What I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Business Owner

It was a year ago that Val and I made a decision that would change our lives. Hard to believe it’s already been a year. I can still remember how tentative everything was, how there seemed to be these contradicting sensations of both unbounded optimism and total non-permanence. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but none of them has stamped out what has become a successful business.

No, we’re not driving Lexus SUVs and living on a horse farm outside of Lexington (yet), but one year in and our business is completely debt-free and has been for eleven of the past twelve months. I’m prouder of that fact than I ever could be of any fancy SUV.

So, what has owning this business taught me?

1. You don’t have to invent something new, you don’t have to make a ding in the universe, you just have to decide what value you’re going to provide and then provide it consistently and at a fair price.

We’re not selling the next McIntosh computer or Tesla car. We sell promotional products. We search for made-in-America products that have both quality and value. We work with decorators who can produce a quality on-par with anyone in the industry.

2. Success is about making our customers happy.

Our very first order was messed up. Royally. Our customer provided artwork in the form of an Adobe Illustrator file. That file had one stray line in the middle of the logo that completely ruined the logo. That line didn’t show up in the software I use, it didn’t show up in the software Val used, but it did show up in the software that our printer used. And that printer proceeded to produce hundreds of shirts with a messed up logo on them.

Our client wasn’t happy. For two days, Val and I were panicked. The printer insisted that the stray line was part of the art even though it didn’t show up on either of our computers. We finally found an old version of Adobe Illustrator to open the file in and — surprise — there was the stray line. We made the decision that night to have the order re-printed, whatever the cost, and not to charge the customer for the re-prints. Which leads me to…

3. You have to fight for what’s right.

Val spent several hours on the phone with the printer and asked them why they proceeded to print a logo that was obviously flawed on our hundred-shirt order. That led to a conversation with a production manager, who pulled up the graphics file and was appalled that his company had allowed such a glaring error to go to print. While everyone else she talked to said we were out of luck, that we’d approved a proof and, apparently, if you pulled out a magnifying glass, you could see the error on the proof — this production manager decided to do right by us and re-print the order at no cost to us. Which meant that, instead of losing money on this order like we had expected, we instead made hundreds of dollars on our first order and earned the eternal gratitude of our customer, who now saw us as a company that would fight for them. All because Val fought with the printer until she was able to talk to someone who would listen.

4. The customer is not always right.

People assume a lot of things in business. Sometimes those assumptions are completely unreasonable. Sometimes someone will call, asking for a quote on an order of t-shirts. We always ask how many logos a potential customer wants printed and how many colors these logos are. And, almost always, a new customer will assume that if we can print them shirts with one single-color logo for, let’s say, $6.50, then the cost will be the same when they decide to run the logo on both front and back at different sizes, or if they decide to have their logo printed with all five colors instead of just one. And, instead of a cheap 50/50 poly cotton shirt, they want 100% pre-shrunk cotton. In that case, the $6.50 shirt is now going to cost $13 because of the extra screens and the extra cost of the shirt.

“But you said it would be $6.50!”

And it will be $6.50, if you go back to the original quote of one logo, single-color per shirt.

Honestly, the difference between what the customer originally asks for and what they expect us to upgrade them to for the same price is like getting a quote on a Chevrolet Malibu and expecting the dealer to sell you a Lexus as the same price.

Sometimes what people ask for is simply impossible. Sometimes we would have to stretch our profit margin so thin that it’s not worth it. Sometimes we have to say no and walk away, even though we’re new and growing and we need every customer we can get.

5. I don’t own a business because of what I make today, I’m looking ten years down the road.

Our financial statements can be a mess. Our biggest supplier invoices practically every item individually. Their billing is fairly irrational, too. So, when I look at an order that we received one check for, I’m trying to add up costs of a dozen or more invoices from our supplier, plus invoices from the decorator, plus shipping costs — it’s a lot to track. Pretty much every time I’ve calculated what my take for the month would be, with devilish grin and a greedy tapping of fingers, another batch of invoices comes in from an order I thought had closed. Pretty much every single time.

I know a lot of people who make sure they’re paid before anyone else in their business. If money gets tight, they let people go. They don’t sacrifice their quality of life because the cash-flow is down.

That’s not our business. There’s nobody to let go.

There are months I don’t get paid. There are months where, by the time suppliers are paid and Val is paid, there’s just not enough left over. I’m okay with that. Building this business is like building a house with bricks. I just have to keep laying the bricks. Eventually, the house will be there. If I get mad because I can’t live in that house right now, then I’ll never lay enough bricks to have a house.

I wish I could say that this business was the sole source of income for both myself and Val. It’s not. Val works two part-time jobs and I’ve got several side gigs, like writing and video production. But we both know, eventually, if we keep building this business, it will provide for us. That’s why we’re building it, not for the short-term gain we get now.

6. The fear of not being perfect will stop you from getting anything done.

I get it. Nobody wants to look like an idiot. It’s easier to talk about something than to do it and fail. Reflecting on all the things Val and I have talked about doing for our business, and realizing that we haven’t done almost any of them, is a gut punch.

We both have let the fear of not being perfect prevent us from trying and possibly failing. It’s a horrible thing to say. I wish I could say it wasn’t true. But, looking back, fear has stopped us more often than not.

Starting a business was scary. It’s really scary when you go six weeks without any orders, when you spend every day trying to drum up business and nothing’s working. It’s extremely scary when people who know your industry tell you that you should be going through a busy season and you’re not.

When I look at the things we could have accomplished in this year — a comprehensive inbound marketing strategy, product videos and a vlog, even an ebook and webinar — I realize that these things could have made a huge difference in our finances. What I don’t want is to sit here a year from now thinking that we should have done these things but didn’t.

7. It’s humbling not having anyone to blame.

When you own your own business, and you see things going wrong, you have to take the blame on yourself. Nobody else is making these decisions. Nobody else is forcing you to do dumb things. If there’s anything I miss about working for someone else, it’s the ability to point a finger and say, “If that idiot would just listen to me, this whole place would be running better.” Now I’m the idiot. When I point a finger, I’m pointing it at myself.

It doesn’t make the argument any less valid, though. If this idiot would only listen…

Owning my own business has been rewarding and challenging and, ultimately, fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade this year for anything, and I look forward to seeing the house that I’m building now when it’s done. Being an entrepreneur may not be right for everyone, but for Val and I, I can’t imagine a more right choice at all.