10 Lessons Learned from Starting a Small Business

After almost 20 years of “career” jobs, I finally ventured out on my own in the middle of 2006. I’d thought about such a move for many years, but did not feel ready – until late 2005, when it dawned on me that the ONLY way I was ever going to have a tailor-made opportunity to harness my strengths and run in my desires was to…well, tailor-make it myself. No-one else was going to do it for me – an employer’s agenda will always trump my ideals.

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned thus far? Here are 10:

1. Have a clear, yet flexible vision. Know what it is you are pursuing, make sure that you can articulate it to others…but be aware that the market may, as you start to promote what you’re doing, point you in some different directions. These variations on your dream may, in fact, be the most lucrative course. My initial business model – providing high-level consultative sales expertise for my provider network, while also providing fee-based consulting service for my client base – is meeting clear market needs. But I’ve already seen a couple of new, complementary avenues open up that are variations on the theme. I like to plan and anticipate and map out EVERYthing – these months have convinced me that I am not, in fact, in charge of the universe, and sometimes a new direction comes from an unexpected direction! Be ready to evolve. And when you brand yourself or your business, build in some flexibility, so that if your business changes, you don’t have to completely re-brand.

2. Act. This lesson flows from 1. above. If you have 80% of your offering/message/direction mapped out, grab it by the horns and get out there. The other 20% probably won’t show up until you’re rubbing shoulders with your target market, and starting to make noise. It is more important to show your face than to have everything in place. Once I knew I was going into business for myself, I drew up a list of everything that I figured had to be done, and just did it. Yes, I had to reprint my business cards a few months into it once my message was refined (and once I decided to add a landline and not just live off my cell #), and this past week, I’ve gone through a new round of re-branding. But by now I’ve already gotten the ball rolling. Cards are cheap. Delay is expensive.

3. Network. A lot. Believe that your professional colleagues want to see you succeed, and don’t hesitate to ask them to help. I send out a regular stream of e-mails and cards, and make lots of phone calls to those who will provide support and referrals – the most valuable business development resource of all. If you haven’t built up goodwill over the years, and don’t have a real or virtual Rolodex of cheerleaders, you’re probably sunk as far as succeeding in your own (or any) business. On the dark days – when nothing seems to be happening – I take comfort in the fact that I can rehearse the names and faces of many people who are actively wanting to see me succeed. Ultimately, when starting up, it’s Brand You. Show up and make connections!

4. Help others. Give of what you have – your time, your knowledge, your connections. When you help others with their needs, they will go to extraordinary lengths to help you. I’ve been able to help people make connections with others (including potential employers) and find needed resources with no financial return expected – but I fully expect that this commitment to help my clients and partners and other colleagues will not be in vain. For some of my partners, I’ve “given away” my business and marketing expertise to help them refine their approach – and I know that, in return, there is tremendous loyalty built up over time.

5. Take full advantage of cheap and free communications. One of my first acts was to launch a blog (using WordPress), and write articles of interest (granted, not everyone is a writer – I happen to thoroughly enjoy working with words). Then, very inexpensively, I began a weekly e-newsletter using Constant Contact (the “Friday Collection”) which goes out to my target audience with news, resources, and links – and, with continual repetition of my business identity. I invested the grand sum of $50.00 to have a “caricature” made of my face, which now appears on the newsletter and on all my e-mails. Each of these initiatives has been a tremendous success, with very little invested except some time and creativity. Free press releases, announcements in trade magazines, posts on other blogs – the methods for gaining exposure are legion, and increasingly, free. It doesn’t cost much anymore to effectively brand yourself and your business – esp. important for small companies, start-ups, and consultants.

6. Be an expert. You have to have some area of expertise for people to pay attention to your signal, over the level of background noise. Be sure that what you do, or offer, is narrow and specialized enough that you are not an also-ran. And demonstrate the trappings of expertise by writing articles, doing book and conference reviews, and interviewing thought-leaders – all tactics I’ve employed on my blogs. Read the Ries/Trout classic book on “Positioning” as you try to figure out your platform of expertise in the market.

7. Take great care in establishing your brand identity. Your logo, tagline, and message to the market are your best foot forward – unless people can quickly grasp who you are and what you do, and have something memorable to hang it all on, you’ll have trouble maintaining traction. It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that you’ll need to research available names according to URLs available on the internet, and also look into trademarks. It took me many weeks to settle on “Impactiviti” (and, later, “StickyFigure”), “clean” words, which I could essentially own. Be sure that you have a talented graphic designer help you create the logo – there are even on-line services for this now, which will help develop a logo for a fixed price.

8. Join. Be part of professional organizations, go to local meetings, volunteer your time. Be involved, and help get your clients involved. Consider professional networking platforms, such as LinkedIn. Starting a new business can be lonely – help stave off the danger of isolation-induced discouragement by getting side-by-side with others.

9. Target your best opportunities for initial business. It’s probably not the “world at large.” More likely, it is clients you already know and have worked with. While you want to get your message out to the broader marketplace, your first business is probably going to come from those with whom you have a track record. My wiring has always been to try to reach everyone – it’s a discipline for me to focus on a handful of my closest colleagues. But, of course, it is the people I’ve already cultivated over time that are most open to hear from me; both clients, and others who can provide referrals.

10. Don’t be afraid to be plain, transparent, and open. People respect authenticity. No, you cannot do everything – if someone asks you about something that is “to the side” of your sweet spot, as tempting as it might be to grasp at any business, simply admit that it’s not in your repertoire but see if you can find another resource. Ask people for help – I often have run ideas past a handful of my partners and clients, before they go “out” to the public, for input and critique – and have found great responsiveness as I allow them a transparent look into my thought processes.

11. And now, a bonus entry – be fully prepared to fail. Now, by this I don’t mean give in to pessimism, or be guilty of bad planning. It just may be that your business idea simply won’t fly – and that won’t be the end of the world. Count the cost up front, run a “worst-case scenario” exercise, and launch the business without desperation – there is a serenity that comes from having already considered the “what if” possibilities. I am quite convinced that other doors will open if this one closes, and it is easier to be patient when you’ve planned for the possibility (likelihood!) that revenue may not come as quickly as you’d like. The greater failure would be not trying – and many entrepreneurs did not hit the target the first time out.

And, finally, here’s a lively and helpful on-line video presentation by Guy Kawasaki (former evangelist for Apple, now a writer on entrepreneurship) on starting up a business. Guy’s blog is also a great resource. Recommended!

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  1. Steve, great list of things to keep in mind for someone starting up a small business. As an entrepreneur who has also launched her own business, I agree with your list and would emphasize the networking point. Getting BRAND YOU out there, face to face, is one of the most effective actions that can be taken.

    Thanks for the list!

  2. I work for Guy Kawasaki. Thanks for your comments about Guy’s work as well as the links!


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  4. All good points. How about adding:

    Avoid reinventing the wheel and find a mentor, someone who has already made all the marketing mistakes before, to help you.

  5. Well, don’t bother re-inventing it if you can’t make it better and do it more efficiently/effectively.

    A lot of people make money with other’s ideas.

  6. Thanks, all, for the positive comments. I’m sure that many others could add to the list, and make it 50 Lessons! Perhaps there’s a collaborative e-book idea here…

  7. a very nice list tht is..

    would like to add a very important ‘inside’ aspect of being a ‘small business’ person.

    open up – once one has decided to break into this world of small business, its imperative that a person opens up to every possiblity that her world has to offer to her, all the goods and the bads. its more of a state of mind, that will help her get through this amazing journey from a dream to a reality and make it a business success too.

    open up, live your dream.

  8. Number 7 (Logos, design for marketing and branding) is my area of expertise and I’ve recently published an entry that will help you be sure that you are set up with the design file types you need for your logo to be versitile and functional for all applications.

    Here is the entry design files: Maintaining Design File Quality

    I hope it saves you time and money.

  9. Great article. It really puts the finger on the items. I will try to apply the first 10 items and stay away from number 11.

    Thnak you from CmsBuffet.com

  10. Spot on and lucid words. Thanks for this gem.

  11. Steve:

    I really focused on number 9 because it ties closely to focusing your brand. It makes sense to start with people who you’ve “already cultivated over time” because they are the people who know your brand. They know what to expect from you and how your different, inviting and relevent to their specific needs.

    While it only makes sense, it’s amazing to me how often small business owners decided that they need to reach everybody. I’ve said and written about this before: too many small businesses are blinded by the greatness of their idea…they think everybody wants it, and don’t realize that they need to build a positive experience around the product to have any success.

    Starting with people who know your brand is a faster way to get their.


  12. Mark,

    What you’ve touched on is one of the most crucial aspects of branding for the small company or solo entrepreneur – personal relationships. At this stage, personal connection is often the main currency you have to trade with. And those established relationships are the starter fuel to get things going.

  13. Steve:

    It seems to me that there is a fine line between relying on your personal brand in the beginning, and moving beyond it when the time is right. I’ve seen a small business dry up because all the owners’ contacts had been used up, and there wasn’t a lot of effort to network outside of a small circle. On the other hand, I’ve seen small business owners refuse to tap into the goodwill they’ve earned with a small group, instead choosing to try to be all things to all people only to find their cash has dried up way before the critical mass or customers showed up!

    Great conversation.

  14. Informative article for those starting a new busines.

  15. Think you Bonus points makes complete sense. the zeal to stage a fight back after failures is something which really counts.

    nice article.

  16. Personal Finances says

    I like the phrase that you use in point no 7 “Take great care in establishing your brand identity”. This is something that most small business owner miss to follow through.

    Strategically speaking, the business of your business is what you make and/or sell. All too often we describe our brand ( especially when we are starting a small business) by what we do and this obscures our marketing position and brand strategies.

  17. Your brand should be unique to your business or product. No other company or product should be able to use your brand identity sentence. If they can, then your brand is not differentiated enough from the myriad of other businesses and products on the market.

    Take some time to think about your brand and its uniqueness and make any necessary changes now. You’ll reap the rewards in the short and long term if you do.

  18. Nice article. I can relate to many of your comments as I just started my own CPA firm and am trying my best to network and market my accounting services. I will remember some of your insights as I hope to grow my CPA practice.

  19. Great article but small business need encouragement and perfection. Skills required for entrepreneurship

  20. Aaron Wong says

    Hey. I especially liked your advice to help others. I think that this point relates to networking and reciprocating with others as well. Perhaps this could be a part of that vision you talk about. I believe it’s important to try and help others no matter what you do in life. Thanks for the engaging read.

  21. This is a brilliant article and will no doubt help me as I am about to plunge into the business development world and go it alone. Thank you so much.

    Graeme Davidson

  22. Business Logo says

    Nice Article..! It’s informative and good to know while starting a small business.

  23. I can definitely related to being flexible. I thought I had it all figured out and I was going to target a large audience with my services. What I realized is being an expert in certain industries provides more opportunity. Thanks for sharing.

  24. These are all great tips. I’ve had 3 startups now with 2 of them still going strong for over 7 years.

  25. bob shoemaker says

    Great article,thanks for sharing the informative and useful stuff,it’s very important to know while starting a small business,thanks for sharing.

  26. Thanks for sharing this info! There’s so much to think about when you’re trying to start up a small business- investment, business registration, company organisation, marketing… it can all be pretty overwhelming, so it’s good to have some positive guidance. I think the most important thing is to be resourceful- use every resource available to you, and keep persevering when things get tough.

  27. Nice article. I can relate to many of your comments as I just started my own CPA firm and am trying my best to network and market my accounting services. I will remember some of your insights as I hope to grow my CPA practice.

  28. Informative article for those starting a new busines.

  29. Hey. I especially liked your advice to help others. I think that this point relates to networking and reciprocating with others as well. Perhaps this could be a part of that vision you talk about.

  30. Fantastic tips – i’m currently getting started with my own business and it’s posts like this that have helped guide me and make it possible. The video pres from Guy is great as well – sure i’ll keep revisiting it to keep my eye on the prize!


  31. great post, I have also started a home based business some time and I have learnt so many thing from this post.

  32. Affordable Logo Design says

    its great article its help me more than other article which i read of small business and development share more article of small business i wait for it.

  33. When you say it’s more important to show up than have everything in place, I couldn’t agree with you more! Often when so much concern is given to launching a venture after crossing every t and dotting every i.

    The fact of the matter is that it’s more important to step out quickly to test an idea than to presume our idea is already well baked enough for selling.

    The essence of action is to step out to test and receive feedback to make corrections with.

  34. The idea about helping others-that alone can take you far

  35. Pressure Cooker Cookbook says

    Hello. appears an issue with the primary link you provided : it returns 404 error

    • Ken Chandler says

      Not exactly sure why you are experiencing the 404, I am able to go right to the post on this end.

  36. I believe when starting a business patience is a key attribute. Everyone wants an overnight success. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Things tend to build up rather gradually.