Grads_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

It’s cap and gown time. Another generation faces the daunting question: What on earth should I do now?

 

Rest assured, America’s entrepreneurs were there once, too. So what would this wizened and battle-hardened group tell an ambitious young person if they could? We offered a few business owners the chance to proffer some smart advice to future head honchos.

 

What do these entrepreneurs wish they knew when they were leaving school?

 

1. Capitalize on your freedom

Most new grads have life’s weightiest matters still ahead of them: marriage, kids, mortgages. So if you’re looking to strike out on your own, now may be the time—before decisions become more complicated and the risks too great. Twentysomething Nick Ramil and his business partner, Tim Nybo, finished college and headed to Guangzhou, China, to teach English part-time—and start up their consultancy on the side to pursue international opportunities. Now they’re running Royal American Wines, an importer and distributor, and coaching Chinese and global entrepreneurs. “The majority of people are too scared to take action,” Ramil says. “Over time, these people’s dreams and ambitions are slowly extinguished. Even if you fail, you played the game… this will only be a positive or sign of strength on a resume.”

 

2. Build something

Create a website. Or, better yet, an app—it’s a skill that’s in high demand. Along the way, you’ll learn things that are indispensable, like how to code, manage a project, study analytics, or a thousand other tools, says Gabriel Mays, the 28-year-old founder of Justaddcontent.com, a San Diego-based website maker for small businesses, and a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The bottom line: Work on something that solves a problem in your industry. “If this isn’t your background, it’ll make your mind work in ways you never thought it could,” Mays says. “Can you image someone who conceived of, designed, built, marketed, and supported something completely new? They understand every step of the process. Talk about marketable when you throw that on a resume.”

 

Grads_PQ.jpg3. Your early relationships matter more than you think

Everyone has to start somewhere, but don’t make the mistake of believing that any task is beneath you. Vannessa Wade, now the 32-year-old president of her own Houston-based public-relations firm, Connect the Dots PR, looks back at her early work days and cringes a bit. “You have to learn to volunteer for projects and to be a team player,” she says. On one job, “my mind was always ‘Get me out of here,’ not realizing it was coming out in my actions.’” Instead, learn how to take disappointment and keep adding more skills. “You don’t have to show that you’d rather be out trying to be an entrepreneur,” Wade says. Instead, become a magnet for a mentor: “Work hard and people will want to look out for you.” These days, she often taps into that early network she built for advice. “People actually want to help you,” Wade explains. “I can reach out to other entrepreneurs to pick their brains about what does and doesn’t work, or get an honest answer about what I might be doing wrong.”

 

4. Be a good observer

Watch how other people operate, what niches they occupy, how their systems and organizations work, and zero in on their motivations and goals. It’s the best thing Matthew Zehner says he’s learned from his business. He takes the time “to read people, interpret this information, and use it to communicate more effectively to create the best possible outcome for my clients, my business, and my employees.” Zehner, the 28-year-old chief executive of ZehnerGroup, an interactive media agency, now has a staff of 30 employees, based in Los Angeles. The observational skill set becomes essential when dealing with difficult situations. “That life lesson is invaluable in the business world—whether it’s knowing how to word an email to a potential client to get the response I’m hoping for or how to communicate project risk with a client early on.”

 

5. Know when to ask for help

Georgette Blau was just out of college in 1999 when she started giving weekend tours of New York’s famous movie and television locations, as a sideline to her job in publishing. “Once I hit about $400 a week, I thought I could make a go of it full-time and make it a lot bigger,” she says. There were plenty of in-demand settings, as Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Seinfeld and others were becoming popular. But for about 18 months, she was doing it all: taking reservations, conducting tours, arranging marketing and logistics, and handling the finances. Looking back, she says monopolizing all of these burdens kept her fledgling company from growing faster. She added an office staffer and made it through some difficult times after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then steadily started to build up On Location Tours, learning plenty of management lessons along the way. Now with 50 employees on the job, she’s readying a TMZ celebrity-gossip-themed tour and looking at possibilities for the HBO series Girls. “It’s great to have the experience of wearing different hats, but in order to move forward in a business, you really have to hire at least an office manager to help with more time-consuming tasks, say Blau, now 38.

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