2011 Cheat Sheet: 5 Big Lessons Learned About Small Business

I am literally counting down the hours until I am at my folks’ house in Jersey with a cocktail napkin in hand (and cocktail), noshing on baked clams and cocktail shrimp. It has been a stellar year for my business, and for myself on a personal level, and for a number of amazingly talented job seekers, entrepreneurs and freelancers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work.

While I started Aspyre Solutions back in 2010, this year was really a critical year for development and growth in terms of streamlining processes, fine-tuning the products & services I truly wanted to offer, and really strategizing on how to provide the best value as a knowledgeable career & business consultant to my fellow aspiring entrepreneurs, creatives and freelancers. And nothing fast-tracks your know-how like just jumping in and doing it! Very few textbooks, courses or articles can provide the same level of knowledge as good old-fashioned trial & error. And trial and error it was, and I’ve learned a number of fantastic lessons along the entrepreneurial journey spanning the last year or two.

Looking back on 2011, I want to share my top business and career lessons learned, not from a textbook or blog, but solely by getting the hands dirty in the trenches.

1. A well-developed brand is the foundation of a successful business or career.
Until you truly establish what your brand is, what it stands for, who it services and why it’s of value, it’s hard to go anywhere else. Whether you’re a job seeker trying to communicate your best skills, experience and expertise to a potential employer, or a growing startup looking to gain marketshare and tap into your core target audience, a well-designed brand is key. What are the values upon which your brand is built? What is appealing about your brand to your target client, visually, values-wise, benefits-wise? Does your visual branding match up with the demeanor your brand is trying to convey? If you’re a solopreneur, a freelancer, or a job seeker, your brand is essentially you – so what unique skills, knowledge or value do you have that you can bring to the table, and how will that change your target audience’s life for the better if they decide to work for you? You have to clearly establish that criteria before you can set off out there and start marketing it!

2. Running a business or being unemployed will quickly teach you what your priorities are.
Let me tell you something – when you quit a decently paying full time job to start a business on your own funds, you quickly learn a thing or ten about personal finances and budgeting. Same lessons apply if you lose your job and are navigating the deep waters of unemployment. Starting a business is an investment, whether that means cleaning out your savings account to get started, seeking funds from family, friends or investors, or sacrificing some of the luxuries that you were able to afford while on someone else’s payroll.

Very few businesses start off extremely profitable right out of the gate, and with the typical startup period (read: in the red) lasting anywhere from 12-36 months, no doubt you will encounter a few financial struggles and stresses along the way. But you will adapt. You will learn to let go of creature comforts, luxuries, and other crap that seemed necessary before. You will learn to cook at home more, eat out less, drink less, and be creative about how you spend time with friends for leisure. And it’s great, because even though it’s an adjustment, your newly-formed financial habits will only continue to help you as you build your business and become smarter about your money and your expenses, both personal and business-related. Think about 1 or 2 things you’re investing in that are nice to have, but not necessities, and areas in which you might be able to free up some income.

3. Start somewhere, even if you idea isn’t 100% complete.
You’ve heard of “analysis paralysis”, and it’s easy to get stuck on trying to complete an idea before you execute it. If you have an idea for a business, but you know it still has a few kinks – start it anyway. That’s not to say quit your job, but simply start taking steps toward creating. You can research, network, plan, strategize and start building traction in ways that don’t require a lot of risk and commitment. But don’t wait until that magical day where you finally say, “Aha! My idea is perfected and ready to go,” because guess what – somebody else just launched it.

And it’s not about a race, but more so recognizing that your first, or even second year of business will be one in which you continue to evolve and grow. In many cases, the original idea, target market, product or service that you set out on will change as you learn more about your business, the market, and what you like and don’t like. So don’t worry about having it all solidified – leave room for change, for growth, and be open to adaptation, because businesses that aren’t flexible and can’t adapt to the ever-changing needs of their market…fail.

4. Surround yourself with people who support what you’re doing.
Changing careers, jobs, or starting a business is both a huge undertaking and a huge life transition. One way to set yourself up for success is by surrounding yourself with friends, family, colleagues and mentors who genuinely support what you do and will act as your accountability and motivational cheerleaders. There will be plenty of times when you doubt yourself and your capabilities, your talents, or your ability to make it on your own, and having someone there to help you shift gears and get back to a place of positive thinking is an amazingly beneficial tool. It’s a necessity. And being able to talk about your creative ideas and your goals out loud to someone helps you organize your own thoughts, challenge yourself, and develop those ideas. When you start talking out loud about your ideas, you process them better than you do in your head, or even on pen & paper. Plus, having someone there to echo your enthusiasm helps build confidence and motivation, both critical business tools.

On the flip side, it forces you also to acknowledge the relationships, friendships and partnerships that are no longer working for you and supporting your objectives. You will quickly suss out those who choose not to step out of their own insecurities or dissatisfaction to take an active interest in your success. When you start a business your time will likely become limited very quickly. Relationships are a two-way street, and positive ones in which both parties feel encouraged, validated and supported are worth investing in, while those that drain, strain and hold you back might be worth reevaluating.

5. Great operations are as important as great ideas. Maybe More.
One of the reasons that upwards of 50% of startups fail in their first year is because having a great idea doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good businessperson. Having an idea and bringing it to fruition is only part of the process. A good business isn’t just build upon an ability to attract new customers, but also a loyal and recurring customer base that enjoys working with you and will continue to buy from you as result. If you’re constantly changing your branding message and marketing, are working with equipment that’s unreliable, have a habit of not returning calls for several days at a time, and customers are writing emails starting with “Just following up again…”, then you need to reevaluate your day-to-day business operations.

If you ask my clients why they continue to work with me, you will see that they say I’m fun, personable and great to work with, and that I’m knowledgable and professional about what I do. That’s not a promotional plug, but rather a testament to the fact that I have always prioritized excellent customer service in my business, and you have to if you want to retain your customers. What are your non-negotiables, your standards for running your business?

Additionally, you have to be organized with your record keeping, be good at tracking your financials so you don’t wake up one day realizing that you’ve ruined your credit, and you MUST have a streamlined process in place for dealing with clients, so as to avoid quality control issues arising later. What happens if a client wants to pay you in two increments instead of one, or they want their money back? What happens if they don’t pay? Are you effectively protecting all parties involved by utilizing a contract for all new customers & suppliers? Do you have a protocol for letting go of employees, contractors, clients or vendors, should you longer want to work with them? Think of yourself as the customer service, marketing, production, sales, accounting, legal and operations department all in one – how will you keep checks and balances on each of these departments within your business?

When we’re so engrossed in the grind of everyday business and career growth, it’s hard to stop and recognize the small accomplishments and lessons we’ve amassed, much less celebrate them. So however you may be spending these upcoming holiday weeks, I encourage you to do just that – celebrate what you’ve done this year for yourself, for your career, your business, take stock of what you’ve learned, and get excited about setting goals for what you want to accomplish and learn in 2012!

Happy Holidays!

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