In October of 2012, I was a Boise City firefighter, a union member and a public employee. I had one of the most dependable occupations — at least regarding the danger of being fired (no pun intended).

Two days later, I was unemployed and on the streets in November. Well, not exactly on the streets, but I certainly was unemployed. 

I had been selling real estate as a “side job” (I had two full-time occupations) for about 2.5 years when I decided to leave employment and jump with both feet into self-employment — or, as we in the game like to call it, unemployment!  

It was time for the good news and bad news  

The good news was that my time and income were completely controlled. 

The bad news was that my time and income were completely controlled, or in other words, it was my responsibility and nobody else’s. Nobody was coming to save me now.

Not long after leaving the fire service to continue seeking my own path in business, I took my real estate license to the next level. I became a broker and started my own brokerage.

Fast forward a decade, and Amherst Madison sells over $1 billion worth of real estate each year and has the most productive and profitable agents in Idaho.

Yet, no matter what happens in my career as a business owner, I will always be an entrepreneur first, and I will always be well aware that I am responsible for my financial security and the security of my family, my employees and my team. This is the reality of being “on your own.”

The stress and ownership never go away. The memories of the panic attacks, feelings of doom, and fears of bankruptcy in hard times never go away.  

In my years of training and coaching new agents, this adjustment to being a self-employed entrepreneur has proven to be very difficult for people. In many ways, it is more difficult than adjusting to life in sales or simply learning the skills you need to make it in real estate.

This should come as no surprise considering the high failure rate of small businesses, most of which have closed up shop within five years of starting. 

Here are some of my hard-earned lessons on how to make it in this life: 

1. Test the market

You don’t know anything until the marketplace says that you do. The market later proves many ideas we have in startup mode to be unfounded, unwanted or just plain bad ideas.

I have lost count of the number of “great” ideas I have had that fail miserably once customers get a look at them. If you have something you want to try, get a “minimum viable product” in front of real people, real customers, as soon as humanly possible. Let them tell you how good it is or is not. 

2. Defeat the beast

What is “the beast?” Your ego. Your ego will take your hand, lead you to the path of failure and smile the entire way down. Most of the time, your original ideas and concepts will not be accepted by the market or will require tweaking and changing. Be ready for this, and anticipate the need for sudden and dramatic change.

Do not fall in love with your idea to the extent that you cannot be flexible — ditch ego. Embrace humble pie. The people who “make it” do so not because their ideas all work, but because they make changes to failed ideas and iterate repeatedly. Forever. They never stop. 

3. Burn the ships, and go all in 

Eventually, you must jump off the dock and commit yourself to your vision. The art and magic can be knowing when to make this leap away from your steady source of income to dedicate 100 percent of your time and efforts to your business.

Whether you “nail the landing” and get the timing perfect or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that you eventually have to go all in, either by choice or kicking and screaming. 

The precise timing varies, but the act itself does not. If you wish to be successful, it will take everything you have. All in.  

4. Do what you say, and don’t lie. Your word is your brand 

We talk about “brand” a lot in business and marketing. Unfortunately, we often use that word incorrectly. Many times, when someone says “brand,” what they really mean is “reputation.” Alternatively, you could say that “reputation” was the most important part of your “brand.”

Either way, the point is this: Do what you say you will do. Period. If you don’t, if you flake out and you lie to people, that will become your brand. You will fail.

Rule No. 1 in any business is that you must learn to make a promise to people and then keep that promise. If you cannot be relied upon, they will go elsewhere. 

5. Love the customer, not the product or service

Pay attention to the customer a lot more than the product or service. Better yet, consider the customer a lifelong client, and fall in love with them. To provide the high level of value to the client that is necessary to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you must be passionately dedicated to serving your clients’ spoken and unspoken needs.

Many entrepreneurs care so much about the product or the service itself that they lose sight of what and who really matters — the customer. 

6. Never settle and never stop growing 

Successful entrepreneurs don’t just make the right decisions. They make decisions, and then they make those decisions the “right decision” with their follow through and actions.

It’s the follow-through, the actions, the continuous improvement and the ceaseless iterations that make it the “right” decision.

You can never settle. You can never “coast.” That is the job if you want to continue to grow and make it a win for you and your family, friends and employees. 

7. Education never stops

Cliche? Yep. 100 percent fact? Yes. Consider this: What are we selling in an economy that is primarily service-driven? Where does our value in the service industry lie?

Knowledge. In a fast-paced and rapidly evolving service industry, such as real estate, your ability to survive will be based on your ability and willingness to stay at the front of the pack.

Education should always be proactive and push you closer to your long-term vision. It’s not a box to check. It is not something boring that you should rush through ASAP. It’s an opportunity for you to build a strategic advantage. 

Nick Schlekeway is the founder of Amherst Madison, a Boise, Idaho-based real estate brokerage. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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