Owning and running a company is no small task. It’s a difficult, stressful, never-ending process that actually gets more complex as you find success. It’s hard enough for people who specifically studied business in school. And for those who didn’t study business, the challenge is even more daunting. When so many former business students fail, it must frequently feel overwhelming for students of other disciplines.
YPO member Yi Li isn’t afraid of a challenge. A lifelong lover of science, she braved a new country and different culture when she left China to pursue her PhD in physics on a full scholarship at Louisiana State University. As she studied energy storage, battery technology and management, and charge control, she realized she had the makings of a great alternative energy company.
Li wasn’t hindered by her lack of business experience–in fact, she started her solar power company in her apartment while she was still a student. Today, Li is the president and CEO of Renogy Solar, which manufactures and sells a wide range of solar-powered products. Renogy was certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and earned a spot on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies. The company has also won several bronze- and gold-level awards from the Golden Bridge Awards, and was included on the Fastest-Growing Women-Owned Company list released by the Women Presidents’ Organization.
On an episode of my podcast 10 Minute Tips from the Top, Li shared her advice to non-business people starting a company:
1. Don’t be intimidated
Li didn’t have a business background, but she didn’t let that stop her from founding her own company. “I didn’t have any background or experience or education about running a business, or even financial experience or knowledge. I’d never thought about those difficulties,” she recalls. When she began, it certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing. “I definitely went through a lot of difficulties and challenges, but every time I saw challenges, I thought about my passion. I thought about my purpose.
If that’s my goal, forget about how I feel how difficult it is. Just try to find a solution,” she asserts. Li is also not afraid to admit what she doesn’t know. “If I see I lack knowledge [in a particular area], I’ll get a book or take online classes. I’m really a self-learner, so I learned all that stuff by myself,” she explains. Don’t let your own self-doubt get in the way of pursuing something great.
2. Don’t feel compelled to follow all the rules
While she acknowledges the difficulties inherent in starting a company without a business background, Li also believes there may be some benefit in not being tied to one philosophy. “You need to think outside the box,” she argues. “Don’t follow too many old-school type, book, education principles. Even if it’s a lot of good experience, it may not apply to you.” She encourages entrepreneurs to find their own path. “You can learn, but try to develop something that is unique to you,” she says.
Li believes she has a good example in Jack Ma of Alibaba. “He didn’t have all the necessary professional skills when he started the business–he was a teacher,” Li explains. “When he started the business, not everybody believed his dream. But he ignored all of the voices. If he decided to do something, he was very, very determined.” Ma and Li aren’t afraid to follow their instincts.
3. Be frugal
Li is very blunt about this: “You need to run a business frugally,” she emphasizes. The challenge, of course, is that talent can be expensive. Thankfully, she’s found a way to compensate for that. “My employees truly believe in what we’re doing,” she beams. “We’re still a startup, and we’re not paying as high compared to a lot of Fortune 500 companies,” she admits, but her company is about more than dollars and cents.
“I look for people who truly want to develop themselves, because they’re not here just for the paycheck. We instill a passion and a dream into our employees’ minds. That’s how I recruit people.”
4. Believe in it
Do what you love! It’s exactly what led Li down the path from science to entrepreneurship. “I truly want to be a scientist. I really love physics. What I studied was superconductivity and semiconductor materials. And one of my projects was related to alternative energy studies. So there I saw my passion taking form,” she fondly recalls. Whatever your calling, follow what brings you joy. “I truly believe you have to be a passionate person and do what you truly want to do,” Li states.
It doesn’t mean it will be easy. She explains, “You cannot just do this for money. You have to do this for love. Otherwise, you cannot deal with all of the obstacles you’ll face.” For Li, her mission is clear: “I really think a sustainable future is something we should all work for and fight for,” she says. Wherever your passion lies, pursue happiness.
On Fridays, Kevin explores industry trends, professional development, best practices, and other leadership topics with CEOs from around the world.