What I have learned from 15 years in business

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Fifteen years ago today, on August 16, 1996, I rolled over slowly in bed.

My head was throbbing. I could hardly breathe. I felt weak.

It was my first day as a self-employed person.

I was in the middle of a wicked bout of pneumonia, and at that point, all I knew was that I no longer could keep up the grueling pace of full-time corporate manager by day and non-profit Executive Director and martial arts instructor by night and weekend.

I had no idea that the choice to get back to good health would lead to some of the most exhilarating years of my life.

In fifteen years, my path has led me from consultant to large corporations to coach to hundreds of individuals wanting career change, to teacher to thousands who want to start a business, to author and speaker about leading in the new world of work.

I have learned a few things in these fifteen years, and most have nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of business plans.

  1. Your biggest weakness can become your greatest asset.
    Let’s face it, I am a hippy. I like to do good in the world. I like to build meaningful relationships. I reduce, reuse and recycle. And I believe in reciprocity — giving at least as much as I get. At various stages in my career, mentors have chided me for not being more “hard,” caring less about impact and more about the bottom line. I have carefully weighed their advice and made significant shifts in my sales process and business strategy to make sure I am getting good value back for my investment in energy. I have also learned that focusing on more than the “hard” side of business has been a tremendous strategic advantage as I have built a large community of friendly, supportive blog readers and clients who care as much about making meaning in the world as they do about making money. My friend Dave Rendall calls this your Freak Factor in his excellent book of the same name.
  2. Learn from your triggers.
    When you get clear on the kind of business you want to run and how you want to run it, chances are you will also get clear on who represents the polar opposite of your style. You may be a master craftsperson and get triggered by a flamboyant marketing person. You may pride yourself on being tuned in and sensitive to the needs of your customers and get triggered by people who use saucy and abrasive language. I have learned from many years experience that very often, people who trigger me have very important things to teach me. And if I shut out ALL of their advice just because I dislike their style, I can miss out on tremendous opportunities to grow. The mentors I mentioned in the above point are examples — if I had totally rejected their advice to be more strong and clear on the “hard” side of my business, I would not have achieved the success I have.
  3. You must define your own success.
    I think comparison must be part of how we are hard-wired as humans. New babies probably check each other out in the nursery and think “Man, why did he get such a soft blanket when I have this scratchy one?” Distinguishing ourselves from each other helps to define our own identities. As we grow, comparison can eat us alive. Each one of us makes different choices about how we spend our time, how often we work, what we eat, what we create and how we make time for family. Comparing yourself to a peer’s output instead of your own leads to Success Dysmorphia. My definition of success is “enjoying living my life while I am living it.” What is yours?
  4. Nothing substitutes for substance.
    It can be frustrating to watch new kids on the block zoom to fame and fortune after you have been slogging in the trenches for years. Sometimes they are lucky. Sometimes they are just frighteningly talented.ย  Instead of wasting energy with envy, learn from the good things they do, and don’t worry about the superficial parts. I go grumpy old school some days because I know from so many years training martial arts that it is impossible to build mastery in a body of work without also building muscle. If you are marketing a crappy product, even with the best tools and persuasion techniques, sooner or later your market will find out it is crappy.
  5. Peers are oxygen.
    I get a lot of questions from the press about the “ideal characteristics”of new entrepreneurs. “Do you need an MBA?” they ask. “Can introverts be entrepreneurs?” “Which Meyers Briggs Profile is most likely to succeed in business?” I say the same thing in almost every interview: Regardless of your strengths or weaknesses, if you do not have a stellar circle of peer mentors around you, you will not succeed in business. There are precious few people who have a totally balanced skill set and can move between brilliant strategy to brilliant execution to dazzling persuasion and sales. You will get stuck, and feel scared, and need advice regardless of who you are. Your peers become as significant to you on your business journey as your best friend from college or your parents or spouse. Choose wisely. Without partners like Charlie Gilkey,ย  Michele Woodward, Desiree Adaway Andrea Lee and Jonathan Fields and young mentors like Willie Jackson, Ramit Sethi and Shama Kabani, and High Council members like Seth Godin, Martha Beck, Tim Berry, Nancy Duarte and Guy Kawasaki to look up to, I would be lost.
  6. The bigger you get, the more you have to say no.
    My business partner Charlie Gilkey said it well this weekend at Lift Off: the first two stages of business are about saying YES and the last two stages are about saying NO. Most new entrepreneurs come brimming with new ideas and approaches and rightly spend most of their time testing and trying new ideas. Once you get some traction and your business starts to boom, you will burst at the seams if you don’t make some decisions about what is really important to you and will yield the best results. Learn how to say no.
  7. Fame and money come and go. Impact endures.
    When I consulted in Silicon Valley, I knew a lot of very wealthy people. They drove really fast and expensive cars and ate lots of sushi and worked in cool places with ping pong tables and fancy chairs. A few not only were great at their work but really loved it as well. The vast majority of them were sprinting through life afraid that a tidal wave would hit them if they stopped producing. Many created PowerPoint slides about incomprehensible things and pitched products that few people truly understood. When things came crashing down in 2000, many were devastated to step off the gravy train. But others not only survived, they thrived and grew the next wave of great products and services. Make sure that you are not only proud of your body of work, but humbled by the impact it has on people you care about deeply. And if you are an educator/coach/teacher and anyone ever questions the value of what you provide, send them a link to this video.
  8. You grow as your business grows.
    I know I am a better businessperson after 15 years in business than I was when I started. I also know that I am a better person than I was 15 years ago. Business changes you and forces you to grow in strange and wondrous ways. If you don’t grow in a positive direction, sooner or later your business will begin to get sick. Which is why I think going into business is the best personal development on the planet.
  9. When you don’t evolve, you go backwards.
    Your people WANT you to grow. And when you don’t, they go elsewhere. Nothing in the natural world stands still — it is born, it grows, it withers, it dies. And it is used as fertilizer for the next thing that grows. You are not serving anyone by staying stuck. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t knowย  — as you grow, you will find that the right people will find their way to help you. Everything is scary and uncomfortable at first.
  10. Optimism is a business asset.
    The economy grows. It shrinks. Industries boom. They bust. Fortunes grow. They shrink. People flourish. They crash and burn. What keeps this strange cycle going after a big shock ofย  disappointment is that someone says: “I believe it can get better. I believe it will get better. And here is how.” Very often, those people are entrepreneurs. Crazy, stubborn, head in the clouds, pie in the sky hope-filled people who believe that if something was made from nothing once that it can be made again. If one person hit rock bottom and somehow found the strength and courage to get up and create a new life, then it can be done again.

That spirit is what I am proud to be part of.

Here is to another 15 years!

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50 Responses to “What I have learned from 15 years in business”

  1. Julica says:

    So inspiring, Pam. As usual, and then again more than usual. You are such a gift, I feel so lucky to call myself your client.

  2. Katie Smith says:


    You rock. Point number ten is a beautifully eloquent description of my world view. I am using it as an email signature for the immediate future (and quoting you of course). I’m 24, and you and Martha Beck have definitely provided the support needed to take action on what I used to regard as crazy ideas. So in the words of Steve Jobs, “Here’s to the crazy ones!”

  3. Tina Forsyth says:

    congrats on 15 pam – here’s to 15 more! <>

  4. Way to flex your muscle. Thank you for sharing Pam.

  5. I kept getting a subconscious message through many of your entries. “Balance” was a word my mind kept giving me over and over. Much of this article includes a feeling of something bigger than what is in black and white. Your desire to impact others comes through. Thank you!!!

  6. Catarina says:

    Congratulations, and thanks a lot for the tips! Nice to see a woman successful ๐Ÿ™‚
    This article might also help: Best Careers for Women
    Please continue inspiring people with your great work!

  7. AdamPG says:

    I love this stuff! Being an entrepreneur is such an incredibly daunting task, but there are so many places you can go to learn how to avoid common pitfalls. My favorite here is “you grow as your business grows” though I love how optimism is an asset. My boss at http://www.zigzagprinciple.com is a prime example of this, and he teaches a lot of other stuff about how to avoid making your entrepreneur venture fail.

  8. […] morning in my Business Blitz article I covered an article that was written by Pamela Slim over at Escape From Cubicle Nation in which she shared a number of things that she has learned in the past fifteen years that she has […]

  9. […] up an article from Pamela Slim entitled “What I have Learned From 15 Years in Business.” This article interested me namely because I am always looking to learn from other business […]

  10. Excellent post Pam. Your lessons are our lessons now, thanks for that! cheers Michael

  11. Rodger Constandse says:

    Congratulations Pam! I’m a big fan of you and your work. I love your energy and your passion. You are making a difference in the lives of so many people.

    “Peers are oxygen” and “You grow as your business grows” rang especially true for me. I feel I’ve grown a LOT in the last few years from being in business.

    I wish you all the best!

  12. Julie Daley says:

    Congratulations, Pam! The world has changed because you chose to do this work. I’ve changed. You’ve captured so much wisdom in this post, wisdom I know will serve me and my work. Thank you.

  13. Jon Thomas says:

    Bravo my friend! Great post and thanks for the valued content.

  14. Congratulations on 15 years! You are one of my heroes. Your authenticity has always inspired me and reassured me that good guys don’t necessarily finish last. So grateful. Thanks – and may you enjoy much continued success and happiness in all that you do.

  15. Kneale Mann says:

    Pam, wow, just wow! Thank-you for sharing this with us. All too often we look around and think “they seem to be doing well” when they are doing the same to us. Perception and appearance doesn’t replace hard work and true belief. I LOVE your “peers are oxygen” idea which takes the mastermind group to the stratosphere.

    Keep inspiring and we shall do our part.

  16. Patricia Moore says:

    Congratulations Pam. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  17. Mike says:

    Congratulations, inspirational as always. Cheers to another 15!

  18. Shama says:

    Standing ovation! ๐Ÿ™‚ Congrats on all your accomplishments, and more importantly on what you have given back to the world!

  19. Jayme says:

    Simply inspirational. Right words at the right time. Thank you.

  20. Christy says:

    I love this post! Thank you for your words of wisdom, especially #10.

  21. glamazini says:


  22. I absolutely love this post, Pam. Not as much as I love you, but let’s not get into the details. ๐Ÿ™‚

    If you had made different choices 15 years ago, the world would be worse off. It’s not just that you like to do good in the world – you are doing good in the world. And I’m happy to be in your corner.

  23. Tami Smith says:

    What an inspiration! Thanks for sharing from your personal experience. It is truly needed and appreciated.

  24. Meadow DeVor says:

    Loved this post, Pam. Thanks!

  25. Pam congrats! You’re a huge inspiration to me…on audio and in print.

    You’re consistency rocks and your ideas are hot too (especially the concept of the side hustle)

    If only I had known you 15 years ago you could have helped me “Escape from Stripper Nation.”

    Tomorrow I celebrate my 10 Year Un-Stripperversary. Cheers to more years of entrepreneurial bliss and OMG am I really doing this?

    :: Erika

  26. I find it interesting that you mention “getting started in business 15 years ago” when it is clear you were a corporate manager before that.

    I am starting to see my own career in the same light. My time working in my grandparents’ business as a kid often seem more relevant than the 10 years in corporate America.

  27. Kate says:

    Love, love, love the “Peers are your oxygen” point. A lot of people we work with can be so set on doing it all on their own — life and work are so much more enjoyable with collaboration and admiration, both for and from others.

  28. fas says:

    You have learned alot, they say nothing substitutes experience and its so true.

  29. Amy says:

    As an MB cadet (and former corporate hippie) about to ‘graduate,’ I’m facing that greatest of personal challenges you mention…Thanks for this reminder that it’s not going to happen overnight, and I can’t let that paralyze me. I do have magical supportive amazing peers and all the other ingredients for a five-star coaching kitchen, where I can nourish others, and myself, if I stay focused on what’s important–the good work.

  30. Graaf de Kuyl says:

    Great article.
    I read it while thinking you were a man, though.
    I wonder if i need to re-read it, knowing that you’re a woman. Hmm. Probably not.

    I am doubtful though.
    I believe that rather than money being the root of all evil, entrepreneurship is.
    Entrepreneurs will exploit some resource, either natural resouces, a knowledge monopoly, or cheap labor, until that is not possible anymore.
    Entrepreneurs benefit through exploitation of this or that, and usualy the benefit will go to few people, rather than being shared with all stakeholders.
    Entrepreneurship equals taking advantage of…

    Imagine paradise.
    How would the paradise be lost?
    By letting an entrepreneur have his (or indeed her) way.
    But the same could be said for hell, of course.

    So is the world with all its entrepreneurs becoming more heavenly, or more hellish, I wonder?
    I fear the latter, although I am not sure.
    Is the world changing to become a better place?
    Why are people nostalgic?
    Did things use to be better before?
    Not in the middle ages surely.
    Not during WW2.
    So when was that, that things were better?

    Or is the world being improved continuously by entrepreneurs, making a change?

    I don’t know.
    Inspiring article though.


  31. Love this, Pam! Happy anniversary! And thanks for sharing your wisdom with us! Cheers to another 15 successful years in business!

  32. Congratulations, Pam!

    You’ve had such an immense impact on so many people in those 15 years – and on me in taking the leap myself ๐Ÿ™‚

    Here’s to the journey we’re all on and to your continued evolution!

  33. Susan Hyatt says:

    I love you Pam Slim! Congrats on 15 years and for shining the light for us!

  34. Fiona says:

    Thanks for the post. I do agree with you that You grow as your business grows.

  35. Prime says:

    Congrats Pam! Yes, diving into entrepreneurship is the best self-development course I went into.

    Here’s to more 15 years!

  36. Andy Pels says:

    Happy 15th, Pam!

  37. Renita says:

    What, no SWOT analysis or matrix?! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thank you for this, Pam, and for lighting the path for the rest of us in this evolving world of business. I co-sign on your definition of success.

  38. Hannah says:

    THANK YOU! You are amazing, inspiring and this was JUST what I needed to read tonight. Congratulations!

  39. CJ says:


    The tide comes in, the tide goes out.

    There’s always the same amount of water in the Ocean.

  40. Amber J. says:

    This is one of those posts that I need to tuck away and remind myself to look at it again and again as I carve out a path for myself in my entrepreneurial journey. I always have a hard time with thinking that I have not done enough. I’m learning that I have to take it all day-by-day. No matter how fast our technology works!

  41. Congratulations on a monumental milestone. And may we all remember to remind you of the magnificence of your daily works far more often.

  42. Chris Lee says:

    You rock so hard! Nice post. I love the line – the first two stages of business are about saying YES and the last two stages are about saying NO. We’re paying the price not not saying no enough.

    Miss you, Miss Pam!

  43. Well, being I’m just about to end my 1st year of business, and I’m even more excited now than ever for the next 14, I can’t wait to practice some of these lessons! It’s been an interest road so far with a few bumps but definitely a lot of great scenery as well!
    Here’s to each your being filled with more lessons to make us better businesswomen! ๐Ÿ™‚
    – Lauren

  44. I feel like I just stepped into the Hall of Wiseness (better than wisdom!). One thing I 10000% agree with? Business being the greatest personal development tool ever! Some might say kids but since I don’t have any, I’m going with bidness. And I learned to define my own success thanks to you. Congrats on the innings and here’s to many more years of following your dreams! Love you Pammilicious!

  45. Thanks, Pam! This is very inspiring. I’ve been in business for 7.5 years, only half as long as you. Your blog post reminds me that it takes time to build a business and that everything doesn’t happen right away. I’m looking forward to writing about my 15th business anniversary in 2018. Thank you for giving me some perspective.


    P.S. It was very cool to read about your freak factor! I appreciate your support for my work.

  46. Cheryl Friscia says:

    A little over 2 months ago today, I rolled over slowly in bed….
    You’re an inspiration. I can’t wait to tell my story in 15 years!!! Thanks Pam for all you have given to me and everyone else!

  47. Hiro Boga says:

    Amen to this wise and wonderful list, Pam. Business is a great teacher — and, it is most effective when we remain receptive, willing and humble enough to learn the lessons it offers.

    Thanks so much for the light you shine.

    Love, Hiro

  48. Deb Ondo says:

    Thanks for writing such an authentic post. Wishing you much success in the years ahead!

  49. Lance says:

    Big, big congrats on what you have created over the last 15 years, Pam!!

    And – I love your list, and how you’ve touched upon many of the lessons this time has brought for you. I’m loving #5 – peers that support us are just a great asset toward taking the next steps (whatever they happen to be).

    May your next 15 touch even more people!!