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Starting a Small Business: Advice for Entrepreneurs from a DeVry Alum

By DeVry University

December 30, 2020
9 min read

There are 30.7 million small businesses—defined as firms with fewer than 500 employees—in the U.S., making up roughly 99% of all businesses in the country. And while many people dream of starting a small business one day, getting your company up and running requires patience, perseverance and an entrepreneurial mindset.

There are many paths that you can take towards a future in entrepreneurship. If you’re looking for tips on how to start a business, read on for eight pieces of advice for entrepreneurs that Alek Pirkhalo, DeVry University alum and co-founder of Infiniwiz, an IT business, relied on in the early days of building his start-up.*

How to Start a Business

Pirkhalo always knew he wanted to start a company, but wasn’t entirely sure when he would pursue his goal. After graduating from DeVry’s Bachelor’s in Engineering Technology - Electronics program, he began working contract jobs as an engineer before ultimately landing in a small product development firm. During that time, he used the skills he learned in his education and from his previous work experience to help bring many engineering concepts to life. While he enjoyed creating designs for the firm for roughly five years, something was missing.

“It was my dream job. It was very engaging work, but over the years – being there, I got bored. It was the same thing over and over; variations of different products,” Pirkhalo says. "I didn’t know what I wanted. At first, I thought I wanted a raise and more money, but then I realized that wasn’t going to make me happy either. What I really wanted was to have something of my own.”

That’s when thoughts of starting a small business began to creep back into his future plans. Still, he waited to make the leap until 2009 when he got laid off from his job with the firm. It was surprising but timely news that led him to pursue entrepreneurship for good.

Here are eight pieces of advice for entrepreneurs that helped Pirkhalo turn his desire to have something of his own—a small IT firm—into reality:

1. Let Others Know You Want to Start a Business

After being laid off, Pirkhalo admits that he initially felt frustrated. But after some time, he began to see the lay-off as a new opportunity. He knew he wanted to start a business although he wasn’t sure what kind of business to pursue. Still, even through uncertainty, he made sure to tell anyone he encountered about his plan. His rationale: “You never know where opportunity may come from,” Pirkhalo says. “I made sure everybody knew I wanted to open a business. Everybody knew I was looking for a way to be myself. I told family and friends; friends of friends. Anyone.”

Soon enough, his strategy paid off. Shortly after leaving the firm, he had an interesting conversation with his doctor. “I was out of a job and had started trying to look for a new one passively,” Pirkhalo said. “I wasn’t looking actively because deep down I knew I was still interested in starting a small business, so I even talked to my doctor about it. That’s when he told me that he actually wanted to create a product. He was an ear, nose and throat doctor and had an idea for an ear irrigation device.”

Pirkhalo’s doctor had the funds to support designing the product but needed a partner with the skills to turn his device idea into a real-life design. He needed someone with the precise skills Pirkhalo had developed through his studies at DeVry and years of engineering experience.

“So he asked me to design the device for him and create the company,” Pirkhalo said. He helped draft designs and work on the project for roughly a year. Ultimately, he and the doctor stopped pursuing the ear irrigation device as a business because of financial constraints, but accepting the project had helped catapult Pirkhalo into entrepreneurship.

“We got the design to the patent level but not any further,” he adds. “We realized that the amount of money that we had to put into marketing and manufacturing made it too much of a risk, but it was still an important learning experience.”

2. View Failure as an Opportunity to Learn

When the ear irrigation device didn’t pan out, Pirkhalo didn’t let that setback deter him from wanting to start another business or continue his goals. Instead of seeing his experience as a sign of failure, he simply viewed it as a lesson. He applied whatever he could learn from the experience to his next endeavor.

“You know how most entrepreneurs say you have to fail at least once before starting a successful business? Well the ear irrigation device was mine,” Pirkhalo says with a laugh. “I had to fail one business to build a successful one and I learned so much in the process. I learned how to work with partners. I learned how to plan better. I learned how to use project management to make decisions.”

3. Stay Connected with Your Network and Friends

As Pirkhalo moved on to his next chapter he remained determined to start his own company. He continued to stay in touch with friends, reminding them that he was always exploring new ventures.

Then one day, a longtime friend—one he had originally pursued college with—invited Pirkhalo to a birthday party. “At the party, I told him I wanted to open up something of my own,” Pirkhalo said. “I kept telling everybody I wanted to start a business, but I didn’t know what to do next.”

That’s when his friend, who had owned a small IT consultancy firm for several years, shared his idea: he asked Pirkhalo if he’d like to help him start a new IT business he’d been contemplating. His friend’s IT experience, coupled with Pirkhalo’s business savvy and drive, made them a perfect match. Pirkhalo accepted the offer, which would mark the beginning of Infiniwiz—the small business they now successfully operate today.

4. Start with a Detailed Business Plan

In the early days of Infiniwiz, like many new entrepreneurs, Pirkhalo and his partner needed start-up funds. He had learned the importance of “planning ahead and calculating finances beforehand” from his fist venture with the ear irrigation device, so he was determined to not repeat the same mistakes. He decided to take a different approach.

“We needed money to start off—about $50k or so, but where would we get it? We were still young and neither of us earned much on our own,” Pirkhalo says of himself and his business partner. “So, I came up with a business plan for Infiniwiz. I wrote the whole business plan with all the details on what equipment we would buy, what we planned to do with the equipment, how we planned to market the business. Everything. I spent countless hours on it. It became a thick book, we presented it to investors and we eventually got the funding we needed.”

For this reason, he encourages anyone interested in starting a small business to dedicate substantial time to creating a business plan that outlines key aspects of their business such as its objectives, customer base and need, expenses, competition on the market, marketing plan and potential for profit. If you’re ready to get started, check out the Small Business Association’s online resources for business plans, which feature business guides, sample business plans and a database to search for free business counseling.

5. Keep Your Overhead Low

In the early phase of starting his company, Pirkhalo found it most effective to keep his expenses low, so he could focus more on developing his business as opposed to working a day job.

“Minimizing your expenses to the bare minimum can be a key factor when starting a small business,” Pirkhalo says. “I didn’t buy a big house. If you can live with your parents and you’re comfortable there, live with them until you can figure out what you want to do or until your business is off the ground. Minimize your expenses as much as you can so you can focus more on your business.”

6. Read “Smart Books” and Research Your Industry

“I like to tell people to read what I call ‘smart books,’” Pirkhalo says, noting that he defines “smart books” as books that help you think differently about yourself, your goals or the world around you.

“I really like books by Robert Kiyosaki,” he adds. “Books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad really helped me and there are so many more available like that. The key is to educate yourself—not just about one specific type of business, but about business as a whole.”

He also recommends conducting research on your industry. Dive deeply into articles, current trends and reports about the industry that your business will serve. “Wherever you look, the key is to learn the vocabulary of your industry,” Pirkhalo says. “My ability to learn and understand new vocabulary helped my career. Whatever industry you plan to go into, whether it’s the financial stock market or construction, it will have its own vocabulary that must be learned.”

7. Pick an Idea and Be Genuine

If you’re trying to figure out what to pursue for a business idea, Pirkhalo can relate. From experience, he’s learned to avoid indecision and to instead pick an idea that captures his interest while challenging him to learn more over time.

“Pick something – anything you want to try,” Pirkhalo says. “It doesn’t always have to be the most unique idea in business—it can be a plumbing business or an IT company. The key is to just be genuine in your interest and to provide quality service. Many customers just want good service and oftentimes that comes from referrals, so if you build genuine relationships when you start a business, you can potentially pave a better path for your company.”

8. Start Early

When is the best time to take a leap toward your entrepreneurial goals? The answer will vary for many people, but Pirkhalo offers a general recommendation: “The earlier you start, the better,” he says. “College is more than just a path towards your future. College can be a chance to develop a skillset that you can build on. After you finish college, consider different options that may work for you—whether you work for an organization or start a business from the get-go. While you’re in school, get those ‘smart books.’ Start reading about fields that you want to venture into.”

From there, he recommends asking key questions such as:

  • What kind of problems do I want to solve?

  • What kind of solutions can I help create?

  • How can I create a job—for myself or others?

  • Are there services I can provide to businesses after graduating?

  • Should I pursue a traditional job after graduating to build experience in my field?

  • What is my timeframe?

In a world of opportunities, the most important thing is to follow your heart. “I didn’t pursue the common dream: go to college, get a job, buy a nice house with a nice fence, have a couple kids,” Pirkhalo says. “I believe in changing the way we think and educating ourselves—so we can find the answers in our own dreams and passions.”

Interested in Entrepreneurship?

Not every path to entrepreneurship is the same, but we can help you get on track towards pursuing your goals. If you’re looking to expand your business skills and explore more advice for entrepreneurs, consider our bachelor’s degree specialization in Small Business Management and Entrepreneurship. If you want to take a deeper dive into this area of study, explore our Graduate Certificate or MBA in Entrepreneurship.

*Note: The journey described within this article may not represent typical outcomes or feasible options for all students. Tips and viewpoints expressed within this article are that of the alumni.

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