and they scan and organize them for you in a digital file. No matter where I am in the world, I can pop my receipts in the mail and my accountant can download those files to do the books.
- Google Drive: You can share and collaborate on your documents, and have them wherever you go.
- Skype: I pay something like $35 a year and make tons of calls from all around the world. The video calls are really cool—I have people I consider friends who I’ve never met in person.
And what does the concept of "working happy" mean to you?
Working happy means living on purpose and doing something you like (or love) to be doing. It also means working no more than you have to. That doesn’t mean you’re lazy or not dedicated—it means hiring help or outsourcing things that feel tedious and drain your energy, especially in your business. Do the tasks you’re best at, focus on working on projects, not in projects, and hire help for the things that feel like work.
Finding and following your passion is a major theme of "She Takes On the World." What do you say to the writings of best-selling author and Georgetown Professor Cal Newport,who discourages the idea of 'finding your passion' in favor of developing a passion for whatever it is you do?
I do agree with what he says about passion developing slowly for people doing what they love. If you don’t know that you want to do, you should try lots of different things to learn what you don’t like to do. I’m a huge fan of getting out of your comfort zone and trying different things to realize what you do and don’t like, what your strengths and weakness are.
I start to disagree when he says you can spend years in a position you don’t like building skills to move up the ranks. That can be very draining, and it isn’t good to keep yourself in a high stress environment where you don’t feel challenged.
What are your top three pieces of advice for an entrepreneur?
1. Get a mentor. As far as connecting with mentors, I never ask for more than five minutes or three questions. That means I’ll reach out to someone and say, “I admire your work doing such and such, this is who I am and here are a couple things I’m working on. Because you’ve been where I want to go, I would love the opportunity to have five minutes or three questions to help me stay on the right path to someday achieve your level of success.” I don’t think anyone has ever said no, because it’s just five minutes.
2. Define your niche. If you’re going to build a business, define your niche and make sure you’re building with your prospective customers' feedback. There’s no point building something they don’t want or need. Spend time surveying them, hanging out where they hang out, going to events where they would be.
3. Work yourself into your schedule. We’re all busy people, and it’s important to remember that as you climb our way up the ladder, you’re the most important person in your life. You have to value that and take care of yourself physically and mentally, because no one else is going to care as much as you do.
How do you make sure your idea is different from what's already in the marketplace?
Think about the wants and needs in your own life and where there’s an opportunity to create a business around that want or need. You don’t have to invent something new—people think entrepreneurs are always inventing, but some of the most successful people I know started businesses that were already in the marketplace. (Then again, some entrepreneurs do invent things.) At the end of the day, you have unique gifts. Nobody else can be you. Just by bringing that to your business, you will create something a little different.
Is there a type of person who can be her own boss and a type of person who can't? How do you tell the difference?
There are definitely people born with the entrepreneurial drive, but there are people who talk themselves out of it and don’t know if they can take that chance. I read a great piece about how entrepreneurs and CEOs aren’t born—they’re made through doing things that feel unnatural and building that skill set. There’s nothing natural about letting someone go or giving tough feedback, but it’s something you learn to do. You won’t know until you try it. Maybe you’ll hate being your own boss, but if it interests you at all, it’s worth giving it a try.
You write in your book that one of your mantras is, "You may not be where you want to be, but you are always where you need to be?" What does it mean?
I had gotten into this state of mine where I was always reaching for the carrot dangling in the distance instead of the one right in front of me. But I’ve learned that you have to step back and appreciate the present moment and know that it will tie into where you go. Steve Jobs talked about the idea of connecting the dots of your progress—you can’t see the path as you’re on it, but when you look back on your life you can see the dots connect. There are lessons to learn, people to meet and opportunities to start building right now.
What is the problem with thinking "If I make lots of money, I won't have to worry about anything?"
I hear this all the time. People say, “If I won a million dollars, it would fix everything.” (Although the price of happiness is much lower than that.) But money only enhances who we already are. Money worries aren’t going to go away because worrying is a mindset. So many of us think that what we need and want is out there in the world and it’s something money can buy. Try looking within: What does success look like when you don’t add a dollar amount? Success is different to everyone and you need to define what it looks like for you … and for a lot of people, money may not be a part of it.
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