The Errors & Excitement of Being an Entrepreneur

I chose Marquette because of its strong dispute resolution program. That training helped me to develop an ability to analyze not only legal issues, but also delve into the unspoken motivations that bring clients through the door. Managing conflict is a fundamental for lawyers. And it also works for landlords.

When I took a non-profit job in Troy, New York, I thought my career path would lead toward expanding and professionalizing the dispute resolution field. I did not expect to be knocking on doors to collect rent.

Legal training anticipates unexpected twists and turns, opening doors to new careers and opportunities. In addition to my day-to-day job, I also decided to become a landlord. Troy has beautiful Victorian brownstones and two universities with plenty of potential tenants. Purchasing rentals was obvious.

I think I’m not alone. In a fluctuating economy investing in rental properties expands many attorneys’ income base. Our contract skills and comfort with the court system makes managing tenants much less intimating. Negotiation and mediation are natural.

However, I never anticipated one aspect of managing rental property. I did expect tenant drama, the challenge of extracting rent, and learning how to fix a toilet. I did not expect to suddenly own my own business.

When working in a firm, agency, or non-profit, the path to management is more predictable — Summer Associate to Associate to Junior Partner to Partner. Employee to Manager to Director to Executive.

I never expected to abruptly start running a business, but when the ink dried at the closing, I transformed into the Managing Partner of a company. Suddenly there was a fiscal duty to partners and a new identity to embrace. And the opportunity to make lots and lots of mistakes.

Running a business is about making and managing mistakes. Managing mistakes is a lawyer’s bread and butter. Every client, every case represents a mistake. It might be differences in interpreting a contract, dissolving a relationship, having conflicting expectations, or something else. The goal is to identify, understand, and learn how not to repeat the mistake.

From my copious number of mistakes, I’ve learned:

1) You WILL underestimate the time to complete a project. And not by a little — by a lot. Starting and running a business is all consuming. You will be the first to work and the last out. To Do lists will invade your dreams.

I’ve learned better scheduling through practice. Certain problems become predictable. Repetition will filter out and prioritize information.

For example, I must remember to renew leases annually or tenants may move on. My first approach: an exquisitely detailed spreadsheet. However the priority didn’t pop out. Renewals slipped my mind in a flurry of daily tasks. After losing a few tenants from the oversight, adding a simple alert on my calendar solved the problem in less than two minutes. The mistake stopped when I realized it was predictable and thus preventable.

2) Owners get paid LAST.

A business has expenses — expect the unexpected. Hiring experts (witnesses, consultants, plumbers) adds efficiency and skills, but also costs money. Hiring employees expands opportunities and focus, but costs money.

In the long run, being the owner offers the highest risk, but also the highest potential reward. The work will pay out, but for now the boss will dine out at Denny’s, polish the used car’s dents, and vacation at home.

3) Expertise is Everywhere.

Learning leadership is recognizing the depth of your own ignorance. Surround yourself with experts and listen to their advice. The construction industry’s Apprentice-Journeyman-Master model parallels the legal industry.

But expert advice can also be a conflicting cacophony. To maximize the benefits of advice, pause and think about which needs an expert can satisfy. It is more then merely matching problems with potential solutions. My mediation skills help sift through the overlapping issues of a problem.

Does a fuse keep blowing? The tenant may be frustrated and frightened of electrical fire. An expert electrician can fix the fuse but their role isn’t to comfort a nervous tenant. The physical problem differs from the emotional need: reassurance.

Conflict analysis trains us to not dismiss that need. The tenant’s fear is like an overloaded fuse. Ignored, it pops up without warning. The solution: listen for it, acknowledge, and educate. Once an emotion is heard, then the tenant could hear my solution. The simple fix: don’t run a toaster, space heater, microwave, and hairdryer at the same time. Reassured, the problem was obvious and the solution simple.

My legal and conflict resolution training has been the bedrock for becoming an entrepreneur. When my business thrives or struggles, my skills grow. Mistakes are a frustrating blessing. I’ve learned as much from doing things wrong as right. I’ve learned to reality check and revise my expectations. I’ve learned to get expert help. I’ve learned to trust my training.

Emily Menn is a 2006 graduate of Marquette Law and the Center for Dispute Resolution Education. Currently, she is the Managing Partner of Devil’s Hole Ranch Properties, LLC. in Troy, New York.

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