What's so hard about small business?
I'm just a guy still trying to figure it all out, but let's take a shot at it.
I remember when I graduated college, I somehow believed with an absurd naivety, "Great! I finally know everything."
Fortunately it only took about two seconds of the real world to find out I knew next to nothing—instead I'd be eternally learning.
Pile on top of that the fact that I graduated with a computer science degree, which generally doesn't mean I was explicitly taught people skills.
I had not earned accompanying degrees in business, marketing, accounting, design, etc.
And I didn't become a lawyer.
You get the point.
But you don’t even need a degree to run a business.
However, you do need to apply all of these skills in one capacity or another.
I put in a bit of time employed as a software engineer, learning along the way.
But getting a small business off the ground reveals even more challenges.
I didn't know what I didn't know.
I think it's easy as a software engineer to focus on the technology problems and think that's the most challenging part of business.
But newsflash! At least for me it was.
There are so many aspects, and I would no longer naively say that software is the great mountain.
It is surely a complex challenge, but jeez it's not the only one.
For us, marketing is one of our tremendous challenges that I didn't remotely understand or even give enough credit to in the past.
But even without that obstacle, business is a dance of moving parts.
If you dialed your marketing up to eleven and have a great product, but the signup process has one too many steps, did everything just fall apart?
It's like a ballet dancer executing a perfect move only to come down ungracefully—or possibly catastrophically—on weak knees.
I'm still on the journey, but I’ve learned a few things to look out for while starting a small business:
- Set a goal: Find something worthwhile that is also interesting to you in some capacity.
- Timing: Are you getting into the market at the right time? Is the competition manageable?
- Research your goal. Are your time estimates realistic? If you don't know, start smaller and build upon that. In software we often say, "Take your estimate and double it. Then double it again." Often times, efforts are much larger than we think when getting into the details.
- Do you have enough finances? You may need to pay for services, people, hardware, physical locations, etc.
- Do you have enough time?
Surround yourself with good people. For partners, you’ll hopefully share similar goals. And you’ll need to be able to delegate. Even if you're just paying contractors for smaller jobs, you'll need someone with expertise in:
- Legal: Form your business legally. Follow local laws. Do you need any licenses? Write contracts for employees and contractors, privacy policies, terms of service, etc.
- Accounting: What are you spending money on? What is coming in? Taxes on various schedules such as sales and federal, payroll, etc.
- Marketing: Not only marketing an existing product, but doing market research beforehand to make sure it's worth the effort. Know your audience. This means continuing research as you further develop your existing product.
- Sales: Close the deals. Chase after the right customers, knowing why they would want to buy in to your product.
- Business: Collaborate with other companies. Connect and network with the right people. Negotiate. Don’t take it personal. This is business. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t let others roll over you.
- Design: Does your product look good? But in addition to that, is it a good experience?
- Human Resources: Once you get more than a few of you, you'll need to manage your people.
- Tell me what else I am missing!
- During growth, do you have a way to find people to bring in or external people to help?
- Expect interruptions: There will be a number of things you just have to do. For example, if you've been employed as a software engineer most of your career, you're probably not excited about balancing your accounting books and calculating/paying sales tax regularly. Or you might be sending invoices or have occasional legal responsibilities.
- Manage your customers and clients: Keep them happy! Plan on customer support, enabling your customers to help themselves as much as possible. You may also need to enhance your product to keep customers happy and improve existing features. Maybe they're pointing out something you're blind to. Do your best to maintain a consistent voice in your communications, especially as your business grows.
- Remember that your business can't go in every direction. Not everyone can be happy, but you can pick the attainable directions that will make the most sense for your business. Pleasing the most people isn't necessarily the best business decision.
- Security: Keep your proprietary information safe, whether it’s physical assets or information, including software and media.
- Re-evaluate: Regularly ask yourself if the path you're on is still the right one? The goal line is likely shifting.
- Listen to what your people want to work on. They may have some ideas to help go along with re-evaluating your company. Additionally, by encouraging and implementing some of their ideas, you’re bringing in excitement and quicker pace while providing them with a sense of value. In the past I was once trying to innovate and improve processes, only to be crushed with the response that “That’s not how we do it here.” Needless to say, my motivations were quite diminished, and I didn’t stay in that role much longer.
I could even take a page from some of my own advice.
Like I said earlier, I'm on a nonstop learning journey.
What advice can you give me?
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