Fifteen Things I've Learned over Fifteen Years in Business
1. Relationships are everything.
This. This is not something I actually learned, but it has been proven over and over again throughout my career.
Relationships with my customers.
Relationships with my team.
Relationships with my vendors.
Relationships within my community.
It takes time to create these relationships but they have helped build the business and given me strength over the years.
2. The customer comes first.
I’ve worked in retail almost my entire life. I’ve been fortunate to work at small and large stores with the same customer philosophy- the customer comes first. I train my team to treat our store like Main Street USA in Disneyworld. We are on stage when there is a customer in our shop. They don’t want to hear about a team member’s weekend plans or see them on their phones checking Instagram.
The moment a customer walks in the door, it is all about them, their needs and what brought them in. Without our customers, we are no longer relevant.
3. Customer loyalty is invaluable.
We have done very little formal advertising over the years and I credit this to our loyal customers! They are the best advocates for the business. We have grown to know so many customers as friends, we know their favorites and we love to see them in the shop or through an online order.
4. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. (see also: it’s a business, not a hobby)
Starting a creative business 15 years ago, I didn’t really have a clear direction. It began with invitations and stationery, but being a creative, I was open to so many things. So, I said yes to many things that weren’t necessarily in our core line of products.
Over time, I had to learn that just because I was capable of making something, didn’t mean I should. Pinterest shows us so many creative ideas, but that doesn’t mean that I can create them for each customer at no charge. In order to grow the business, I have to focus on the things we do well and efficiently or charge for custom work.
This concept also applies to the business side of things. I’ve had to learn to marinate over ideas rather than chasing every shiny object that presents itself. Again, as a creative person, I have a tendency to want to go “all in” on an idea with extreme enthusiasm. But this strategy is a lethal one, so I’ve learned to talk through ideas with my team, create prototypes and even poll our customers. The market leads the way, so all ideas do not come to fruition.
At least once a week, someone comments that “it would be fun to work at our store”. I take this as a compliment since their perception must be that our store is a place of happiness and fun. True. But behind the counter, we are working hard to create that atmosphere and run a business.
Business things are not always fun. Payroll, Bills. Schedules, Taxes, Orders, Marketing and more. These are things that have to be tended to, ideally during business hours rather than late at night. So, I may be in the store, but head down at my desk working on something that needs my attention.
Running a creative small business is so rewarding, but it is a business.
5. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely place.
Being an entrepreneur has meant that I’ve had to prioritize my time and relationships over the years. My husband and I have been married for over 20 years, and we have one son, so those relationships have been first, of course.
Friendships are harder-balancing the needs of the business while trying to maintain friendships can be challenging. As a high functioning introvert, I crave time to myself after a long day of chatting with customers and team. All the tabs in my brain stay open, even when I’m by myself, and I need time to process ideas and plans. My close friends understand me and tolerate my hermit-like behavior.
6. My team is an extension of my family.
We spend a great deal of time together, so we’d better like each other a great deal. Especially in a small setting, we rely on each other heavily and have each other’s backs. I love my small team and genuinely care about each of them as people.
7. Lead by example
I have a very high customer service standard and every member of the team understands what is expected. Our business is very people-centric. We have to have conversations in order to help our customers, ask the right questions and be genuinely interested in the answers. I love when I overhear one of our team using “my words”. That means they were listening.
8. Staying true to myself always works.
It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and think we should be doing that new thing. Or take a suggestion that doesn’t quite fit our brand and try to make it work. It never does. The business always flourishes most when I remember who our customer is and stay true the brand we have developed.
9. Transparency serves me well.
I’ve always had this philosophy- with customers, with employees, with vendors. For the most part, I don’t hide anything. If something goes wrong with an order, we are honest and offer the solution. If an employee isn’t performing well, I address it. I find that it’s better to be honest and forthright than trying to mask the problem. Get it out there. Take care of it. Move on.
10. Balance is elusive.
Balance. Everyone is talking about it and yet it eludes so many of us. We are so connected at all hours of the day through our devices; the lines have been blurred.
I can access all of the store’s emails, online orders and store sales from my phone, so it is challenging not to look at it when I’m away from the shop. When I was a one-woman show, I used to answer customer emails at all hours- late at night, Sundays. I used to drop everything to revise an invitation or respond to a question. Now, I set limits for myself because I know those will be tended to by a team member during business hours.
Owning a store presents unique challenges that are different from an office setting. Since we are open six days a week, our schedules don’t look like a traditional work. For example, I may have a Thursday off because I am working on Saturday. The challenge comes with trying to force myself to treat that Thursday AS my Saturday and NOT work while at home. Since I love what I do and there is always something TO do, this is almost always difficult. And since the store is open, there are often questions that need answered, so I get a call or text. My team is great and they have full authority to make most decisions, but this just goes with the territory.
Self-care is not something I am good at either. I don’t rest easily. I don’t exercise like I should. I rarely take time for me. I’m working on it.
11. Do a good job and they will come back
In this day and age, it is much easier for a customer to grab their phone, hop online and order what they need. So it our mission to set ourselves apart by creating an atmosphere that is not tangible in the online space. The candle scent when they walk in the door. The music playing in the background. The glass of water when it’s hot. And of course, the service. We know they came in looking for “something”, even if only to browse our assortment. It is our job to help them find it. The perfect gift. An invitation that sets the tone of the party. New personal stationery. Whatever the “something” is, we want to talk it through with her and help her arrive at a decision they are thrilled with. The hope is that they will remember the great experience the next time
12. Create processes for everything
Being a creative means that I tend to get distracted easily and get bored with repetitive tasks. Enter processes. We’ve fine-tuned many aspects of the business so that I am not the one doing those things. Is it perfect? NO! There are many more processes to establish and they are constantly changing. But in order to grow, we’ve had to standardize certain aspects of the business.
When I was working by myself from home, it was easy to take a call from someone who needed invitations quickly and create them right away. I would stop whatever I was doing, create something unique and have it printed quickly for them. That was possible then because I didn’t have many other orders ahead of it, a team of people and a storefront to run. Now, we have a process in place to handle those rush orders and we charge for our time.
13. Muscle Memory in business is real
Things that were hard years ago are so much easier now and I credit it to muscle memory.
I’ve had customers yell at me.
I’ve had employees resign with no notice.
I’ve had vendors fail to ship.
I’ve had a break in at the shop.
Few things rattle me anymore like they used to and it just comes with experience.
14. Sometimes you have to JUMP!
Although I am much more seasoned now, I still get an instinct, a gut feeling, once in a while and I just have to listen to it. Sometimes it’s a small thing like a new line for the shop and sometimes it’s a big thing like moving to a new space in October. (True story- we did that and reopened in 2 days).
The instinct and risk is what makes me an entrepreneur. It’s a gift I can’t deny and what makes me love my work every day.
15. Family Support
Through it all, I’ve had the unconditional support of my family. From working at home and schlepping plastic bins of samples to home shows to week-long market trips to buy for the season, I could not have done this for 15 years without the help of my mom and husband and the support of my family.
My mom is my biggest cheerleader, my rock when things are tough and the voice of reason when I get an “idea”.
My husband has supported our family when this little dream wasn’t adding any income to our family and took care of our son when I had weekend shows in the early days.
Countless other family members have cheered me on through the years and I am grateful.
I love what I do and I hope to have another 15 years doing it. The world of retail is changing fast and we're trying to keep up by offering unique products and unparalleled service. That will never change.