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Free Your Job and Your Mind Will Follow

Steve Mariotti shone as a corporate cog, succeeded as a solo businessman, struggled as a high-school teacher, and found meaning in the nonprofit he started. Stepping out on your own, he says, can be more than a good move — it can be a moral obligation.

Steve Mariotti knows a lot about the art of reinvention. He worked for Ford, a big-industry, old-economy giant, and left to build a one-man import-export business. He found meaning teaching business skills in some of New York City’s roughest public schools, and took his curriculum national with a book and a foundation. The international, multimillion-dollar foundation he started and still runs, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), has trained more than 25,000 young, low-income would-be-businesspeople in the skills they need to bootstrap themselves into a better life. (For a more detailed profile, see Ownership 101.) His introduction to building a business, The Young Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting and Running a Business, spreads the word even further: Geared toward a young audience, it’s still an easy and enlightening read for anyone interested in going out on their own. Fast Company talked with him about the challenges, the rewards, and the lessons learned from a career of transformation, going solo, and giving back to the community.

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You went from corporate America to building your own business, a business of one. What was that move like?

Psychologically, it was enormously beneficial to me. Ford Finance is a very structured place. It’s like the U.S. Marine Corps and has a lot of very smart, hardworking MBA types. It was interesting. I don’t want to say good or bad, but it was just interesting.

For a couple of months after I left Ford, I found that my entrepreneurial instincts, which I felt I had in college, had been dampened by the experience. I viewed life in hierarchical form. If Henry Ford were a grade 27, I was a grade 7. So, in my mind, a CEO was 20 levels above me — completely unreachable. After I marketed, sold, and closed on my first deal, I began to view myself differently. That thought process — me at a 7, and Henry Ford at 27 — dissipated. I began to think, how could I get in to see the CEO, in the hopes that maybe we could co-market together overseas or something? I started to think of him as a partner, or a customer, instead of a higher-up.

I’ve seen that a hundred times with others. The process of starting a company is psychologically liberating. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Do you have any advice for people thinking about making the same move?

It’s often scoffed at, but spend two months reading. I didn’t do this, and it really hurt me. You talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and they said, oh well, I never did a business plan. Almost always, they came from an entrepreneurial family: The father was in business, or they inherited $10 million, or they had a family relationship with an accountant or a lawyer. If you didn’t grow up in that culture, you had better do the reading. Otherwise, you’re going to get killed. Even though I had an MBA and had taken small-business classes, I wasn’t mentally ready to set up an accounting system, to get business cards. Each of those little things, although they were common sense, would take me three or four days to discover. My own experience was painful — that was one of the reasons I went into the field of teaching, to make it easier for others. I’m a fanatic about doing the reading.

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What books should a future entrepreneur read?

Well, a short list would include Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It (HarperBusiness, 1997), Al Ries’s argument against diversification and for focusing on what your business does best. How to Prepare and Present a Business Plan (Prentice Hall Trade, May 1992) by Joe Mancuso offers a good introduction to critical skills. Guerilla Marketing: Secrets for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business (now in its third edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1998) by Jay Conrad Levinson, may be the best book for a small new business looking to stretch its marketing budget. And, of course, my book.

You’ve made remarkable leaps in your career. What would you say to someone thinking about making a major career change?

If you’re unhappy, I think you have a moral obligation to make a run for your life. One of the saddest things I’ve seen is people desperately unhappy in their careers. I’ve seen many sad situations in the high-at-risk, low-income communities NFTE serves where a life is essentially wasted. In some ways, it’s the same across all social strata: People end up middle-aged and going nowhere.

So unless people are going to suffer enormously — like, your family or others depend on you and will be destitute — do it! Make a run for happiness.

Entrepreneurship is only one choice, but it can be an incredible career path. Building a business has gotten people out of difficult, painful situations with bosses that hated them or vice versa, or with routine tasks that they hated. It has provided a lot of self-actualization. I’ve seen it many times. It’s a beautiful thing.

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