When building a business, ‘passion doesn’t cut it’
Plan, check. Passion, check. Product, check.
Profit? That’s a different matter, and for an entrepreneur, achieving that fourth P means having a fifth: Persistence.
One in five businesses dissolve within their first year, reports the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, so the odds are against prospective business owners, and the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur may spell the difference between bankroll and bankrupt.
For Sherwin Nepomucena, that characteristic is persistence.
“It doesn’t matter in which industry you’d like to start your business, but you need to be somebody that doesn’t give up,” he said. “When people tell you no, you need to see it as an opportunity, don’t see it as a no and stop there.”
Nepomucena started Seven Valleys Specialty Cables with about 27 years of experience working in the cable industry.
When the company he worked for — Cortland Cable — moved a medical products division to a new building in South Cortland and moved all other operations out of the area in 2020, he saw that as an opportunity, and has run his cable manufacturing business in its sted for the past two years.
“I knew that I could drive this business and make it a success, but you need to have a passion for what you’re doing and I have a passion for cables,” he said. “You also need to recognize when you need help and ask for it. I’m still learning that part.”
Nepomucea didn’t do it all on his own though; he received money from the town of Cortlandville from its 2021 Community Development Block Grant award to hire 22 new employees by April 1, 2024.
Business owners need more than passion, said Les Howard, the upstate New York district director of SCORE, a nonprofit organization of experienced business mentors that helps people looking to take their business ideas to market. They need perspective from people who’ve been entrepreneurs.
“If you don’t think beyond just your passion, you may like your business, but who’s to say others will?” he said.
“As you look at starting a business, you should have a business plan, factoring in what you want to accomplish, where your business will be located, and the initial investment you’ll be putting into it,” Howard said. “Talk to people before you start your business so at least before you go into that, you get a sense of the things you should avoid, instead of looking for help after your business has already lost traction.”
Success boils down to talking with the people that have that experience, and learning from their mistakes, said Nick Zwierlein, a client relationship manager for the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, which provides office and lab space and mentorship for startup companies in Binghamton.
“Having the right support systems in place is integral,” Zwierlein said. “Wearing a billion different hats can be overwhelming, but having a resource like Koffman, where you can learn from the mentors and learn to ask, ‘Hey, I have an idea, do other people think this is a worthy idea?’ is incredibly valuable. You can think something gonna save the world but if nobody buys it it’s not gonna save the world.”
The seventh and eighth P
People starting their first business will need permits, Howard said. They’ll need to license their business under a DBA name (doing business as), and an employee identification number from the IRS if they intend to have many employees.
Thirty-eight DBAs have been registered with the Cortland County Clerk’s Office so far this year. Whether they have the seventh P is another matter: Preparation.
“I like to ask those that come in for mentoring, have you thought about whether or not you’re trying to do the same thing many others are already doing in your neighborhood?” Howard said, giving an example of an Italian restaurant he mentored. “Passion doesn’t cut it if your competition is six other similar restaurants in the same area. Have you tasted the food from other locations to see how tasty it is or if your food is going to be better? Try doing a little outside research, go into a restaurant and prepare some dishes with them.”
Nepomucena said he hired an accounting company and a legal firm to handle the aspects of his business that he was unfamiliar with, and to make sure his business doesn’t violate state or federal regulations.
For people with little to no experience, working for a similar business is a great way to learn how to open one, Howard said.
“If you think about small business being the lifeblood of our society, every community you go into you will see all these small businesses,” he said. “Unless you can offer assistance and see how they are a part of that community and knowledge they have to help them, until you know that, and if you assume everything you know is enough, it’s never going to work.”
“Nine out of 10 startups fail, that’s just statistics,” Zwierlein said. “Sometimes, success really is just dumb luck and being in the right spot at the right time. But what it boils down to is doing things in the right manner as a founder, doing customer discovery, and making sure you have a product market fit.”
Experienced founders who have tried and failed say learning from failure makes it easier the next go round, but it does take a driven and dedicated person to be an entrepreneur, Zwierlein said.
“It is a very tough job being a startup founder,” he said. “You have to wear a lot of different hats, and be on call 24/7, but simultaneously it’s one of the most rewarding things people can do.”
Nepomucena offers a word of warning for new business owners prone to overworking.
“You have to keep pushing yourself every day, and there’s no day where you can let yourself take a break, but there are some days your body will tell you to,” he said. “Last week, I had to go home early and rest because I couldn’t stay awake anymore, so I went home and slept from six to six. That’s not healthy, so don’t be lazy, but don’t kill yourself.”
Nepomucena said he’s lost more than sleep nursing his newborn company.
“A business will cost you a lot sometimes,” he said. “Friends, family, your gym membership, but you know that you’re doing it for a good cause. You need to sacrifice a lot.”
Nepomucena said that sticking with your business idea and not letting others change your mind is the way to go. However, Howard said being too stuck on a business idea can lead to bad business habits.
“You won’t succeed if you’re not accessible,” he said. “If someone asks you a question, you can’t make it up, but if you tell them something then they get there and it’s not exactly what you said, the customer will note that and tell people that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Still, no successful business starts without sacrifice and risk, Nepomucena said, adding he risked it all for his company.
“People ask me, what else I have, and if there’s a plan B,” he said. “This is my only plan. If this fails, I’m done.”