I attended the fantastic first Small & Special conference one afternoon in July, with more than 100 other small business owners (some just weeks into their new venture) and several excellent speakers. The energy was palpable, and the agenda was inspiring.
It was clear throughout the afternoon that starting and succeeding with a small business involves a lot of hard work, but for nearly everyone that spoke it was a true labor of love.
Several themes developed throughout the afternoon, which I believe make up ten critical lessons or rules for succeeding with a small & special business. Here’s what I took away:
1. Do What You Love (Follow Your Passion)
Fleurish was started with a $15K loan from a friend, and is now a highly-successful floral arrangement and consulting business. A gentleman whose business is laser engraving spoke at length about the history and usefulness of lasers, which culminated in a trivia contest about lasers for samples of his products. He’s that passionate about lasers!
Moral of the story is to start and work on a business not because you think it’s something that can make money, but because it’s something for which you’re truly passionate.
2. Past History, Education or Experience Doesn’t Really Matter
Eric LeVine started CellarTracker.com without much experience or knowledge about wines at all. Just a growing passion for wine, and a knowledge of how he wanted to help other collectors organize their cellars. Rachel Venning now teaches sex ed in addition to operating four sex toy shops across the country, but admitted she didn’t know much of anything about “that” (her word) when she started.
Others may know more than you now. But if you’re passionate and willing to learn, it’s your oyster.
3. Overnight Successes Take Years
The current revenue and margins for many businesses presenting today was impressive (to put it mildly). But most of those stories were preceeded by years of hard work oftentimes while still losing money or barely breaking even. Oliver Chin of Immedium spoke of hos important it was for his wife to have a “day job” to keep good health benefits for him and their two kids. Others spoke of difficult and lean early times (and early years) before they caught their stride.
If you’re passionate and determined, you can get there. You just may need to be patient.
4. Be Open to New, Unexpected Opportunities
Joe Mansfield of EngraveYourTech.com stumbled upon an opportunity to do custom engraving on Moleskine notebooks. It was a new business like with hockey-stick growth until he realized the toxic PVC impact of lasering Moleskine covers. A promising, fast-growth business came to an immediate halt overnight.
Undeterred, Joe started experimenting with engraving on other media, including tech devices such as laptops and iPhones. He actively posts his new creations on Flickr, which generates significant new business on a regular basis.
Be open to new opportunities, especially when existing opportunities shrink or vanish. Your business likely won’t evolve the way you think, but opportunities are everywhere.
5. You Can Start Now
Start it part-time. Several business owners spoke of doing research and starting initially during nights and weekends. Eric LeVine wrote code until the wee hours of the morning while keeping his day-job at Microsoft before deciding he was ready to take the plunge full-time.
Rachel from Babeland wrote a business plan, but really just got started. She said the advantage of “just doing it” gave her much better on-the-job learning, and better visibility into opportunities emerging in real-time. If you have a business idea or passion, start exploring it now. Do it for fun, start it as a hobby. You may be surprised how quickly you’re ready to make it a full-time focus.
6. Ask For Help
Rachel had long admired a popular sex shop in San Francisco called Good Vibrations. She cold-called the founder to ask for advice, and that founder ended up serving as a quasi-advisor to Rachel and her partner as they launched and grew their own business. A successful founder helping a prospective competitor!
You’ll be surprised who will help you – with advice, with their time, even perhaps with their products and services. It never hurts to ask.
7. Work With People You Love
Some speakers recommended finding a good partner. Steven Bristol from LessAccounting.com said his partner was critical to the success of the business, if for no other reason than they help each other “say no” to things they don’t really need (helping them maintain focus and keep costs low).
What’s more, working with people you love makes it fun! Andrew Bennett from Deneki Outdoors realized one day that he was working 50 weeks a year to spend two weeks a year doing what he really wanted. He now spends most of the year managing his fly-fishing lodges and working with people who share his passion.
8. Execute, Every Day
Jon Rimmerman from Garagiste talked about the importance of working hard, every day. You may occasionally hit a home run, but successful businesses are build from hitting a lot of singles. So, as the analogy goes, keep swinging. Keep a good attitude, keep your head down, and execute.
9. Embrace Competition
Steve Bristol loves competing against bigger brands like QuickBooks and Quicken. Competition is scary, he said, but it’s important. When there’s no competition, there’s no market.
What’s more, embrace your role as an underdog and you’ll draw customers to you.
10. Focus On Your Customers
Last but probably the most important. Every single successful business speaking today not only had this as a central focus of their business, but they did it not as a proactive initiative but as a natural, critical part of doing business.
Jon Rimmerman talked about the conversation he has with his customers, not at them. He writes his wine emails (sent daily to nearly 100,000 recipients) as if he’s writing a 1:1 correspondence.
Steven Bristol talked at length about the loyalty customers will have when you treat them right. Even if you screw up occasionally, loyal customers will stay with you if you treat them right. Make something people love, and you’ll create long-term passionate users who tell your story to others.
Matt Heinz is principal at Heinz Marketing, a sales & marketing consulting firm helping businesses increase
customers and revenue. Contact Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.heinzmarketing.com.