How many people with aspirations for incredible innovation are stuck working a nine-to-five? Ali Brown found herself in just that situation, when she decided to make a change. She walked out on her job and began working to fulfill her dream by tirelessly growing her network.
Over the last 10 years, Ali has become a force in the entrepreneurial sector, advising and nurturing the businesses of many online thought leaders you see thriving today. Business Insider has called her the top “entrepreneurial guru” for women, and she has over 250,000 followers on her social media accounts. Ali sat down with IVY Magazine in an exclusive interview, where she discusses her path to entrepreneurial success and outlines what she feels it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.
IVY: Is entrepreneurship a trait you’re born with, or can you learn it?
I think you can learn to be a business owner, but I do think being a real entrepreneur requires being born with a special outlook on life. Entrepreneurship means being willing to take financial risks for your dream. That’s where people draw the line. A lot of people see an opportunity, but are scared to go there. The ones who are not scared are the entrepreneurs. They’re the ones who grew up and thought there was something wrong with them.
At first, I did the track I was supposed to do: I got my degree, and I got a nine-to-five job. I was so unhappy. I went through six jobs in six years in my twenties. My last job was at a little advertising agency in midtown. One day, I met this freelancer who came into the agency. I said, “What’s freelance?” He said that he did what I did, but he could come and go whenever he wanted, and he made more money. I said, “Tell me more about this!”
I remember the day I started my business. I went to Staples and bought my first printer and fax machine all in one. I was about to burst with pride. Carrying that on the subway and knowing I was going to start my own business was incredible. I quit my job, and didn’t even tell anyone. I was young and broke and in New York, so I thought, “Why not?”
IVY: What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who weren’t necessarily born entrepreneurs?
The best thing you can do is to put yourself in a situation when you have to do it. When I walked out of my job, a lot of people said it was absolutely asinine. But if I quit, I knew that I would have to do it. Put yourself in a position where your back is against the wall and you have to make some move and step into your dream. You may find yourself in a position where you’re so unhappy that the risk of failure is still better than staying where you are. You see a lot more people thinking that way now.
With the shifts in the economy and technology, there’s really a level playing field now for people to take ideas and go run with them. Women are starting over 1,200 businesses a day, which is more than twice the national average. Technology has leveled the playing field, so now we can do things we couldn’t do decades ago, like raise a family and run a business at the same time. You couldn’t do that thirty years ago.
IVY: Is quitting your job to start your own business ever a terrible idea?
Yes. I have a good friend who worked for IBM for thirty years and then decided to try her own thing. She wasn’t built for it. She just got excited about the idea. Honestly, I try not to coach my friends too much, but I gave her the best advice I could. In general, if someone has been happy in an institution for so long, that person is probably not used to having to hustle, so starting and growing a business probably won’t work for them.
IVY: What are the biggest mistakes you see entrepreneurs making, over and over again?
Sometimes people don’t ask themselves the right question up front, which is: “How is this going to make money?” Personally, I was lucky when I started my business. I had no job, so I had to think of something that was going to give me an income. The opposite, of course, is saying you’re looking to build a scalable company and get funding for it before any revenues come in. That’s a different model. For those of us building something from the ground up on our own, we’ve got to focus on making money.
IVY: What’s your best piece of advice?
You become the average of the people you are around the most. When I first heard that, I was at my last nine-to-five job, and I said, “Dear lord, I need to get out of here.” Everyone there just wanted to talk about what was on TV, or wanted to go to the bar after work. They were nice people with good hearts, but I remember thinking, “Don’t you guys want to do something?” I knew I had to surround myself with different people. It’s something you have to focus on as you progress.
A lot of us keep hanging out with the same people even as we’re evolving. I had friends I still loved, but I also needed to spend time with people doing big things. Just set the intention. I recommend a writing exercise. Write down who you want to have around you, and what kind of mentors you want. Right after I did that—I’m not kidding—I started receiving invitations to really cool events. Always try to network at a level above where you are.
IVY: What’s something you believe to be true, that other people might not believe?
You’ll always be ok as long as you follow your heart. The only times that I have not been ok is when I was not listening to my higher self—God, the universe, whatever you want to call it. When I tune in and find the wisdom I need, I can’t go wrong. Every time I don’t hear that voice, something goes wrong.
Second, we have so much opportunity these days. We are the wealthiest generation of women that the world has ever seen. We have so much freedom in this country and all we do is whine. We create all these reasons in our head for why we can’t or shouldn’t succeed or go for our dreams. Ninety-nine percent of it is all BS.
IVY: What’s your best advice to men?
Studies show that leadership with a balanced number of men and women succeed more. Someone once asked me this question: “If you were making a hire, and you could pick between a man and an equally qualified woman, who would you pick?” My answer is that if I had more women on the team, I’d hire men. If I had more men at the company, I’d hire women. Studies show that having balanced boardrooms really helps a company’s success. There are no checks and balances when there’s a boardroom of only men, or only women.
IVY: How can the IVY Community best support you?
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