10 lessons in 10 years: what I’ve learned as a successful business owner which may surprise you

10 years on, I still have the fancy qualification, an economy in a recession and a whole lot of enthusiasm. The difference is that I’ve grown my business well beyond the “one-man-band” I envisioned.  And I think I’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons over the years.

Some of these I learned the easy way – by watching others get it wrong and doing it better myself.  And some of them were school fees I had to pay.  But all of them have made me better at what I do and I hope can provide some insight and entertainment along the way.

1)    You do not need to have a 5-year plan in order to start a business

There have been a few occasions when I’ve been asked “where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?”, and each time I’ve grinned a cheeky grin and said, “well, whatever I say now, I’ll probably be disappointed if it turns out right because then nothing interesting and innovative and different has come up in the next 5 years”. Frankly, the last 2 years have taught us that we really have no idea what is coming.

Rather than a detailed plan for the next year, I’d suggest that the biggest tool you have at the start of your business-owning journey is adaptability.  There will be curveballs and opportunities that are not in the plan – and if you can adapt, you can thrive.

2)    The product does not need to be perfect – it needs to be sold

You will never have the perfect products.  Every single app on the iStore or Google play gets updated every few weeks. Your product will evolve and change as technology changes or as you learn new things. You can spend years in R&D – but that doesn’t make any money. 

Sell the imperfect product – then while that is generating money, improve the packaging.  And then get a nice label. 

3)    Say yes to things

There will be times when you get asked to do something that you don’t quite know how to do.  And you’ll be faced with two options – say no, and lose the client, or say yes and land them.

So say yes – but make sure you figure out how to do it and deliver because it’s your credibility on the line. It’ll lead to some heart-stopping moments, but you will expand your skillset and your offering.  Necessity is the mother of invention.

4)    Don’t be penny-wise but pound foolish

Cutting costs is not always the option – sometimes, you need to spend on efficiency. It means buying your team a second screen so they can do things quicker. It’s spending money on an inventory system that costs your products correctly and keeps track of margins – because I guarantee you that you are losing more money to errors that are going unchecked than the cost of the system. You may think you can’t afford to, but the reality is that you can’t afford not to.

5)    The client is not always right

As a kid, I saw a sign in a store that said “The Customer is always right, even when he is wrong”.  I was perplexed and frankly, still am. The customer is not always right.  Sometimes, they will ask for something that you know is not the right solution for them. Or they will say they can do it themselves, but you know that they can’t. You are the expert and the relationship needs to reflect that.

6)    A non-paying client is not a client. 

We go into business to make money. Money that lands in our bank accounts.  And we use our scarce resources to do so. When clients do not pay or pay so late as to negatively affect cash flow and therefore our ability to operate, they are not adding value to your business. Spend your time and resources on generating new and better clients who will pay you. It doesn’t matter how much revenue they are (theoretically) generating.  If they’re not paying, it’s not real money and it’s not growing your business.

7)    Get an accountant involved early

There may be a bit of bias here.  And I know that I’m lucky in that I have the skills to manage the financial side of my businesses well. But money makes the world go round – and if you don’t know what is happening with your money, if you aren’t keeping up with your taxes, then you are digging a hole for yourself.  And it will cost you a lot of money and tears to fix.  See point 4. 

8)    Hire a team that you can trust to have your back

Wow! This one took me longer to learn than it should have and both my business and I suffered for it. The power of a strong management team is that it frees me up – mentally and physically – to grow the business.

9)    Never underestimate the incredible good a job can do for someone

The downside of hiring an HR manager and working through a recruiter is that I don’t get to call people and offer them jobs anymore.  I don’t get to hear the happiness and excitement. But I do get to see people grow in knowledge, confidence, experience and become better all-round people because of what a job gives them. It’s an incredible privilege and one that should not be taken lightly.

10) Running a business is hard – but let’s focus on the privilege

I read a post the other day listing all the difficult parts about running a business – the long hours, the friends who want discounts, the ungrateful employees, the complaining customers – generally, a list of how hard it is to run a company. Yes, it’s very hard work – harder than anything I have ever done.

But it’s also exhilarating and exciting.  There are happy clients.  There are friends who support your business.  There are amazing employees who work hard and add value and pop into my office each morning just to say “Hi”.  I have freedom and flexibility and I can choose where my office is so it’s close to home and I don’t have to sit in traffic.  I can make the decisions to change the things that upset or annoy me.

But most of all, I get to build a workplace that fulfills and challenges both my team and I – and that is a massive privilege that we must never lose sight of.  Especially when it’s hard.

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