Our panel of entrepreneurs discusses the things they wish they had known when they first decided to go out on their own.
Check out our guests' book picks on our blog
THE LISTS FROM OUR GUESTS:
From Nina Hale:
• Decide your priorities.
Is it money? Prestige? Fun? Making a difference in other people's lives? Often they don't intersect, so you need to determine what you want to get out of it, and keep that goal in focus. And you have to be passionate about your work. If you aren't, the crushing amount of time you're going to put in will suck all the joy out of your life.
• Be prepared for the time investment, and get your partner's buy-in.
I truly don't think it's possible to grow a very successful business and not be consumed by it. When I went out on my own, I thought I'd be working 30-hour work weeks. For the first six years I never had less than a 60-hour work week. You will need your partner's buy-in, because they are going to give up a lot as well. They aren't going to see you as much, they are going to have to help a lot, and your business will probably impact their financial options for a while.
• Don't say no!
Try not to say no simply because you're too busy. Work harder, or hire people. If you say no too often, people will stop referring you, then suddenly you'll be scrambling for work. But don't take projects that you think might fail, and don't take projects you know you won't be able to finish on time. Minnesota especially is a small community; almost all of our work comes from word of mouth.
• You're going to have to make hard choices.
You will have to fire people (sometimes really nice people), you will have to discipline people, you will have to cancel a vacation, you will have to ask someone to work over the weekend. As hard as the choices are to make, if you postpone them, it will be worse. And your staff will get resentful if they feel they're carrying other people, or that you're not providing clear feedback.
• Find out what matters to people.
All workers get job satisfaction from different things. Praise, money, prestige, challenge, predictability, friendships. Find out what your staff needs and try to satisfy individual needs. There are many inexpensive ways to reward people in their jobs; you should do each and every one of them.
• Stop being so Minnesotan.
Every once in a while it's OK to brag.
From Jill Johnson:
• Don't spend all your cash.
Keep some in reserve in case sales go more slowly than expected or in case a customer is late in paying (or doesn't pay at all). It will help you weather the slow times.
• Take photos of your successes and the things you do, including action shots with your customers.
I never did this, and when I celebrated my 20th anniversary and was designing a major promotional retrospective, I really had to scramble to find some photographs. Never again!
• Be sure to engage in ongoing, continuing education to upgrade your skills.
The only way to stay relevant is to stay current.
• If you are in a service business, make sure you do not give away all your intellectual property (content) for free.
If you do, people won't feel like they need to pay you for your expertise.
• Networking is critical. But even more vital is having systems in place to help you keep track of your network and keep contact information up to date.
This is especially important after you have been in business for several years. Trust me, you won't remember where you met people or what key things you connected about.
• Take time to take care of your health and your family relationships.
There will always be an opportunity for another deal or another business trip. But once your health or family are gone, you can never replace them.
From Jeff Nelson:
•Art first. Business Second.
I started Play from Scratch to make green (as in sustainable) toys that inspire creative kids. But early on I spent too little time inventing and designing great toys and too much time on business plans and fancy financial projections. Now I try to put 70% of my time into the product and 30% into the business.
• Meet with your ideal customer first.
Creative Kidstuff turned down our first product line down but also described what they would buy. We took their advice, invented YOXO, and now it is on their shelves and selling well. We could have saved a lot of time and money by meeting with them first!
•Don't buy a coffee grinder.
Every dollar you spend is a dollar less to put toward the business. If you don't need it, don't buy it. I bought a coffee grinder for our office the first week and regret it. I'm also not sure where it is.
•Abandon work/life balance.
Running a startup requires crazy long hours and most, if not all, of your energy. Instead of fighting for work/life balance, give up. Make the business part of your life. Bring the kids to the office, engage your spouse in the big ideas, and leave work early whenever you get the chance.
You can do a lot with a little if you are creative and scrappy. I lucked into a web developer called Sevnthsin that makes gorgeous sites (like playfromscratch.com) and doesn't mind using free or cheap tools to do it. By being scrappy I got a $100k website for much (much) less.
•The future is bright. Now is awesome.
As a business owner you have to think about the future. Don't spend all your time thinking about how things are going to be, remember why you took the leap and how great it is to do this work today. It will keep you sane.