In 1999, my family and I made an uncertain landfall in Vermont. Now, thirteen years later, we can look back on a turbulent adventure that has given us a quality family life and a profitable and fulfilling business. As 2012 begins, my business has become a muscular enterprise. I have learned much, since I first hung out my shingle, about the business of business; I have discovered that I do not need to park my values at the door in order to foster success, but can instead incorporate them into my business model.
My time as my own boss has been a crucible of learning though, I admit, not every strategy I have tried has been a winner. What follows is some of the essential knowledge I have acquired regarding what it takes to succeed in business.
1. Passion for what you do is not enough; you must like what you do, and be good enough at it to attract customers. But pay attention to the details. Businesses do not run themselves; just because you do not like looking after the details does not mean the details do not need looking after.
2. Be ready with a plan, but be equally ready to amend it or ditch it altogether if it is not working. Waiting for the critical mass of people you need to make your business a success will not happen if what you are offering is not adequate to their needs. Never be afraid to tweak your model and evolve.
3. You are in business to be in business, but both you and your employees must derive professional satisfaction, and your clients, consumer approval. You must know what it is that makes your business different, what services or goods you provide that set you apart, and how much you earn from each. If I do not know what types of tax returns or advice are profitable, and those which are not, I cannot properly structure my business.
4. Learn what you can delegate and what you cannot (or should not). Every job in my office carries the same job description—no one does anything that I will not, or have not, done before. But there are certain things that I, and only I, do, including signing checks, preparing bills, and reconciling my bank statement. Ultimately, it is my business, and I need to make the determinations of how much to charge, and what and who to pay.
5. Everything works better when you collaborate. You hired your employees—take advantage of the strengths that each of them brings to his or her job. Ask what would make their jobs more satisfying, or what might produce a better product for your customers. Invite and value your employees’ opinions; their eyes have different blinders than yours, and so may well see what you cannot.
6. Value your employees as highly as you value yourself and your business. Creating a new job takes courage on your part, and provides a challenge to the person filling the job. Take your time and do it right, while at the same time leaving yourself an exit strategy (a probationary period, for example) should the relationship falter, or the business suffer. But if it does work out, make sure that, as your bottom line increases, theirs does too. Remember, their hard work is a large component of your successful business.
7. Making money is important, but it cannot be the only reason you are in business. Too often, the business picks up an unsustainable level of speed that leads to employer and employee burnout. It is far more important to do a great job for fewer clients and grow slowly, than to expand too fast and lose clients for whom you’ve done a less-than-stellar job. Developing and nurturing repeat customers is easier, cheaper, and ultimately far more rewarding than chasing transient business.
8. You run your business; your business should not run you! You are in business for yourself and your ultimate success and/or failure rests squarely on your shoulders, but you still need a life beyond work. Make sure that you always remain in control, and that you have a means to pull back at those times you feel like you’re married to your business instead of your partner.
9. Remember to take pleasure in your business endeavors. If you do not, neither will your employees or your customers. The manager sets the tone of the office or store; make sure it is a warm and positive tone.
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that your business is a living, breathing and ever-changing organism. While my business model may work today, the outside world may completely rewrite the rules tomorrow. My ultimate success, and yours, will rest completely on our abilities to meet this changing world. In business, it is never enough to rest on your past successes; you must always rise to meet your future challenges.