Three Keys to Every Entrepreneurial Success Story and the Danger of Unnecessary Toys

Robert Dahl is the CEO of Top Off Wines and The Patio Wine Company, LLC, a company that enables you to start your own prestigious wine distribution business with a minimum investment.  Top Off Wines is partnering with independent distributors nationwide to market its own unique, ready-to-serve, premium California wine in individually sealed, shatterproof wine glasses―just perfect for outdoor venues or events where glassware is prohibited.

The company’s huge success has been fueled by the unprecedented growth of the U.S. wine market, thanks largely to the heightened awareness about the medical benefits of wine, as well as a growing demographic market of young consumers.  In fact, wine sales nationwide are expected to reach $35 billion by the year 2013, making the U.S. the largest wine market in the world.

As a successful entrepreneur of now almost three decades, Robert has a lot to offer in the way of advice and insights when it comes to starting your own business and making it profitable.  He recently took considerable time out of his busy schedule to share his hard-earned wisdom with’s Entrepreneur Exchange readers:

How does someone know if they have what it takes to own their own business?

This is probably the single biggest issue facing every person who is on the fence with starting their own business―the fear of the unknown.  And at the end of the day, it is what separates the entrepreneur from the rest of the population.  Whether or not you have confidence in yourself will dictate your success.  You have to have self confidence and you must be a self starter.  There is no one there to tell you to get to work, to pick up the phone, to make another sales call, to put in the hours that it takes.  The other big issue is that people want to keep a hand on a safety rope; their existing job.  Starting a business is hard work and it requires 100% commitment.  You will not reach your full potential with one foot in your new business and one foot in your old job―you have to jump in with both feet.  That is a deal-breaker for me every time.  You are either 100% committed or you are not.  And if you’re 100% committed, what confidence do you have in your own abilities and the potential success of your business?

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your first six months in business?  How did you meet that challenge?

CASH FLOW!  CASH FLOW!  You have heard it a million times and you will never really understand it until you own and operate your own business.  Cash is king, and you have to have it to accomplish your goals.  So the key is to be honest with yourself and lay out all of your personal and business expenses.  If you don’t have all the information, you can’t plan successfully.  Many times I have seen new entrepreneurs lay out their financial projections using unrealistic numbers, predicting higher than realistic sales and then totally forgetting about their own personal financial needs.  You have to look at the whole picture and make a plan that allows you to meet your goals, while maintaining your own bills. At first, don’t spend any money that is not going to deliver immediate results.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing business owners today and why? Any suggestions for how to address those challenges?

The days of securing bank loans or operating lines of credit are over.  Seriously, you’re not going to get a loan today.  You need $100K and the bank is going to want $150K in liquid assets to secure that loan.  Until the economy turns you have to plan to operate without a bank loan.  There is angel-investor money available, but you are going to give up a lot to get it.  I know MBA’s with 175-page business plans and five-year financials that can’t get financing.  You have to operate within your means, on a budget, until you have a proven track record.

What is the single strongest piece of advice you would have for someone just starting out in business for themselves?

You have to be 100% committed and you have to have a plan.  If you don’t have a plan, you already have planned to fail.

What would you say is the one thing that new business owners forget about or overlook when they’re just planning/starting out?

How much time it really takes!  You are going to have to deal with other businesses that may not work at your speed and they do not prioritize your needs as you do.  So the time it takes to get something done always takes longer than you anticipate.  You will still spend your money to buy products and services, but you will be disappointed in their delivery time, which in return delays your ability to close the sale and get paid.

What marketing strategies have you found to be most successful in growing your business?

Make it happen, do not quit, do not take a day off, put in the time.  The first 180 days of any business are the most important.  Get used to 16-hour days!

What is it about the business/industry you are in that made it so attractive to you?

The alcohol industry is heavily regulated at the federal, state, county and local levels, meaning everyone you deal with has been scrutinized and verified.  And best of all, every state has laws requiring how fast you get PAID!  It’s the only industry I know of where it’s a crime for our customers NOT to pay.

After the initial start-up phase in business, what obstacles do business owners face as they try to grow their business and remain successful?  Any advice for how to overcome those obstacles?

CASH FLOW!  The biggest thing is maintaining your cash flow and not spending it.  You see these business people make some great progress and they go out and reward their hard work with a new BMW or some other unnecessary toy.  I have done it myself.  Then two months later you find out that you need the cash and you now have missed the opportunity to increase your business, make a great buy or add the necessary assets required to grow your business.

The most successful entrepreneurs set up a salary and live within that salary.

What online, software or other resources have helped you the most in managing all aspects of your company?  Why and how have they been helpful?

I would highly recommend doing all of your business online.  There really is little reason to have a traditional office anymore.  Take advantage of the internet and store all your documents on your own website somewhere in a log in area “back office.”  This way you can access your information anywhere, at anytime.

What did you do before you decided to become your own boss, and how have those skills helped you in your current business?

I really have been in business for myself since I was 16.  I never understood why anyone would work their butt off to make other people money.  Why sacrifice your family with long hours when you are only ever going to make wages?  Take control of your financial future, research, plan, put in the time!  But the most important thing is that you have to do something that you are passionate about.  If not, you will lose focus and desire and ultimately fail.  It doesn’t matter what field it is, as long as you are passionate about it.

What process do you follow to successfully close on a lead and make the final sale? Any tips?

Put yourself in their shoes and understand what they want.  Then formulate your plan around meeting those objectives.  No one wants to be sold; they want to feel that it is their decision to buy.  Regardless of how much they may need what it is you’ve got, they have to feel that your product is the product for them.  To accomplish this, you have to have an answer to every one of their objectives.  Plan out every objective and figure out the answer to help the buyer understand that your product really is the solution.

If you work from home, what are the greatest benefits to doing so?  What are the drawbacks, and how do you manage them?

The biggest advantages to working from home are the reduced cost, the tax deductions and the freedom.  The biggest drawback is that you are at home, where the atmosphere is not very professional and there are always distractions.  You have to be disciplined to work from home, and your family has to know that just because you are at home doesn’t mean that you are really at home.

If you own more than one business, how have you integrated your businesses to juggle it all successfully?  Any suggestions?

The only solution to this challenge is a strong management team.  Hire smart and fire fast!

If you bought into an already existing business opportunity, distributorship, licensee opportunity or small franchise, how and why did you make that choice?

I am going to make a few people angry with this, but here goes…

There are three keys to any entrepreneurial success story:

First, understand what your unique abilities are and only do that.  What I mean by this is that we all have certain skill sets and weaknesses.  Be honest with yourself and understand that there are certain things that you are really good at and love doing―the things that you can do every day, all day and still look forward to doing.  Then there are things that we can do, maybe even better than most, but we hate to do them.  We despise doing them and we put them off because of that.

Your business is just like a professional football team.  You need to find the best quarterback, running back, receiver, punter, kicker, lineman, end, etc., etc., etc.  The teams (businesses) that find the best players and have them focus their abilities on their skill set are the most successful.  Adrian Peterson is an awesome running back, but he sucks as a nose tackle.  Too many times management promotes or places people to or in a position that they are not qualified for, simply because they have put in the time.  They take their best salesman and promote that person to sales manager.  Just because you are a great salesman doesn’t mean that you are a great manager.  Just because you own the business doesn’t mean that you are the best person for each job either.

Second, if you are not passionate about your business you will not be successful because eventually you will lose focus, your commitment to succeed and your desire to put in the time.  Who cares what your business is and what industry it is in as long as you love it?

Third―and I’ve said it already―hire smart and fire fast!  I have consulted with many businesses, and this is one of the biggest problems that I have seen.  Management doesn’t put in the time to create actual job descriptions with measured job-performance matrices.  They have a need; they fill it and then hope that the person can rise to the occasion.  If you hire smart with a plan, you will have greater success.  Then on the other side, fire fast and don’t make excuses.  The first thing I do is create a scorecard for every job, which sets up some performance criteria―you know, the things that the person doing that job needs to do.  How many calls should they make every day?  How many new leads should they have each week?  How many clients should they visit each day?  And so on…  Then I score them as an A, B, C or D player (i.e., If it was a football team, the question is if each player is a pro, a college player or a high school player.)  All C and D players should be fired immediately.  Again, ALL “C” and “D” PLAYERS SHOULD BE FIRED IMMEDIATELY!!!  This is a business designed to succeed and earn you a huge return.  If you operate like a high school team, then you will fail.  If you operate like a college team, you will be up and down each year based on your team’s play.  BUT if you are a professional team with specialized players working toward a common goal, then you will succeed.  Don’t make excuses.  It doesn’t matter what their personal issues are.  I know it sounds harsh, but if your grandma dies, I don’t care!  You have a job to do and if you can’t perform, then take a personal day so you don’t bring down the team.  Lastly, place all of your “B” players on an improvement plan and give them time and assistance so that they can perform better.  If they can’t, fire them.  “B” players have potential, but need assistance through mentoring, education or supervision.  You need to get them up to playing the “A” game if they have shown you their potential.  However, they have to up their game fairly quickly or you need to find someone else to do that job.