Five Bits of Advice for Anyone Starting a Small Business
I recently sat down with a woman who is interested in opening a bakery in the Midwest. She asked questions about how we got started, about our operations and what it’s like to run The Little Daisy. Then she asked me what advice I had to someone wanting to open a small business.
Here’s what I said...
Do what you love.
Opening a small business is pretty intense. It’s a heavy load to get off the ground, but it’s also immensely rewarding. To have an idea in your head and see it come to life is really amazing, when it all works. But the key is to be in a business that you love: love the work; love the customer; and most of all, love the product. I’ve loved baking my whole life. I love the process, and I love the outcome. Had I not had the love for baking, I would have quit 100 times over. Running the business is hardly easy. That’s no lie. Which brings me to #2.
It’s a commitment of epic proportions.
I know what you’re thinking: “I know what hard work is. I can handle it.” Yep, that’s what I said. I’ve never been one to shy away from hard work. In my 20s I worked at a technology startup in Seattle, which was an intense flurry of organized chaos. All-nighters were not uncommon, which explains why many people kept sleeping bags under their desk. In Chicago I did public relations for chef-driven restaurants, which was work all day and out at night at the restaurants. Then I switched gears and worked with a non-profit that assisted isolated senior citizens. Each of those adventures was vastly different, but they all taught me dedication and how to give 100 percent to my work.
But none of that could have prepared me for owning my own business. At my core, I felt an off-the-charts level of pride that wouldn’t let me give up. And that sense of pride was also matched by a high level of obligation, stress, and hard work. It is a 24/7 job even when you aren’t physically at the business, and even if your business isn’t open every day of the week. You will be thinking about strategies, taking phone calls, answering emails, paying bills, balancing the books, doing payroll and, oh yeah, producing something to sell...
When I was a stay-at-home mom I was on a committee at my son’s preschool to put on a fundraiser called Family Fun Day. I worked for months organizing vendors and volunteers, a bake sale, a raffle, fair booths, and everything that goes into making a great day for young children. When the day of the event came, I woke up super early and was the first one to arrive at the site. As the day went along, there were so-called “fires” to put out: some volunteers didn’t show up, other things didn’t go off as planned, and people came at me from all angles with questions and needs. The first day at The Little Daisy felt that way, too. The only difference was that the day after Family Fun Day, I was exhausted and I couldn’t do much of anything but recover from the big day before. After Little Daisy’s first day, I was just as exhausted, but here’s the thing: there was no resting the next day. It was Family Fun Day again the next day. And the next day. And the next day.
Every morning when my alarm went off at 4am, I’d will myself out of bed, wondering if my legs could support me. I would quietly sneak out of the house and travel to the bakery under the cover of darkness. I would flip on the ovens and turn on the music, which always included Queen’s “Under Pressure,” to get me moving. I would grab the biggest silver bowl and start making scones. Then I’d put in the banana breads, then the cookies, and then I would scoop the cupcakes and whoopie pies. The sun would rise and soon the bakery would be filled with scents of cinnamon and the bustling sounds of customers picking out treats. Every day would fly by, and before I knew it, all the staff had come and gone. I’d flip the oven switches off and feel the silence settle over the kitchen as the whir of the oven fans slowly wound down. Inevitably, I would be the last one there finishing up whatever needed to be done. At some time after midnight, after I had cleaned my dishes and swept and mopped the floors, I would make the short trip home to collapse into bed by 1am. But not before setting my alarm again for 4am. I did that crazy no-sleep schedule for almost a year.
That’s the nature of a bakery. You have to recreate the inventory in the store every single day. There is a children’s clothing store across the street from us, and I used to look longingly out the front window towards them and think, “They don’t have to make their clothes every day to sell. They did it right.” But back to point #1, I love to bake. I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
For the first year (at least), plan on doing everything.
The idea of opening a bakery and baking everyday was so exciting to me. What I learned is that my Snow White fantasy of me baking while humming to the little birds friends fluttering on my shoulder is just that: a fairy tale. Running a bakery means that you play many roles that have nothing to do with dough, batter, or frosting. In addition to being a baker, you are also the equipment manager, customer service director, ingredient purchaser, liaison to electricians and plumbers, supervisor, payroll administrator, bookkeeper, signage designer, menu creator, packaging specialist, fundraiser official, salesperson fielder, staff rally captain, broken oven evaluator, thermostat referee, quality control police, vendor negotiator, and janitor when everyone’s already gone home for the day and there’s still work to do. You find yourself doing things you never imagined, such as the day I tried to clean the grease trap in our first location. That’s another story that I’ll tell on its own some day.
My point is that you are the go-to for everything. When someone doesn’t show up for a shift and no one can cover, it’s you. When the kitchen unexpectedly runs out of an ingredient: it’s you that goes to Restaurant Depot. The refrigerator’s on fire? That call comes to you first. The dishwasher doesn’t show up on Saturday morning? You guessed it.
When it’s your business, you have to be there to make sure everything is headed in the direction that you want. You are teaching people about your vision and the way you want your business to run. You must set the example and be on site to guide and shape the way your business will grow. But then you have to let it grow... which comes to #4.
Build a great team. To survive and grow you, can’t do everything forever.
My early employees all know that I have a hard time delegating. At the onset I wanted to make sure things were done the way I wanted, and I mistakenly figured that I was the only one who could accomplish that. At first, we were open five days a week, although I would still go in on the days we were closed to do paperwork, prep for the Tuesday or meet electricians, plumbers, etc. to fix anything broken. Now we’re open seven days a week, and our production has grown way beyond the bandwidth of anyone doing all the work alone.
If you are opening a small business, a must read is Michael E. Gerber’s The E Myth. Gerber points out that small business owners need to have a balance of roles they play. A business owner needs to work ON the business, not IN it. If you are baking and producing for the business then you aren’t running the business. You will need a staff around you that can do great work, while allowing you to be the boss.
I am so grateful to have an amazing team at The Little Daisy. We’ve been in business for almost 5 years, and four of the first few employees I hired are still with us. Selena was my first hire, and she helped shape the Front of House operations. When we opened, most of The Little Daisy customers were friends for whom I had previously baked cakes. So when they came in to The Little Daisy my instincts would be to say, “Oh, I’ve baked for them for years, just charge them half price.” It’s a strange thing to take money from friends. I always wanted to give a deep discount or just do it for free. Selena put a quick stop to that. Selena handled the front and eliminated the awkwardness of me charging them. She is passionate about the business, and has become such an institution at the front counter, that customers have argued with me about whether she is the owner. I love that, because it means people connect with her and that she is amazing at her job.
Everyone on my team has an extraordinary amount of loyalty and enthusiasm for the work. They treat The Little Daisy as if it were their own. They are talented, caring and hard-working. Ours is a team effort, and the team here at Little Daisy is the best I could imagine. In future posts, you will learn more about the talent and magic that each person brings to our Little Daisy family.
Make sure you have support.
By this, I mean beyond people who work for your business. You will need support in your personal life like never before. My husband, Andrew, had 101 reasons to divorce me the first year of business. I was only home approximately 4-6 hours a day, frequently between midnight and 5am. I was a no show for almost every social event. I slept through the first Thanksgiving dinner after opening. I worked late on Christmas Eve and missed church. I was at the shop 24/7 on weekends. I missed out on a lot of the kids’ events, and was MIA even when it came to extended family vacations. Our conversation topics all hovered around the bakery. Not all spouses would weather that for a year -- OK five. He deserves awards, standing ovations and a drawer full of blue ribbons.
My friend Kim was like a human Band-Aid for me. She literally kept me together. She made sure I knew about important things like school events and registration deadlines. This was key because my son’s kindergarten teacher could not have picked me out of a lineup at the END-of-year party. Kim made sure my kids were where they needed to be and had what they needed. Most of all, she understood that I was off the grid in terms of social interaction and that I was incapable of returning any of her efforts. She ran errands for me. She showed up at the bakery with food for me. She designated herself The Little Daisy Local Marketing Officer. Kim worked at the bakery for free and told everyone she knew to come into the shop. She brought Little Daisy treats everywhere she went. She brought them to work, social events, family gatherings, class parties, and her kids’ sports events. She’s our best customer, and she’s my best friend. That’s Kim. I am endlessly grateful to her. Find someone like Kim to be in your corner when you start your business. She is one in a million, and I couldn’t have done it without her.
There’s so much more that goes into running a business, and I’ll cover much of that in the future. But if you’re thinking about starting a business, I hope these five tips give you a good sense of what to expect and a fighting chance to make it through your first five years and more!