Running a small business is like a neverending horse show. You get up in the morning, blinking and bleary-eyed and a little intimidated. You start on your massive to-do list, going through many repetitive and mundane tasks. Catastrophes happen. It doesn’t quite make sense why you are putting yourself through all this.
Some days are just plain shattering. You put in the time and effort, only to end up on your butt in the dirt.
Other days, you get an absolute rush of triumph and fulfillment. You look back and see every single little bit of grit and determination that got you to where you are. You savor this moment – it is what’s going to keep you going through the rough times ahead. Everything is worth it.
Starting a business does not make sense, just like how horse ownership does not make sense. It’s a lot of work and money poured into a hungry drain with a slim chance of recouping any of it, much less making money. But when you have your idea, your obsession – none of that really matters anymore.
I went to trade school and business school, but the most important things I learned were from my own mistakes, experience, and advice given to me by others:
School is great, but business management is best learned from other people who are actually doing it. I would go so far as to say that working under someone who is willing to mentor you is more important than reading a textbook. But you need to be hungry for it. Just like hanging over the fence watching lessons, I trailed people, peppering them with questions and watching how they did things. Similar to how a coach will spend extra time with a dedicated student, I had countless people take me under their wing because they felt personally invested in me (or because I was annoying and they wanted to be rid of me – either works).
Do it yourself
I routinely think “Oh, wow. I didn’t know I could do this.” Payroll. Taxes. Photography. Website design. The best thing about running a business is that none of it is rocket science. There is an online tutorial for everything. The biggest lesson I learned is that saving money while starting out is even more important than making money. Anything you can stay up late at night to do is better than shelling out to hire someone.
Listen to the naysayers (sometimes)
There is a clear line between people who aren’t afraid to give you honest, thoughtful feedback, and ones who are criticizing for the sake of criticizing. The former are pure gold, and the latter do not need to be in your life at all. There is a small list of people who I allow to tear a strip off of me because I know they’re doing it in my best interest. I swallow my pride and listen to them calling me out about shoddy sewing or dumb design or directionless marketing, grit my teeth and fix it. They’re always right.
Be serious, and excited
Dress the part, be polite, and try not to say “like,” especially if you’re young. I have encountered both ageism and sexism in my business dealings, and the only way to deal with them is a stiff upper lip and direct way of speaking. Emotions get put away to be dealt with at a later time.
My business partner and I met in a barn while grooming our horses. I had made a rule for myself that I would tell everyone I came across about my “crazy idea,” in the hopes that I would find someone who could guide or help. She listened, nodded, and asked me out for lunch. Three months later, we had a business. There is a long list of people who step up to the plate to help or stand by me when the going gets tough, and I thank my lucky stars for them. They shake their head at me and smile and offer their help, knowledge, and services.
I went from owning a horse and riding every day to scrambling for time to sneak out to the barn once a week. Those precious few hours are like getting a drug fix, and something that I realized is imperative for my mental health. The one thing I did not sacrifice was sleep – eight hours a night, and working the rest of the twenty-four. You get really in tune with exactly what your body and mind needs in order to function properly.
Have some morals
I’m the fashion designer who thinks that fashion is hopelessly superficial. In my search for ways to make my passion more meaningful, I stumbled across the really important deficiencies in ethics and sustainability in the textile industry. Holding yourself to some lofty goals that make the planet a slightly better place is a great motivator. When people critique me for my high prices, I simply shrug and say “It’s because everything is made by fairly compensated craftspeople out of quality materials. I’m working on getting the prices down, it just takes awhile. Bear with me.”
Have a little fun with it
Coming from a family of successful, health and sciences based career people, I put an immense pressure on myself to turn my “artsy fashion” business profitable simply so that I could prove a point to them. I was stressed and desperate and not really enjoying myself. Finally, I came to the realization that businesses are delicate – a small puff of air could blow them over in an instant, much like a horse having a tragic accident. Knowing that I may wake up one day and have it all gone, how did I want to remember my time with it? As a giant ball of anxiety – or a fun learning experience?
This changed my outlook dramatically. I hadn’t realized how much time I was wasting every day counting pennies and being irritated. I relaxed a bit, focussed on the present moment, and lo and behold, the business responded very positively. Good ideas and opportunities flowed – much like taking intense competitive pressure off of a horse and seeing them blossom.
Because there are a lot of really fun things. I get to wake up in the morning with an idea and have it be a reality by dinnertime. I hear people call out “Hey, it’s the Street & Saddle girl!” at horse shows. Women tell me that I made them feel good about their bodies.
You get freedom and opportunities. You can sit down and design your life and your future. You put yourself through hell and high water, but you come out the other end pretty proud of yourself. You can make a mark on the world – your own mark.