After the housing market crashed, isn’t the real American Dream starting your own business and working for yourself?
Unless you’ve opened a business before, it’s hard to know what to expect. It’s easy to be intoxicated by your own idea and plow ahead without adequate planning or research, to assume that hustle and gumption can overcome any obstacles.
For me, more than two years into helping launch a company for the first time, there are easily a dozen things I can point to that I wish we’d known at the outset, a couple mistakes so big that it’s hard to believe we survived making them. If someone had convinced us of a few basic things, it likely could’ve saved us a buttload of headaches and plenty of sleepless nights, not to mention a pile of cash.
Most entrepreneurial lessons you’ll likely need to learn on the go, as you sort out the minutia of what your business will do and how it will operate. You will make mistakes, and plenty of them.
But the insight afforded from experience is invaluable. These 10 Triad business owners — some full-timers and some side-hustlers working in a wide array of industries — as well as two start-up business advisors might be able to save you from making common and avoidable errors.
Tim Cox (pictured, top center): Stir Creative Group, stircreativegroup.com (GSO)
“Everyone needs a name and logo for than the new thing they are doing. After 20-plus years of being a part of this process, I have actually contemplated writing a book titled something like, ‘The graphic designer already knows what your new business is doing wrong.’ As I think about writing this, it’s easy for the lessons learned to start sounding like a bunch of soundbites from business books. With that said, there’s really a lot of truth in some of the old standards. ‘Cash flow is king,’ — totally agree. ‘Under-promise, over-deliver,’ — gold. ‘Mind your knitting,’ —agreed.
“Find a mentor. Even if they don’t know they are one. To succeed, you need to get very good at your business and be good at business. These two things are worlds apart. Anyone can go into business, but not everyone can stay in business. If you don’t how much money you need to earn today, or this week, you need to find out now.
“Get some recommendations on a few good business books. They are boring as hell but I guarantee you’ll get something out of each. In general, they all espouse the same basic advice just in the clever wording of the day. The Power of Thinking Big, Good to Great, Lean In; it’s all applicable.
“Know what your strengths are, I mean really know. Knowing your strengths is [a] strength. Choose your business partners well. Know who your competitors are. Be better than them. If you don’t think you’re better than them, neither will anyone else. Where you are weak, outsource.”
Cox also offered advice specific to the design industry, but it’s easy to see lessons for independent contractors of various stripes.
“I work with clients and it’s important to do great work for them as a company and for the professional career of your contact,” he said. “The term ‘scope of work’ is the single most critical phrase in my industry. This stops projects from becoming never-ending rounds of revisions that never get produced.
“Find out what other people do in your industry, and keep finding out. Bill at certain progress-points. Let your client know in advance you are going to do this. It’s easy to start a small project that will ‘just bill when it wraps up’ and then the after an initial work phase and a couple of revisions the projects stagnates… for months. Then when you send an invoice you can often hear, ‘But we decided not to do that and we never took delivery of anything?’ Yeah… no.
“People always think they are in charge of the size of their company. In reality, the marketplace is the driver here. I see people put certain restrictions/expectations on their company’s growth and fail to adhere to obvious marketplace signals. People like this are often standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
“As part of the Google Partners program, we do a lot of online advertising campaigns. Many clients want us to have their ads show up when certain phrases are listed in search engines. We more often than not find out that what our client thinks people are searching for is not how people are finding them.
“Don’t show any ideas that you wouldn’t want to be chosen. They will pick that one, like, every time. Establish a real, bona-fide trusting relationship with two or three key vendors and give them your business. They will save your ass one day.”
Beau Tate: the Honey Pot, Tate’s Craft Cocktails, tatesbar.com (W-S)
“Ah, the long and distinctive list of mistakes and mishaps. Most entrepreneurs and especially [food and beverage] folk are prone to learning best practices through a series of thumps to the head that eventually strengthens the cranium to the point that you can head-butt nearly any obstacle out of your path.
“I helped open Tate’s [Craft Cocktails in downtown Winston-Salem] as a barback, worked a variety of openings in New York City, opened the Tate’s in Dallas —which we later sold off — as a manager, and helmed the Honey Pot’s opening as an owner. This gave me the opportunity to watch from a safe distance the first go-round and wade in a little bit with each opening. With all of that being said, I’ve certainly encountered more than my fair share of sticky situations that resulted from mediocre preparation or generally knuckleheaded thinking.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that gamut of ‘sound business advice’ including ‘plan for inspection delays,’ ‘over capitalize,’ ‘make sure you really get along with your partner,’ and ‘buckle up.’ These are all spot-on and essential to staying in business for longer than 12 months, but they don’t pay much regard to taking good care of yourself and your relationships. I’ve seen a lot of really talented and savvy folks burn themselves out because they discounted the need to maintain one’s humanity.
“I’ve fallen victim to this mental trap a few times before and it manifests itself in really funny ways — after enough time and distance. I remember being brutally tired and getting pitched a fastball by one of our first guests. I was so tired that I let my tongue slip and made a comment about being a capitalist outfit that was in the business of making money, and those words showed up in our first Yelp review, which I never let myself live down. I burned the candle a little bit too hard on that opening but walked away with a pretty good lesson — you can’t give it everything you’ve got if you don’t have anything left to give.
“Get some sleep!
“Other than that, I think I see a lot of folks get caught up in the romance of opening a small business [and] fail to plan strategically and attend to the basics of business administration [such as] finances, lease negotiation, HR, etcetera. There’s a reason almost all of the successful businesses in the world have either done these well or paid somebody to. They are essential. I don’t think that they detract from doing what you’re passionate about; if you dive headfirst into the challenge, I find that they’re actually really interesting facets of your core business that require a lot of skill and can be a fun diversion.
“Finally, mentor and invest in your staff. This is the only way to shift your life from being manageable to being pleasant. That and get out of the way once they’re better than you are.”
Hillary Wilson Kimmel: PTB Farm, ptbfarm.com (outside GSO)
In its third year of business, Pine Trough Branch Farm is rebranding after missing Tim Cox’s first piece of advice about a name and a logo. It’s too complicated, co-owner Hillary Wilson Kimmel said, and now she and her husband are dubbing the operation PTB Farm for simplicity’s sake.
“I don’t feel like we have a strong brand identity, mainly our farm’s name,” Kimmel said. “It’s a mouthful, and then some people think PTB is a label like ‘grass-fed’ or some widely used thing. That’s been a struggle. Pick an easily explained name. Even long-time co-op members are not sure what PTB stands for or can’t remember it. Finding a name that stands out and sticks out in your brain is huge. The best part of a brand identity would be a strong name, which we don’t have.”
That’s true for any business, but Kimmel also offered tips for people who might want to start a farm or agricultural business.
“Only grow things that you love growing and eating. I think you’re going to care for things better if you love them. And you can actually sell them well that way, too. Have a real sense of how you’re going to sell it. That’s something that’s specifically a big thing within farming.
We lack a wholesale channel. I don’t really know how to talk to restaurants, even though I’m great at selling at the farmers market [in Greensboro]. But not enough people come to the farmers market to sell 100 heads of lettuce a day, or whatever the figure is. I think for small farms like this [one], being able to do the market and do the social media — I could go on and on about social media — but I think it’s great using those tools.”