Today is the first time in over a year that it feels like a Saturday. Of course I still worked – I delivered an order, reviewed the finances and talked to Andrew about Amai’s new business cards, but it was different. I felt a sense of calm and was actually able to relax and enjoy the feeling of a weekend again. When you work for yourself any day can be a work day, and if you’re like me, that means every day is a work day. Somehow I can’t just turn off and relax when I know that more could be done. So why was today different? There are still a million things to do, but somehow I feel good. I think the new year has renewed my energy, and I’m beginning to learn from my trials throughout 2006.
Last year was the most stressful year of my life, and I brought it all on myself. I chose to start a business, form a partnership, borrow money and much, much more. At certain points throughout the year the stress built up so much inside of me I thought I couldn’t move one more step. This was my feeling even though things were going well. The business was off to a great start, the feedback was amazing and I met the most inspiring people along the way. My mind had a way of playing tricks on me, and I still worried about all that had to be done.
I’m the kind of person who thinks they can do everything themselves if they just try hard enough. For example, if I see a big box that needs to be moved from point A to point B, and the fastest way of getting it there is to move it myself, I’ll do it. I just want to get things done, even if I practically kill myself doing it. In the past this method has worked for me because the things I had to do were manageable, but most importantly, I knew what needed to be done. There was an expected path for me to follow. When I was in high school I knew I had to go to college. When I graduated from college I knew I should get a job doing what I learned in college. When I got a job I knew I was supposed to work to get promoted. There were difficult tasks along the way, but I knew what I was working towards and if I got my job done I would move on to the next level. It all seemed clear, until I ventured out on my own.
I’m not the kind of person who starts a business because they enjoy risks (I naturally do well in a routine and enjoy a certain amount of predictability.) I started my own business because I wanted to contribute something personal to the world, and bring people together who share my passion. While this is a grand idea, it doesn’t really lay out a clear path to follow. It is especially unclear when my chosen business didn’t match my training, and an unknown world can be very overwhelming. I was an Information Architect who decided to open a bakery. I had a little management training and liked to bake, but had no real sense of what day-to-day bakery operations are like and what is involved in owning your own business. I spent the last year learning this the hard way, but I believe it was the best way for me. I did every job myself at some point in the year. Baking, design, sales, marketing, writing, accounting, and much more. For me personally, I had to go through this to really understand all the different elements involved in running a business. You can read books about what needs to be done, but it just doesn’t feel the same unless you see things first hand. Now that I have a better picture of the business, I can start delegating and laying out a plan for the future. That’s where I’m at today, and it feels so good. Now that I’ve reached this point, I think it’s especially important to share what I’ve learned with others who are starting something new of their own. I would recommend:
1) Have a big vision. Write it down and refer back to it when you get caught up in the day-to-day madness. It would be crazy to do all of this work to just make cookies. That’s not what it’s about. My vision for this year is to create a space that brings people together and contributes to the community. I also deem 2007 as the year of prosperity. I want my employees, customers, suppliers, and myself to be rewarded for all of the hard work.
2) Create a “to do” list that has actionable things on it, that you can cross off in a reasonable amount of time. Don’t add a ton of stuff that can’t really be crossed off. For example, “Improve the website” is not a good “to do”. Instead, write, “Add 2 new pictures of the cookies to the website,” or something that is actually achievable. Also, keep one to do list running and don’t start new ones over and over again. (I’m still working on that one!)
3) Enter a partnership only after every alternative has been explored. I recently read an article in an entrepreneurial magazine that said the best advice they could give on partnerships is: don’t. Partnerships can be good to balance skill sets and add resources, but it doesn’t come without serious compromise. I believe that most creative businesses, like Amai, prosper more when one person’s vision can clearly drive the company. If you do get into a partnership, establish a buyout agreement immediately and sign it.
4) Believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. People are not always supportive to small businesses, and often won’t talk to you until you’re big. Keep looking, and you will find those who understand and can help.
5) Identify who you trust and listen to their advice. If it wasn’t for the support and advice of Andrew, my parents and a few key friends, I would have not made it through the year.
6) Get a good accountant early on, and keep ahead of your finances. Also have enough start-up capital to comfortably operate. My dad said that smart people make bad choices when money is tight. I agree.
I’m sure I’ll learn many more lessons in 2007, but I’m happy to have a strong foundation to build on. We’ll do what we can. For Amai, our next goal is to open a retail location. For Lovescool, we hope to get more recipes online and share more about our experiences with bakeries in New York City. Personally, I hope to relax and enjoy this exciting time. Happy new year everyone.