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5 Lessons I Learned During My First Year in Business

August 19th 2019

That first year in business is one of the hardest. You’re learning how to sell your products and services while simultaneously figuring out how to build a business. It’s a lot like flying a plane while you build it, as the saying goes.

The good news is that the vast majority of small businesses do survive their first year. In fact, a resounding 79.8% were still in business after Year 1, according to the US Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. That’s not to say surviving and thriving are easy. That first year provides many opportunities for growth.

So if you think back to the biggest and most important lessons you learned that first year as a business owner, what would they be? Or as you’re creating the foundations for your business during your own first year, what have you learned so far?

We asked dozens of women entrepreneurs that question and distilled their answers down to the five we thought were the most insightful. You surely had your own five biggest lessons, and they may be completely different from this list. But as you continue to grow your venture, these may be lessons you need to learn now.

  • The people you hire at the start may not be able to grow with you. Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls marketing consulting firm, learned that lesson the hard way, she says. Her mistake that first year was “not getting rid of weak people earlier…I spent more time managing them than finding new customers.” Loyalty is what led her to hold onto them even when they were no longer the best choice for the roles they were in. 

“As soon as I let them go, the culture got stronger and the bar higher,” she says. Hire slowly and fire quickly is now her mantra.

  • Prioritize what skills you should learn, rent, or buy. Juli Lassow, founder and principal of JHL Solutions retail business consulting and management firm, strongly advises assessing your areas of strength so you can build your business around your “superpowers.” Then “focus on what needs you can’t meet today and quickly decide how you’ll want to address the gaps,” says Lassow. She sees the options as learning the skill yourself, such as the basics of social media; outsourcing tasks to an expert, such as if you need a website designed and don’t see yourself needing that skill regularly; or buying tools or systems that will help you solve issues or fill a need.

“For technical areas of expertise, such as legal or accounting services, I would highly encourage that you prioritize your funds to hire an expert. The upfront investment will help you build a stronger foundation and save you money in the long run,” says Lassow.

  • Set boundaries for yourself. “The first six months are tough because there is no groundwork to build off of,” says Ashley Lim, founder and CEO of Mansa Tea, a handcrafted aged tea company. You have to do everything from scratch, for the first time. “From product planning to supply chain management to marketing, there is so much on your plate and not enough time,” Lim says. Feeling overwhelmed is common and possibly preventable, by taking breaks, setting limits on what you expect of yourself each day, and being willing to hand off tasks that you don’t personally need to tackle, such as bookkeeping, ordering supplies, or creating online content. 

Saloni Doshi, CEO of EcoEnclose, a sustainable shipping supplies company, avoids overwhelm by mapping out her priorities each month. “Then each week, I plan how much time I’d like to spend on each one. It’s a great way to make sure you’re organized, hitting your goals, and making time for the things that matter,” Doshi says.

  • Test your product, again, and again, and again. Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd, a Bluetooth mobile dating app, learned from not testing her website before earning major publicity. “When we got covered in the New York Times nearly five years ago, we got site traffic from all over the world until Cheekd crashed,” Cheek says. Once back up, the company started getting orders from customers nationwide. “It was the biggest day in the history of Cheekd,” she confirms.

But her jubilation turned to frustration when she discovered that the company’s web developer had toggled a button “off” to prevent customer credit card data from being captured and saved. That was problematic since Cheekd’s business model is based on a recurring subscription model that requires credit card data to be stored. She estimates the company lost on the order of $30,000 from hundreds of orders that couldn’t be renewed. Her takeaway? Test everything to make sure it works as you expect before launching.

  • Communicate consistently with your customers. The number one reason that customers stop doing business with you is perceived indifference. According to the Peppers & Rogers Group, 60% of customers stop buying from you because they that they think you don’t care about them. How can you combat that? Be in touch. Send friendly emails to see how they’re doing, connect on social media, send out a newsletter, pick up the phone. Do all you can to show you care about your customers’ well-being as individuals, and not just people who spend money with you.

Alex Tran, a deals and lifestyle blogger at Schimiggy, quickly discovered that online customers appreciate talking to a live human. About 13% of her customers are repeat buyers, she says, who “do more than just purchase. They interact with me on social media and through my blog and I’ve become friends with many!”

That first year is tough, but as time goes on, you should be proud of all you’ve accomplished—the connections you’ve made, skills you’ve developed, network you’ve established, and recognition you’ve received as a result of your idea and your efforts.

Your second year in business may not be easier, but it will definitely be different, full of new ideas, customers, and experiences you can continue to learn from.

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