7 Small Business Lessons from a Reformed Workaholic

A selection of products from my fair trade shop, circa 2007.

Once upon a time, I was a small business owner. Young, passionate, and ready to change the world, I left corporate America looking for more meaning and purpose. I started a business. I closed that business. And in the mix of hard work and long hours, I learned a few lessons along the way.

1. Save more money.  I had a wonderful, well-paying job before starting my business. If I had worked six more months to save more capital, my little shop would have found much firmer footing.

2. Avoid scope creep. I started my business to bring fair trade goods to my neighborhood. Then I added a few items I had handmade because I thought they were cool. Then I added items friends had made. The next thing I knew, I was carrying a disjointed range of products that I couldn’t effectively market.

3. Get help. I was in serious need of experts. I had a bad case of I-can-do-it-myself. Some of it was to save money (see #1), and some of it was because I couldn’t be honest about my own deficiencies. I was too cheap to hire a bookkeeper and spent many miserable hours reconciling accounts and doing my taxes.

4. Find the right time and place.  My original vision for the business involved a neighborhood storefront, but I ended up online and at craft fairs when I couldn’t afford standard rent. Now I look at the tiny business incubator shops in my neighborhood, think about the growing interest in ethical fashion, and wonder “What if.” It’s funny to think about what my business might look like now, in the age of Square readers and Venmo. Waiting two years while conducting more research might have changed my entire business.

5. Expect the unexpected. I needed to build in enough time and money to cover the problems I couldn’t foresee. At my first event, my entire shipment of Thistle Farms lip balm melted in the August sun. A significant portion of money invested in products was now lost, and I struggled to rebound.

6. Look beyond the bottom line. When I decided to shut down my business, I felt like a failure. Even though I was shutting down by choice to focus on my family, I hadn’t yet reached the point of making money. I felt ashamed of spending our family’s money on something that didn’t give back. A wise friend (Okay, okay, it was my therapist) asked if I would feel so much regret if I had spent that money on graduate classes but ended up with no degree. Could the education of running a small business be worth the investment and toil, even with no financial gain?

7. Accept the gift of experience. With benefit of hindsight, I see that my struggling store was exactly what I needed during that time in my life. I learned so much about myself, and I like to think that what I did made a difference to others as well. My business didn’t thrive, but it introduced my friends and neighbors to the concept of ethical fashion and fair trade. I made a difference in the lives of the artisans who made my products. I met some amazing people. And maybe I changed how my neighborhood shopped, once person at a time.

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