I’ve worked for many starry-eyed owners with big hearts and big dreams. Opening your own business is a giant endeavor. To pull it off requires ample doses of passion, sweat and often tears.
Owning a business is not for the weak of heart, and going in with gumption is a given. But the path ahead is littered with rocks and twists and unforeseen disasters.
I’ve been a part of several small restaurants and worked closely with the owners who lovingly birthed and nurtured them as if they were babies. I’ve helped painstakingly erect these creations from the ground up. I’ve watched owners make magic and wreak havoc.
The magic was deeply rewarding. To create an effective team, a fabulous product, make some money and make people happy feels damn good.
On the flip side, it’s a small tragedy to see a heartfelt person make self-defeating moves. But a lot can be learned from the missteps. A great way—perhaps the best way—to learn is from mistakes. All the better to learn from mistakes of others (although sometimes the universe requires that you make your own). Based on the blunders—some cautionary words to potential small-business owners.
Be unsure of who you are
Successful businesses, like successful people, know who they are and what they want. They have a clear mission statement. Even better if it’s also lyrical, original and meaningful.
To build a business without a clear identity is suicide
Take the time to carve out all the details, boil it down to the essentials, and remind yourself of these values every day. The most flailing and suffering I’ve witnessed was an owner who had not the slightest clue what his restaurant was striving for. There were beautiful linens, but the staff sported chipped nail polish, flip-flops and too much cleavage. He hired a landscape architect to create a beautiful manicured garden, but the paint inside was peeling. The effect was disorienting. Also, a recipe for failure.
Don’t be a role model
Now that you have a crystal clear identity and values, live them, breathe them, embody them.
In the solar system that is your business, you are the sun. With everything revolving around you, the stakes are high. The bank will look at you to discern the terms of your loan. Your customers, your staff, the press will direct their attention your way to see what the business is all about.
Your most important job is to foster the attitude that will lead to success. That attitude is a different picture for everyone, but I can’t imagine it not being painted shades of integrity, finesse, quality and hospitality.
I’ve seen staff look to owners for direction and receive only blank stares. If you as owner don’t step up, you’ll be silly to expect stellar performance from your team. Do what you want them to do—work smart, work hard, work like you mean it. Lead by example. If customer service is important, don’t sit at the bar drinking viogner when you are understaffed and your waiters are sweating and unable to properly attend to their tables. Step up to the table and greet some guests, fill some water glasses, move your butt.
Let your attention wander
Like a child, a business needs constant attention. When it’s whiny, or petulant, ungrateful or even disrespectful, it needs you more than ever.
A small-business owner hired me to run their restaurant, then promptly took a one month vacation to an island unreachable by phone or e-mail. I did the best I could, but I felt more than a little lost.
Times of change and turbulence require special attention. At a crossroads, your business needs you to hold its hand and gently, firmly lead it in the right direction. How to choose right or left? Easy—you’re crystal clear on your values and goals, and you want to make every decision that will honor the former and bring the latter to glorious fruition.
Invest as little money as possible into your business
After an uphill battle, the restaurant where I worked was finally getting rave reviews, sizable crowds and showing a modest profit. We needed some essentials, like a fridge for the waiter station, shelves in the kitchen, coffee cups that matched, and new carpets (rust stains are not a good look).
Every time the chef or I requested a much-needed tool, the owner balked. We could make do with what we had. We could clean the carpets again (but the rust stains proved invincible). Mismatched coffee cups were charming.
Keeping up a restaurant, or any business, takes constant re-investment. Appearances matter, and potential customers want to walk into a space that looks sharp. Would you be more likely shell out 30 bucks for a delicious sea bass atop an old, raggedy, browning carpet, or on a sleek wood floor?
The adage about having to spend money to make money is contrite, but very much true. The more people spend their hard earned bucks on your killer cuisine, the more you will need pans and pots and knives to make that food. And staff. And plates. And computers. Unfortunately, that list is inexhaustible.
But that money is working hard, making your customers in happy. And they, in turn, will make you happy.