Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What I Have Learned Starting My Own Business

It was almost two years ago when the idea struck me and I decided to open my own store. I never left the school environment since I started grade school, never had a gap year and went straight to 4 years of undergraduate followed by 2 more years of graduate school. Then I entered my career working in an university and later ventured out to do my own business, all heavily education related. Not to mention all the part time jobs I had were either in a school or me teaching elsewhere. It is my comfort zone and I really enjoy teaching, advising, and simply just being in an learning institute interacting with other academic professionals and students, EMBRACING THEIR YOUTH.

I think it was the fact that I was in the same environment for so long that an academic career seemed more like a part of me. I am good at it, I enjoy it, but it's not an adventure. I've always wanted to open my own store. My space. A tangible product that I give birth to and can call it my own. Something that motivates me to go above and beyond, something that scares me, risks me, and excites me. Something that gives me the freedom to be creative and to lead. So here I am now, on this journey having my own business, and these are a few things that I've learnt along the way :

1) It is okay when some things are not perfect. 
During the planning of the business, and during branding, design, and construction, I seriously wanted EVERY single detail to be perfect. I was so obsessed with turning my vision into reality that it physically pained me to give up certain elements due to impracticality or cost. In retrospect, most of the things I cared so much for no longer matter. What matter the most now are efficiency, cost, and quality, and I can wave goodbye to anything that comes in the way of those three easily. Because really, will a customer refuse to purchase because your washroom wall isn't painted in two tones ? Because really, no one cares whether you launch one of your new menu items on the first day of Spring, or on the 12th day.

2) There's no such thing as on budget.
I knew we needed to over budget before we started investing and so I was prepared, but I was not prepared to be SO MUCH over budget even while compromising to keep everything to a minimum. I did countless research, received actual quotes from different industries, but those were still not enough. When you have no experience and try to cost out a start up budget, just keep in mind that everything is a lot more expensive than you think, plus there are probably another long list of things that will slip your mind/you don't know about. It is hence very risky to start putting in money without knowing the total amount you'll have to invest in the end. The start-up cost can snowball very quickly and you might be cornered into a situation where you run out of capital but you've already invested your world, you might then be forced to turn to more undesirable loans, or worse, unable to continue. Always budget, and OVER OVER OVER OVER budget.

3) There's no such thing as on time. 
We gave ourselves almost 2 years before our opening, so initially when every task was up to us to accomplish, we were organized and kept a decent timeline. Then we started to work with other companies and the government, and things became different. Don't get me wrong, this is not to say that the companies we worked with weren't efficient, they were great. But once more people became involved, communication became less direct and each revision took time. The government, needless to say, is known to take a long time issuing each permit. So it is important to give yourself more than enough time to delay, and make sure you budget for those times too.

4) It's like having a baby.
I don't have a baby, not even close to having one, but I can totally relate when moms talk about their babies. My business is my baby. Having a business means you become completely responsible for everything that happens to it, and each decision you make will affect its future. You lose your freedom in a sense that you become forever restricted by your business as it becomes your priority. Have weekend plans ? If something comes up, you cannot think twice but to cancel your date, cancel your flight, cancel any appointment you made, and attend to it. Even if you find a "baby-sitter" for a couple of days, you cannot really enjoy your time away without worrying and thinking about work at all times. It's an added burden and a huge responsibility, but it's also a satisfaction, and you are loving every second of it.

5) You cannot do this alone.
Even if you are starting a business in solidarity, it is essential that you have a support circle. Of course financial support is important, but what I really meant is a community of support from friends, family, customers, and local businesses. Your friends and family must understand the fact that you might be extremely busy and become more than ever absent from their lives and important gatherings. Their support and encouragement will mean so much, especially in the very beginning. I have also become friends with many many customers and other business owners. You don't necessarily need to only connect with people from your industry. We all share the same start-up goals and struggles, and can help each other with advice, or most of the times, shared understanding. The most amazing part of having this business is having that platform to meet people from all walks of life. This is the one thing I am most thankful for.

6) Freedom becomes an interesting thing. 
I'm going to be honest here, one major drive to start my own business is so that I can stop counting vacation days. I love travelling, and working at a cooperate office with 2-week vacation days just didn't work for me. So I started my own business imagining I could just go on holidays whenever I want. It however turns out that, taking time off has become an unaffordable luxury. This completely contradicts with my initial dreams. But of course, I've gained freedom elsewhere to make everything worthwhile : despite not being able to be absent for a long period of time, my day to day schedule is a lot more flexible. I can choose to work at home when I'm not required at work, and I can organize my own deadlines and tasks. I can be creative with my ideas and do experiments. So what if something fails, I can try as many times as I can afford to. I am able to make decisions and plan out budgets without going through ladders and ladders of the corporate structure for approval.

7) You need to become multi-functional.
When you have your own business, I believe regardless of what it is, you need to wear multiple hats and know every single thing that's required for the business to function. Especially in the beginning when you have limited budget, you need to be the cleaner, the dishwasher, the customer service, the food production crew, the plumber, the electrician, the website designer, the copy writer, the marketing and public relations expert, the arts-and-crafts person, the accountant, the manager, and everything and anything in between. You get to learn a lot and you become very resourceful.

8) Experience doesn't matter, attitude does. 
At least for my field, I realize a good attitude matters a whole lot more than having experience. In the beginning, I hired base on people's experience. But I soon found that the same amount of training is required for any new hire, regardless of what they did before. A good learning and working attitude stands out tremendously and these are the employees you try all you can to keep. I am so blessed to have a very amazing and supportive team. I have zero retail experience before I started my business, but nothing is too difficult to learn if you have the right attitude and put your heart into it, nothing. Thank God working in a retail environment is like my second nature. It didn't take me long at all to get used to and enjoy every single aspect of what I do.

9) You cannot please everyone.
In a service industry, there is literally no way you can please every single customer. Everybody has his or her subjective preference and it is impossible to meet everyone's needs with the same merchandise. Personally, if I visit a shop and was not happy with their product or if the shop has made a mistake, I'll still leave cheerfully if their staff compensated me with great attitude and service. Likewise, a bad service can greatly alter my impression for a brand regardless of what they sell. So if you cannot make a customer perfectly happy with your product, make it up to them with your service.

10) It is important to find balance in life. 
I've spoken to so many entrepreneurs and the one common thing we all share is the long hours we devote to our business. In the beginning, I worked 19 hours per day and I caught up on my sleep whenever I could. I had no time for my friends, family, and boyfriend, and I was often grumpy because I was so tired. I know it is easier to be said than done, that it is important to find work life balance, because sometimes you just cannot, like I couldn't. Balance comes in all shapes and sizes, if you can't find the time to do things outside of work, find joy within work. One of my fondest memory during those 19 hours work days is Frank coming to work with me, stayed with me till closing, took me out to walk around the beach after closing, and tucked me into bed before leaving my house. Those were the moments I wouldn't be able to experience if not for those crazy crazy hours.

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