Starting your own business can be one of the most exciting ventures you ever take on, but it can also be quite daunting and overwhelming. There will undoubtedly be hiccups and pitfalls along the way, which threaten to derail the entire process. Wouldn’t it be great if you could anticipate these in advance with the help of advice from others?
This article attempts to do just that. We have asked 14 seasoned and successful small business veterans to provide some advice and tips for small business owners who are just starting out. After all, who better to provide advice for small businesses than those who have tackled this challenge themselves and emerged successfully?
As you might imagine, the responses we received varied considerably in their scope; however, there were some common themes present in these business tips. Some of the respondents took the question quite literally and offered specific advice regarding the issues that all business owners must address when starting out. Others took a more Zen-like approach, providing tips for small business owners which address the traits you must possess to succeed in your new endeavor. A few of these small business owners focused their advice on the importance of finding a good mentor.
We hope you find these business tips for small business owners helpful as you start out on the process of building a successful business.
Advice For Small Business Owners
Running a business can be very complicated. It involves much more than just creating a quality product and finding customers who are interested in purchasing it. The following small business veterans attempted to shed light on many of the aspects of running a business that, while important, are often overlooked in the initial planning phase of a new venture.
“The best advice I have to offer is to draw or map out an organizational chart for your small business. This sounds crazy for a new small business, but please hear me out.
List all the possible positions in your business. For example:
You get the point right? Someone has to perform all of those functions, so put your name in each position box that will be your job function. If you are a new business, you will realize that your name is in most of the boxes.
At this point, you may have the common reaction, “Holy crap!” This should give the phrase “we wear many hats” new meaning for you.
It’s your job to get other people – employees, sub-contractors, or virtual assistants – to help you with those functions so you can spend your time working on growing your business instead of dealing with all the day-to-day minutia of your business.
When you run a business, the product/service is not what you’re really selling. The true product you’re selling is your business, so spend time creating and perfecting the perfect business model that supports your customers and employees. Focus on all the little details, because that’s what’s important.
I hear many companies say they are all about customer service and then you use their bathroom and it’s a mess. This begs the question: if they really care about customer service, why is the bathroom a mess? It’s because they really don’t care. It’s just lip service.
Our company spent months coming up with a greeting when we answer the phone. It’s so important because in those first 10 seconds, the customer decides if they want to do business with your company. We knew we needed get it right and not answer the phone like most businesses do.
Remember, the phone is still one of the best marketing tools available. It’s so hard to get someone’s attention when marketing. Most prospective customers are bombarded with marketing messages and they are just sick of it. On the phone, you have someone’s undivided attention one-on-one and if you can get the conversation right, it’s magical.
Lastly, learn to market and sell. There are many ducks to line up when starting a business, and this is a very big duck. Cash flow is to your business what oxygen is to your body – you need it to survive. You can screw up many things on the back end as long as customers keep coming in the door and buying things. The purpose of a business is to find and keep customers.
Good luck and dream big!”
“Hire competent, smart, qualified people, and pay them well. The biggest mistake a small business owner can make is to hire cheap, unqualified labor to fill the needs of the growing business.
The right employee will help your business thrive, and if you pay them well they will go above and beyond for your business. They will anticipate your needs and make suggestions that will enhance your business.
On the other hand, the wrong employee can actually hurt your business by driving away customers. This type of employee typically has a bad attitude, especially if underpaid. They are usually clock watchers who merely work to collect a paycheck. To get the right type of employee, do the proper research and choose carefully. You will be glad you did.”
“I was flattered and surprised when Richard asked me to provide some comments on lessons learned from my experience as a business owner. My first inclination was to decline. After all, what could I offer? But instead, I tossed around some of the guideline questions that Richard provided, and I organized my thoughts on the subject.
Know the landscape that you are about to jump into…
Whether a new restaurant or eSTORE, know the landscape within which you intend to provide a service. All communities have a history. Know the politics and local business dynamics. The same goes for eCommerce. You may have a great product, but if your competition is less expensive and provides free shipping, be careful.
The good news is you are “the man.” The bad news is you can’t stick it to the man.
This was a congratulatory quote from a friend when I opened my new practice. How true. If you cut corners and avoid doing things that grow a business like returning customer calls promptly, following through on product sales and services, and responding appropriately to client complaints and dissatisfaction, guess who you are hurting? You got it.
Trouble with staff can be very unpleasant in a small business because of the intimate nature of the setting and the inability of employees to avoid one another and you – the small business owner.
I recently placed an ad for an assistant and had over 150 responses in less than 24 hours. How could I meet these individuals, chose one or more, write up an employment agreement, and seamlessly work them into my special project – my business?
I have found that most businesses will have a core of Grade A employees. Many of the attributes that put these employees into this category has little to do with the business owner or your business. A well-adjusted, happy individual with a stable home environment is likely to make a well adjusted, happy, stable employee. It is likely that you will be able to groom that individual into a Grade A employee with the assistance of your existing Grade A team.
I have found it very helpful to hire new employees per diem, or on a limited schedule. I then increase their hours and responsibilities as appropriate. Of course not all new hires will progress. I have found that this is a very effective way for the employee and myself to get to know one another, and to see how the employee fits into the business. Alternatively, I have found that this is almost impossible to do during an interview. The right staff can truly bring joy along with success to your business.
Establish your business as a DRAMA FREE ZONE.
Simply stated, don’t let it start. Zero tolerance is the way to go, but you need to set the standard and stick to it. If you are upset with an employee, talk it over in private. Don’t complain to other employees. And never discuss business owner/partner issues with employees. If an employee mumbles about another employee, call them on it immediately. If an employee voices complaints about the working environment, stop it before it goes any further.
If you want something done right, do it yourself.
Sorry this is so old fashioned. But remember, it is your business and your line of credit. Your mentality will be very different from even the highest level employee. Things go bust, that employee moves on, gets another job (sometimes even a better job). Not so easy for you.
The first year I even cleaned the office at night. I was like the kid that stole the candy bar and just kept running. With time, I have delegated non-critical tasks to different employees. And I did hire a cleaning service when I got so busy doing my business that it no longer made sense for me to clean.
Branding – Don’t be wishy washy
This is your opportunity to say who you are and what your business is. If you are a Gluten Free Specialty Bakery, don’t call yourself “Katie’s Kitchen”. Call yourself “Pleasant Town Gluten Free Specialty Bakery”. You can still provide other products, but with a name like that, you will have an advantage in the gluten free community. Try a website such as www.PleasantTownGlutenFreeSpecialyBakery.com. I have observed that very few businesses clearly reflect their expertise in their business name or DBA.
Create your support network.
There are objective ways to view almost any challenge that you meet, and likely there is a person with that view that can help you. But your questions need to be clear, and it helps if the person advising you knows you and your business well.
The stronger the personal relationship that you have with your inner circle of experts, the better. It is likely that there is a reputable expert in your field of business that can provide advisory assistance on a per diem basis. Also, talk to people that have done it before you, and grow from there with your unique approach.
Being a business owner is all-consuming. But like many challenges that we take on, it can come with great reward. I am always learning new ways to improve my business model, and I enjoy networking with the many individuals that have so much to offer. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share with you some of what I have learned along the way.”
Words of Zen
While the advice for small business owners provided above will help you gain a better understanding of the challenging road that lies ahead of you, it is important to remember that there are many other variables which will impact the success of your venture. One of these variables involves the personality traits you bring to the table. There are certain attributes and qualities that a small business owner must possess to be successful. The following respondents chose to focus their advice on these personality traits.
“The best piece of advice I can give to any emerging entrepreneur is this: learn to love yourself, and surround yourself with people who love you. I know that sounds like a platitude, so let me unpack it a bit.
Entrepreneurship is amazingly challenging. Before you succeed, you will fail countless times, get rejected more in a day than most do in a year, and have your confidence shaken to its core. The way to endure is to take good care of yourself and pull the people you care about in close.
Whenever you leave the beaten path, you will inevitably polarize people. Some of your “friends” will be threatened. It’s ok to slowly faze these people out of your life. On the other hand, some people will want to invest in your success. Keep these people around; you’ll need them for emotional support and practical advice.
“What’s the single most important piece of advice I would give to a new entrepreneur about being a small business owner? Do not underestimate the amount of courage you will need to be successful.
If you are afraid to pickup the telephone, to walk into a room full of strangers and say hello to someone you’ve never met, or to call a bank when you’ve been turned down for a loan and convince them to change their decision, you may want to reconsider whether or not you really want to be a small business owner.
It’s not about working long hours and sacrificing the family vacations (trust me, you’ll do that from time to time). It’s really about being a steady rock, even when things are falling apart around you and the buck stops with you and you want to complain to the world.
You can learn how to write a business plan, delegate tasks, or be a good leader and a trusted adviser, but what you can’t learn is courage. You have to live it. It’s like a muscle; it has to be worked.
How can you get the courage you need? By sticking to your guns, doing a good job for your clients, and finding the right people you can be vulnerable around. Find an entrepreneur academy or a business group for business owners that’s small and highly focused. Learn from their mistakes as they learn from yours. Hire a business coach with experience in your field or who knows how to grow a business and has done it themselves.
Make sure you leave complaining for the car ride home alone. You will also want to surround yourself with people who are inspired by you, and never stop inspiring them through leadership that leads by example. Make this your mantra for your people. “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” and reward creative problem solving. Courage is fed by love, yes love, and if you have courage, they’ll love you.”
“Set up your company properly. Utilize QuickBooks™, or something as useful. Ensure that YOU, and not just your accountant, are fully versed in how the company is set up there and how your entries affect all aspects of your business and reporting.
Make sure your Trade Name is registered with the state and that it has not been already used by someone else. You should do the same with your URL/Internet Listings.
Do your research on your market and your competitors. Don’t lie to yourself when you are creating a business plan. Most businesses fail because unforeseen events happen to them that could have been uncovered with proper due diligence. Get out there and figure out if there is truly a market for what you want to do AND if people will pay you what you need for it. Try to differentiate what you do. Clients won’t switch just because you are a nice person. Make sure what you are offering truly adds value to their worlds.
Do your research and make sure your business has the proper licensing, permits, and is set up to make all required tax payments to Federal, State, and Local entities. This can derail a business faster than the time it takes to get it started. Some tax items to be aware of, and some that can easily be missed, which will get you in hot water:
a. Quarterly 941 Filings
b. Annual 940 Unemployment Filings
c. Quarterly State Unemployment Insurance
d. Monthly State Wage Withholding
e. Monthly City Occupational Tax (varies by city, Denver has one)
f. Annual Sales and Use Tax (lots of audits going on in this realm, be ready)
Be realistic about cost and timing of any project, including setting up your business. The best rule of thumb would be that every project you attempt will cost more and take longer than your original estimate. Plan for bad news and surprises, not best-case scenarios.
Understand your strengths and weaknesses. You are NOT good at everything. The things that you are good at, take on. Everything else, you better have either employees or service providers to handle for you. A common mistake of small business owners is to think that they are Superman and can handle everything. This is one of the most common reasons that businesses fail. To avoid this pitfall, be realistic in your assessment of your skills, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Surround yourself with smart people – ideally, people who are smarter than you. Put your ego aside and hire folks that will truly help you grow and prosper – don’t let your insecurities get in the way. This applies to employees and service providers to your entity.
Be stubborn and dogmatic. If you believe in your idea and have done the proper research and due diligence, then it’s full steam ahead. Don’t listen to naysayers or critics. Follow your dream, but do it in a way that makes sense and works within your personal framework and budget.
There are only two things any business has to do to be successful, provided what they are offering has a market:
a. Take care of your clients – Read “The Nordstrom Way” if you have any questions about this. So many businesses say they are customer oriented and then argue with their customers any time they have a problem. Your reputation will be built rather quickly and it will either be one of excellent service or follow up, or not. Check your reputation online (Yelp, Angie’s List, etc.) and make sure you address any client issues promptly. MAKE IT RIGHT for your clients and they might tell their friends. Do a client wrong and rest assured they will tell many more. This will cost you money. Consider it marketing. Be fully plugged into social media including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., as you can gain valuable feedback and communication with your client base.
b. Take care of your employees – This is another platitude that gets overused and then overlooked. Take an interest in your people and give them the tools they need to be successful. Celebrate successes. There is nothing more important than having a happy, motivated workforce. Take time to figure out what your people need, and give it to them if at all possible. Happy workforces treat clients well and can create virtuous circles. Unhappy employees do the opposite.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Use your entire network if you get in a pickle or have an idea to bounce off of someone. A cup of coffee will go a long way with folks and most are flattered you would ask. Get involved in as many professional organizations as you can, related to your business. Get out of your office and meet people. There is a ton of opportunity out there if you are willing to spend the time, shake the hands and see what others are doing. Be brave and do it!”
Founder, Mini Mart Convenience Stores
“My favorite definition of success is “a progressive realization of a worthy ideal optimizing the resources available.” In my opinion, in our culture in the USA, the fundamental key to success is summarized in one word: relationships. You must have successful and productive relationships with your employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, family, and friends. The lifetime struggle to subordinate your needs and wants to theirs will help develop your own self-esteem and self-confidence to succeed regardless of the field of endeavor.”
The Importance of a Good Mentor
Keep in mind that many smart, innovative people have already traveled the road you are about to embark on. They understand the challenges that will await you, and they can guide you through this process in order to expedite your path to success. When you are starting out as a new business owner, finding a mentor can be extremely beneficial. The following small business owners have discovered this first hand, and their advice reflects this knowledge.
“Before I’d even give an entrepreneur advice on the new business they’re starting, I’d first ask a simple question: Are you passionate about what you are doing? If you’re going to be successful, you have to be passionate about what you do every day.
Beyond that, since founding my organization, Speak Your Silence, I’ve learned how invaluable it is to have a great mentor to turn to for wisdom. When I was just starting out, I reached out for mentorship from a lady who was a leader of a powerhouse global organization, whom I assumed would never give me the time of day. I was wrong.
She’s been my mentor ever since and has helped me build a strong, well thought out, sustainable foundation upon which we can now continue to build a very impactful organization that changes a lot of lives.
The two biggest lessons I’ve learned from my mentor:
- Before making decisions, ask yourself: “Is this in line with the mission of my organization?”
- Focus. Focus. Focus.
Young entrepreneurs need wisdom from those who’ve been in the trenches, and seasoned professionals are there to offer that wisdom and take pride in doing so.”
“At the time my business partner and I started our own business, we were unemployed. We had been downsized and engaged in job searching. Both of us are in our 60’s, and starting out on our own was not only challenging, but also scary. We had experience in sales, marketing and operations, but no real experience in being entrepreneurs. We wanted to build a career.
We began identifying people/experts who were successful entrepreneurs and had built successful companies. We wanted to learn how they did it, what the challenges were, who they leaned on for help, and what kept them from giving up. We wanted to understand how they promoted themselves, their company and their products. We also wanted to know where their first customers came from and what they learned in year one.
We used local resources like the Chambers to help guide us and educate us. We accelerated our development and within the first year, we had no debt, no overhead, and we were drawing income. Always get help before you need help. This will help you tremendously as you start out building a business.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about the industry to start a successful nonprofit, but you do have to be willing to learn about anything and everything. Seek out subject matter experts in the field and set-up interviews with them.
It’s important to always keep the big picture in mind and help people that are working towards the same goal you are. You never know when you might need their advice in the future.”
Director, Greater Than Coffee
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Taking on everything all by yourself is a recipe for disaster. Plan on asking for help. Make it your mission in fact to learn from those around you.”
Stay the Course
One common trait highlighted by several of the small business veterans we spoke with was perseverance. Building a successful business doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a great deal of time. It is important to stay the course and trust in your instincts when things become difficult. The following responses stress the importance of perseverance in achieving your goals.
“1. Be ready for a lot of work, a lot of struggles, and a lot of rewards. But most importantly, know your goals.
Over the years, I have struggled with building my own business. I was constantly following the advice of other small business owners and trying different methods before finally “figuring it all out”. The key to “figuring it all out” was to focus on my goals, both professionally and personally.
Whatever your goals are, have them pinned down. Before you make any change, be sure the change meets those goals. If not, access the goals. Are they still valid objectives for you? If not, change your goals, and take the time to understand what that means to you on a personal and professional level.
2. Build a brand and follow it.
Building a brand is more than just a snazzy logo and flashy graphics. It’s about understanding why your company does what it does. Take the time to understand your audience, your competition, and your brand goals. Once you have a defined brand, everything else (from your logo, to service offerings, even contracts you will need) really does fall into place. You can use your defined set of brand goals to access the validity of any growth opportunity for your business. “If the brand fits…”
“My advice for new entrepreneurs is three-fold:
- “No” is your new best friend.
- Find people who are better than you and listen to them.
- Don’t be perfect, but get better every day.
Learn to say “No!” In business, there are nearly limitless distractions and expenses. There are nearly limitless reasons and people to waste time andmoney on. Unless you have some really deep pockets, never spend money you don’t have to, because eventually you’ll need that money. Many people are going to try to spend your money on services, equipment, or whatever. Don’t let them. One of the biggest mistakes new biz owners make is that their willingness to spend money gets in the way of their ability to make money.
Find other business owners who have more experience, connections, and intelligence than you. Help them where you can – pay it forward – and ask them for help. Few people have the talents to be successful entrepreneurs, so learn from those who have already been successful. Their knowledge is priceless.
Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back. Be willing to fail safely. We prototype everything we do. I try to make my mistakes early when they don’t cost as much. Whatever we do, whether we are successful or we fail, I always ask, “How could we have made this better?”
Vice President, BOST Benefits
“There is no substitution for hard work as a new entrepreneur, no matter how great our “secret sauce” is. It is tempting to look for ways to grow fast instead of staying the course, laying the foundation for something great. It is in the foundation phase that we learn the lessons that will carry us through the growth phases of our business. We also learn to appreciate the sacrifices made by team members who go through all the ups and downs of a new business with us.”
“My grandfather used to say, “Nobody knows everything. An intelligent person will surround themselves with people that fill the knowledge gaps.” Frankly, it’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
I have been fortunate to have a variety of exceptional advisers that I can reach out to and be mentored. A high-security data center was a first time project for me and I asked a lot of questions of some brilliant people in and out of the industry. Fortunately for me, they were kind enough to give straightforward counsel.
One advisor in particular; a former Executive V.P. and CTO of one of the largest data centers in the country, helped set the stage for what would become our marketing strategy. He aggressively pushed me to answer the “what sets you apart” question, and he shot my answers down quite regularly. It was not until I focused on one very important message, “Location Matters,” that he finally relented and gave me the nod of approval.
To date, our greatest marketing tool remains our focus on why “Location Matters”.”
Good Luck and Stick with It
Hopefully, these tips for small business owners have given you a great deal to think about as you start your journey. Building a successful business isn’t easy, but if you can see it through, you are likely to discover that very few things will be more rewarding. You never know – perhaps you will be offering similar advice for small businesses in several years as you reflect on the challenges you dealt with along your road to success.