A few months ago, when I was preparing for Hurley House’s tenth birthday, I began to muse over all the important lessons I had learned about owning and operating a small business. Most of these lessons came as a byproduct of messing something up or doing things in the wrong order. Errors can be a wonderful teacher, and I have learned huge lessons along the way.
Starting a small business is a challenge. Operating a small business is even more challenging. And figuring out how to keep that business afloat in a sustainable, manageable way is the most challenging work I have ever done in my life.
If you are thinking about starting a small business, or if you currently own a business and have questions or curiosities about my experience, I have twelve nuggets of wisdom to share with you. I am going to break the information up into three parts, sharing one post per week for three weeks. Today’s post will focus on starting a small business, and these are lessons I wish I had known before I began.
I hope it goes without saying that this is my personal experience with the one business I own. I am positive there are many other ways to think about business-related issues and tons of other lessons still waiting for me to learn. I offer a limited viewpoint, but I hope my experience provides value for you if you’re a business owner or are thinking or dreaming about owning a business.
Ask this question first.
Let’s say you want to open a bakery. Before you start a small business selling baked goods, you need to decide whether or not you want to bake or if you want to run a baking business. Baking and running a baking business are not the same thing, even though they sound incredibly similar. You have to ask yourself what you want your role to be before you start out, and if they answer is not, “I want to run a business,” then you need to either not start a business or you need to find someone who does want to run a business and partner with them so that you can keep baking.
Lots of people get this wrong. They assume that because they like to do a particular thing (baking) that they should start a business doing said thing. However, the truth is once you start a business, you have a new role. You become a business owner, and the work of running a business will compete fiercely for your time and energy. If you love to bake or build or quilt or read or garden, and you want to continue spending most of your time pursuing your passion in a hands-on manner, then business ownership may not be the path for you. If you decide to start a business, you may eventually not do the thing that made you want to start the business in the first place.
Know the order of operations for a smooth start.
Starting a business involves multiple steps that all hinge on the success of the prior step. Knowing which order to take these steps will help you avoid frustration down the road. If I had it to do over, I would take these steps in this order:
Choose your name. Before you commit to the name, find out if the domain is available for your website (and if it is, purchase it immediately!). Find out if your name idea is available as a handle on Instagram. Is your name available as a gmail account? Make sure you love the name, and if possible, do not include your name in the business name. With rare exceptions, it is wiser in the long run to have a business that is not your name.
Create branding. It might seem counter-intuitive to develop branding for a business that isn’t legal yet, but trust me, this is worth the effort. The second that you decide to become official and set up a website or social media account, you are going to need branded items. At the very least, you will need a logo, a color palette, and an idea of the visual aesthetic of your business. You can certainly create these yourself on a free platform like Canva or PicMonkey, but you will need to be able to change sizes and dimensions easily, so keep that in mind.
Take photos. It is possible to launch a business without photos, but it is much easier if you have a small collection of photos to use on your website and social media accounts when you begin. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting down to set up a website only to realize you have nothing to work with. If you are handy with a camera, then you can certainly take these yourself. But it is not a terrible idea to employ a professional for an hour or so to capture some killer visuals. While you’re at it, take a headshot that you like. These images will serve you well for years to come.
Once these three steps are finished, now it’s time to get legal. File for an LLC, set up a bank account, choose a point-of-sale platform, choose accounting software, choose a website platform, start your social media accounts, get your resale certificate, file with your state comptroller. All of these tasks go infinitely smoother if you start with a name, a logo, and some photos.
Hire an accountant. Unless you are really fantastic at bookkeeping and accounting and have a love of numbers and spreadsheets and balance sheets, employee someone from day one to help you get this set up correctly. It will help you tremendously down the road. It doesn’t have to be aa $100 per hour CPA, it can be a friend who charges $20 per hour as a side-hustle. It’s worth it, and you will not regret it.
Determine your voice. We live in an age where marketing (specifically social marketing) is expected by the consumer. There are a few exceptions, and you could certainly operate a tiny small business without it, but if you want to grow and communicate clearly to your audience what you do and how you do it, you are going to need to determine what your voice is. Think like a writer. Be clear and concise. Whatever your voice is, whether it is formal and refined or chatty and familiar, you need to use your brand’s voice any time you write anything across any platform. Your unique voice will determine how you name your products, the way you describe what you do, the verbiage on your invoice, and the captions to social posts. I suggest choosing a voice that is easy for you to execute and feels natural.