Lessons Learned: Opening and Running a Small Business
I graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration from Pacific in 2007. I knew at the time that I wanted to open my own business, but I didn’t have a clue on how to go about it. After working for two years in jobs I didn’t like, I decided to go to law school and the day I graduated from law school I opened an employment law firm.
Since opening shop I can tell you that I’ve had some good days and plenty of bad days. I’m no where near where I want to be, but now that I’ve been in business for a few years, I’ve learned a few golden nuggets that I’d like to pass on to Pacific students who want to start their own business someday.
- Starting a Business is Easy…if you can get over the Fear (of failing)
The act of starting a company is not difficult; getting incorporated, preparing financials, renting space, hiring folks, setting up a website, and getting the day-to-day operations up and running is time consuming but relatively easy to do.
The hardest part about starting your own business is ignoring the people who think that you’re going to fail. And I don’t mean the random strangers or acquaintances. I mean the people you love and admire. They will doubt you. You need to consciously shut out their well meaning but harmful reservations. The second hardest part is ignoring yourself when you think that you’re going to fail (and trust me, there will be days when you will want to quit and crawl under a pillow). If you can keep these two business-busting fears at bay, you’re more than halfway to success.
- You Don’t Have to be Steve Jobs
Before I made the plunge into entrepreneurship, I used to think that I had to be amazing at what I did before I could even consider starting my own business. For example, there were times I thought that I had to win a multi-million dollar employment verdict before anyone would hire me as a lawyer. Wrong!
By and large the majority of your customers don’t care about your largest successes, they just want to know if you can do the work that you’re promising to do. If you build websites as a business, the customer who owns a bakery only wants to know if you can build their simple website and make it look beautiful. She doesn’t care that you don’t have twenty-five years of work under your belt. She only want’s to know if you can fulfill her needs. Can you build the website for the price you offer? Do they trust that you will deliver on time? If you can honestly say yes, then you can have a successful business.
- Niches to Riches
This is especially true in saturated markets (which seems to be just about every market nowadays). For example, I’m an attorney and there are way too many attorneys in California. Therefore, I only practice in one area of law and all of my potential referral sources know that. I took it one step further, however, and I only practice plaintiff’s employment law – meaning I only represent employees, not employers. This further distinguishes me from my competition and makes it more likely that someone will call me as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades lawyer.
Picking a niche and doing it well dramatically helps your marketing message. You can tailor your marketing campaigns very specifically to your target customer base. If you want do to a online marketing campaign, you are more likely to get visits if your message is narrow as opposed to broad.
- Set Expectations, then Deliver on Them
“You cannot talk yourself out of something you behave yourself into.” – Steven R. Covey.
If frustration is the product of expectations then you need to manage your customer’s expectations better than an accountant accounts for his own money. If you own a cabinet shop and do custom installations, your customer is going to be very frustrated if you say the cabinets will be done on Monday, but they don’t get done until Friday. Get it through your head that good work leads to more work (happy customers want you to succeed!), but annoyed customers lead to bankruptcy. (Comment: Another analogy that communicates this well is the practice of under promising and over delivering.)
- Plan Ahead – But Don’t Box Yourself In
I spent the majority of law school obsessing about how to start a firm right out of school. In fact, it would be fair to say that I spent more time thinking about how to start my own business than studying. While in school I wrote a detailed business and marketing plan. I didn’t cut corners either. I had full-blown financials, market analysis, mission statement, competitive advantages, etc. But now that I look back on it, some of that was unnecessary. A plan is good, but it will be counterproductive if you won’t step outside of your plan to pursue better opportunities as they arise. Therefore, plan ahead that your business plan will change rapidly and dramatically.
- Find Consistency
My cash flow is very inconsistent. My fee structure is a contingency fee, meaning I don’t get paid until I win or settle a case. With most cases lasting several years, it means my law firm income is high in some months and low in others. This provides a very unstable foundation to build upon.
I highly recommend finding a model which provides for consistent income that is moderately predictable. This will enable you to breathe and spend some time strategizing on how to grow the model or maintain it into the future. Without consistency, you may always be starving for the next payday, unable to see beyond the constantly approaching clouds of doom.
I have plenty of other nuggets of wisdom but I’d rather not bore you to death. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But I know it is reassuring to hear it from someone who came from the same place as you. If you really want to start your own business, you can do it. Take the plunge and you’ll never regret it!
Branigan Robertson helps everyday members of the community fight for their rights in the workplace. He exclusively represents employees in workplace disputes and focuses his practice on whistleblower, harassment, and wrongful termination cases. A 2007 Eberhardt alum, Branigan was a top debater for Pacific’s Speech & Debate team, winning US and international competitions. Branigan earned his JD from Chapman University Fowler School of Law in 2012 and opened his law firm’s doors immediately after he passed the bar. If you want to contact Branigan directly, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit him online at www.brobertsonlaw.com.