As the cliché goes, you live and you learn — and, sometimes, the best way to learn is through other people’s experiences. So, if you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur in training, keep in mind these insights I’ve gleaned after working through the first try as a real entrepreneur.
Be authentic. Meaning be yourself. Meaning your endeavor should embody some pieces of your personality. Meaning people (potential customers or otherwise) should be able to get a good idea of who you are based on how you present your business. This is so important. Don’t try to be something you’re not. People can spot a phony. If you’re happy-go-lucky, show that. If you’re concerned about the world and its well-being, show that. If your faith is crucial to your life, show that too. Your greatest customers will be drawn to your company’s personality — but only if it’s honest.
Create a niche for yourself. Don’t be better than your competitors — be different from them. Examine them and then use those insights to differentiate yourself and your services. Ultimately, anyone can do what you do, but no one can do it like you. I like to think about this in terms of acting. Anyone can be an actor. I can be an actor (though I’d be a terrible one). But I can’t be Denzel. I can study him, analyze his particular techniques, but Denzel is Denzel. His space in the “marketplace” is taken; I have to define my own.
Clients don’t come first — you do. Starting a new venture is beyond exciting, but don’t get so happy about creating new things for your people that you forget about building a foundation that supports your growth. Business plans are absolutely fucking boring but absolutely necessary. Even if you don’t have or know all of the pieces just yet, build it out as much as you can. You wouldn’t take a road trip without your GPS and Google Maps, right?
The second part of that is to not get so bogged down in client/customer needs that you forget to revisit that biz plan to track the progress of your goals or to reassess, revise or change them completely. If you don’t take care of “home,” you won’t be able to sustain any long-term success.
Price your shit accordingly. This will be easy if you’ve properly done everything else. If you decide your service is luxury, charge that way. Target people who will pay you. (But you better have a quality product/output if you don’t want any qualms about your prices.) And if you’re providing a service, track your time to properly reassess whether your rates match the amount of time you’re spending on completing a task or project. This will help you find ways to be more efficient and prove your value to a customer or client.
It also helps to study the marketplace and see where others in your field are priced. It’s just like in real estate: You can’t sell your home for a million dollars if every other house in the neighborhood is $100K.
BUT don’t overcharge people. Especially if you’re showing up or sending a product late, sitting on your phone during meetings or being otherwise preoccupied when your full attention is necessary. They didn’t pay for that, and in the age of social media, they will let people know how shitty you are.
If it’s not working out, don’t force it. When things get to feeling shaky, it will eventually start to show. Take heed to that shakiness. Most entrepreneurs are a little hard-headed, though, so it’s likely that you’ll keep going until circumstances get to the point where you have to say, “Stop the press.” And if you do, then stop. Take a break to reevaluate what the hell you are actually trying to accomplish, even if that break takes a while and you can afford it. (Big changes and radical shifts — if that’s what’s in order — do take time.) It’s human nature (I guess) to keep holding on, poking and prodding at something until pieces of it continuously fall apart. That is the less than ideal but also most perfect time to take a step or two or 15 back and figure out, “What am I really trying to do here?”
*Bonus lesson: Do something that you absolutely love (as long as it ain’t illegal). Ideally, the crux of your business lies in something that you’d do for free or in your spare time, even if you were the only one who benefited from it. Not saying that every passion translates into a fruitful business venture, but sometimes that’s where it starts. So don’t be afraid to be a rebel and follow your heart.