Trey Bowles is the cofounder of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, where he leads strategy and vision and drives the overall planning and development. Bowles also cofounded and launched the Dallas Innovation Alliance; is cofounder and chairman of the Mayor’s Star Council; and launched an entrepreneurship department at Southern Methodist University in the Meadows School of the Arts (where he still serves as an adjunct professor). Most recently, Bowles was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE) by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.
Bowles is an inspiring leader in the Dallas community, read on for his thoughts on starting a business.
Q. I’ve heard people say that sometimes you just need to dive into entrepreneurship. Is that your view?
No. I like to tell people that entrepreneurship is like a pond, and you’re standing 15 feet away. A lot of people will run and dive in. And by diving in, I mean putting all of their time and assets into it—cleaning out their 401k, the whole bit. My advice is to walk over to the side and have a look in before you dive. Is the water clear? How deep is it? You can start by sticking your toe in. You don’t need to dive when it’s perfectly OK to jump in first. You might bruise your tailbone, but you won’t break your neck.
Q. What kind of people make great entrepreneurs?
The best entrepreneurs I know are courageous, persistent, and a little bit crazy. It takes a special kind of person to stick with things when they don’t go your way. You need a tremendous amount of persistence. Every day as an entrepreneur is a roller coaster. One minute you can be on top of the world, and an hour later you can think you’re going to fail. You have to be a special kind of crazy to get on that ride. So many businesses fail, and if you don’t have a tremendous amount of courage, it’s hard to overlook the odds.
Q. You’ve started several businesses and counseled the founders of countless more. What’s the most important question people need to think about when starting a business?
The number one thing you need to ask yourself before starting a company is, “Is my idea actually a business?” It’s not enough to have a good idea. You have to have a market, too. You need to be meeting a need that people will pay you to solve. And there needs to be enough people who will pay you for it. A lot of times I see people that have a need and think that just because they would pay to solve it that there’s a market. A market requires enough customers to sustain your company.
Q. What are the other things you need to ask yourself when starting a business?
The second question you need to ask yourself is, “Do I have the right knowledge to start a business?” Do you know what a balance sheet and a P&L are? Do you know how to legally structure a business, develop a marketing plan, etc.? I recently wrote an article on the Six Essential Elements to Crafting the Perfect Business Plan. One of our big focuses at the DEC (Dallas Entrepreneur Center) is giving people the education they need to take their ideas to market.
Third, ask yourself whether you have mentors to help you through the rough patches. I can’t stress how important this is. I’ve started 10-12 businesses myself. Do you know how much heartache I can save someone else because I already made the mistakes? Most businesses don’t fail because the ideas were bad. They fail because of mistakes the founders made. When you get advice from someone who already has war wounds, you can remove a lot of the obstacles that are in your way.
And fourth, ask yourself if you’re operating in the right community. There’s something magical about being in the right community. Part of what we’ve done in the DEC is bring people together in common spaces and create opportunities for organic collisions. When you co-locate or network with peers, cool things happen. You might meet someone who offers to do your graphic design or can help you with financing.
The fifth question you need to ask yourself is, “How are you going to measure your success?” For some people, it’s about getting rich. For others, it’s about freedom—doing what they want—or it’s about bringing their ideas to life. There are so many outside forces that determine your performance, so you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. It’s essential that you go into entrepreneurship understanding what success looks like to you.
Q. You have a very active role in the Dallas entrepreneurial community. What makes Dallas such a great place to start a business?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s really important to have a mentor. One of the great things about Dallas is that people here are willing to help you and share their knowledge for free. It’s a city built on the shoulders of pioneers, entrepreneurs, and wildcatters. We are a “can-do” city. If you’re at lunch, just kicking around an idea, the person across from you very well might say, “You should do this. How can I help?” There are a lot of other really great things about the tax rate here and the cost of living, but the most important thing I see is the attitude. A successful entrepreneur in Dallas is a win for the entire region. It’s a rising tide, raising all ships.
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