Most entrepreneurs get started in one of three ways. There are some who simply follow their dreams and start a company based on little more than passion and determination. There are those who go to business school and study entrepreneurship so that they can learn the fundamentals before they get started. And there are those, perhaps the largest group, who spend years working their way up the corporate ladder with increasing frustration until they decide that they’d rather be their own boss.
All of those approaches can work, if everything goes to plan, but none of them really prepare you for what being an entrepreneur actually entails.
The passionate entrepreneur may be an expert on their product or service, but often lacks the required skills to run a business - it’s not enough to be a great developer or highly knowledgeable about comics if you want to run a software company or a comic shop. The business graduate may be able to write in-depth theoretical essays about ROI or company structure, but they don’t have any practical experience with making decisions or managing people. And while the corporate refugee probably has plenty of useful experience, they usually haven’t ever seen a company from their boss’s perspective.
For most people, becoming an entrepreneur is a process of shock and constantly recovering from the unexpected.
However, there is a fourth route: start as a personal assistant to a successful serial entrepreneur.
A PA isn’t just a secretary
As PA to someone who is constantly starting new companies, you’ll see the world from a unique perspective. You’ll see more than any other member of staff, including C-level managers and board members. You’ll be privy to every major decision - even the ones that didn’t happen, which are often the most important - everything from funding to hiring, corporate strategy, acquisitions, exits and starting new ventures.
More importantly, you’ll see the process by which those decisions were taken, and the criteria that affected the outcome. You’ll sit in on board meetings, reviewed financial reports, and done competitor research. You’ll see the company from the perspective of the sales and marketing team, the tech team, the CFO, the investors, and the staff.
In short, you’ll probably see everything the CEO sees - and more.
You’ll also see all of the less glamorous side of running your own business. Working late nights and weekends just as often as the CEO, travelling on short notice, dealing with corporate paperwork, juggling finances when customers don’t pay on time, handling personnel issues, writing reports, checking schedules, and all the other essential trivia that keep a company going and growing.
As you build up trust with your boss, you’ll find that more and more of their day to day responsibilities are delegated to you. You’ll effectively be doing a large part of the CEO’s job. That puts you into a position where you have great influence and responsibility, which is perfect training for any entrepreneur.
Use that experience to open up opportunities
Being a PA isn’t an easy job. It’s intensive, often stressful, and you’ll find yourself having to deal with a lot of tasks that aren’t fun or rewarding. But that practical experience will teach you more than you could ever learn in college or as a lower-level manager or employee. You’ll see success and failure at first hand, and you’ll learn from the mistakes of others. You’ll have a thorough appreciation for everything that needs to be done to create success.
Perhaps one of the most valuable things you can learn as a PA is whether you actually have the right temperament to be an entrepreneur. Most people aren’t suited for that life, but they don’t realize it - that’s why they fail. But most people don’t get an opportunity to find out what it’s like until they actually take the plunge. By spending a few years working in that kind of environment, you’ll be able to ask yourself if this is really the life you want before you commit to running your own company.
If you don’t have the stamina to be a PA, you almost certainly don’t have the stamina to run your own startup.
However, if you do decide that the entrepreneurial life is calling you, then you’re in an ideal position to start your own company. In addition to all the skills you’ve learned, you’ll have a fantastic network of mentors, investors, and partners you can call on. Your boss may even be your first investor. Or else you may find yourself ideally placed to step in when your boss is starting something new.
Who better to manage a new venture or take over an old one than someone who already knows it intimately and has the CEO’s complete trust?