February 19, 2010

Lessons for Entrepreneurs

buttons by dada dreams

I went to a lecture last night at my Alma Mater, Harpeth Hall, to hear two business women (also alumnae) discuss what it takes to be an entrepreneur. The first speaker on the panel was Olivia Mullin who started her own stationery business 15 years ago, Olivia Mullin Co. With over 1,000 retail stores and a very distinctive look, it is a very well known and respected company in my opinion. I was very surprised to hear she had just closed it in December but her reasons why made sense, but that's a whole other topic. The other speaker was Allison Wills Brooks - she started Calypso Café with her husband Phil about 22 years ago. I eat at Calypso Café often and even worked there for a couple of weeks (shortest job I ever had!) - they're known for fast, affordable, and healthy Caribbean food. There was also a moderator whose name I can't remember - he seemed like a small business/entrepreneurial coach who led their discussion.

I don't really want to re-hash the entire lecture, so I'll just mention a few key points that struck me.

An entrepreneur's first decision is "Do I want to do this or delegate this?" Are you someone who enjoys doing something or are you someone who can recognize talent in others, nourish it, and keep them happy as employees?

This was very interesting to me because I have always skated this fine line between artist and businesswoman and after hearing it put into terms like that, I think I really fall more on the artist side. I don't think I'd ever want to delegate out the making of the jewelry and just design it - I enjoy making it, selling it, promoting it, etc. I enjoy everything about running Freshie & Zero - except maybe calling for credit cards and dealing with disgruntled customers. It would be hard for me to delegate out certain aspects of my business, which is a lot of the reason why I haven't seriously considered bringing in help yet.

"Salary" is not an entrepreneurial term.

Basically, what's left after you pay your bills and your employees is your profit and what you take home. That makes me feel a lot better, too since I really have no idea what my income actually is until I file my taxes at the end of the year. I thought after 2008 I would have a better understanding, but since I spent so much on wholesale shows in 2009, my expenses went up by thousands of dollars and I was afraid to "pay" myself. I just spend money as needed and put money in my bank account when it's low. It's "very gray" as a friend of mine put it, but it doesn't really bother me doing it this way.

True profit is what you make after you hire help, and it's obviously a lot less than what you make when it's just you.

Yuck - another reason I haven't wanted to hire anyone. Luckily, I've been able to get a few necessary things done here and there for trade, which is definitely my ideal situation!

Don't let your ego get tied up in your business.

Allison said that they have closed a location or two of Calypso because it wasn't profitable and they couldn't worry about how it would look to consumers. Their ego wasn't so tied up in their company image that they had to keep a store open just to save face.

multitask journal from See Jane Work

Start out knowing you can't do it all.

That's tough - especially when I pretty much am doing it all! I recently got someone to write a press release release for me, and it's embarrassing that it took me about 5 years to get that done. I felt like I could do it because I knew it wasn't rocket science, but I kept putting it off because I really just didn't want to do it. I should have known 5 years ago that I needed someone else to do it for me.

Many entrepreneurs start by asking themselves "Why can't this be better? Can I do something to make this better?"

Both Allison and Olivia took calculated risks - they saw a need for something and thought they could fill it, i.e. make it better. They tested their products, did a lot of research, and did not take out loans to start their company much like myself. Allison said that what they spent on their first year in business was basically like paying for a year in graduate school but with a much better education - even if they failed in business, they would have gained an immense knowledge and they wouldn't really have lost anything!

Seek out a mentor.

When asked if they had mentors they each had to think long and hard and both named their fathers as inspirational since their fathers were both entrepreneurs. But they both suggested that if you want to be an entrepreneur that you seek out a mentor.

It was a nice lecture - I don't think I yawned once which is saying a lot! I am personally asked all the time for advice and tips about being a small indie business, and let me tell you - I am SO over me. It was such a relief to listen to other women talk about it who are way more established than myself. It was also great that they were so forthcoming with information. The handmade jewelry business can feel a bit cut-throat especially when a stranger out of nowhere emails you and asks you pretty detailed questions about where you buy your supplies or even just an open ended question such as "how did you get started?". Ummm... forget about my lack of free time to type out an extensive email - do you really think I want to freely give out advice to someone who could become my competition? I think a lot of people who want to start an indie business are so starry eyed that they don't realize that there is a reality of always watching your back and being on the lookout for your competitors. Luckily, the longer I'm in business, the less I care about the copycats out there, and the less it stings when customers tell me that so-and-so is copying me. So what? They may try and mimic the product, and they may try and sell it for less, but they'll never be you, your brand, or your heart. And of course, they'll always be one step behind as they say!

paperweight by Vilmain

All in all, I don't know that I would even classify myself as an entrepreneur. I don't have dreams of building up this big company and sitting behind a desk all day delegating responsibilities and employees. That sounds a lot like management, which I can do but that's not why I started this business. I think I prefer self-employed artist, thank you very much.


Courtney said...

This was so insightful and inspiring. Thanks for sharing! Enjoy your weekend.

alex/hello bluebird said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Practical, yet relaxed, the way business ought to be.
Still thinking I should get a catalog--I am super curious about those letterpress earring cards you mentioned in your last post--where is the close-up photo so we can all oo and ahh?! ;)

allison cecil said...

I love your take on the copycats out there. It is such a great attitude and really necessary to survive and prosper.

Irene said...

GREAT post! :)
I dig whay you do!

freshie (and zero) said...

Thanks everyone! Alex, I have yet to take a great close up of the letterpress earring cards - the photos do not do them justice! I have just started shipping them with my wholesale orders and I can't wait to see how they are received in a retail environment!

Beth Snyder said...

Yay! I read this in pieces over the last couple of days so i could digest and savor it. GREAT POST!

Anonymous said...

i like your approach and am inspired that you can "do" the work instead of "delegate" it and make it work for you

woolies said...

What started as a little thing is turning into a bigger thing (my etsy shops, my wholesale accounts, my very scary new possible wholesale account that I'm sending out samples for today to a national store that has boutiques in malls everywhere - sorry for the run on sentence). I'm terrified it's taking on a life of it's own! I work full time too!
Admire your work greatly.
and great post.

Angela said...

Thank you for the great post! I will link this on my website! I don't delegate well. I am a control freak.

Shana said...

Smart post!
Substitute your 'press release' for my 'website redesign'. I've wasted years on something I don't want to do, but felt I should.

Thanks for this!

Philanthropy said...

I love your blog. Guess What. Your new cards are a BIG HIT. We have already sold out of your earrings in just one week and need a re-order. Plus the cards make such a presence, that they are looking at...and buying...the necklaces. The cards were a good call.

freshie (and zero) said...

Thanks for all the positive feedback everyone! It's exciting to read all of your comments!

Marianne - I'm excited that the cards are a hit! Good thing since I just ordered 1,000 more of them, including a slightly modified version that will show off the gemstone styles.

Chandra said...

So helpful, thanks! Also very entertaining. I am "SO over me" in so many areas of life that I'm trying to grow in :)

Anonymous said...

thanks so much. this really helped me today- i own a small business and i sometimes feel overwhelmed- i do love it and i know that i def. can't give up! thanks this was a great read!

Tasha said...

Thanks for sharing this, I was nodding my head 'yes' and thinking "exactly!" a lot while reading. I'm on the same page with you on many aspects of my business.

Becoming Jane said...

Lovely and inspiring!! Congrats on your baby!! I hope 2010 is an amzing year for you!!

John Lair said...

Hi there! I read your NYIGF, take two and I must say, I admire how you take this self employed business. You kinda remind me of my wife who started her small business by relying on merchant loans which I thought was a little risky. But she made it, as she still manages it herself up to this day. Have you made some changes with your business strategies? You have beautiful products, btw.