17 Hard Truths About Owning A Business

The path to success is paved with reality. Here are 17 completely unpretty truths about building a successful small business.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
October 16, 2013

The reasons that anyone decides to venture down the path of business ownership vary. Maybe it's the allure of setting our own hours. The chance to call fuzzy slippers and pajama pants “work clothes.” The opportunity to do business the way it should be done.

But for all of us, there’s one inarguable reason: the chance to finally put energy into building our dream instead of someone else’s.

With the decision to launch a business, however, come some pretty startling realities. Maybe some of these will be familiar. Others you might have just stumbled onto for the first time. They’re all, however, hefty reminders that this thing we do—owning and running a small business—is anything but easy.

It’s worth it—but definitely not easy.

 

1. Your target customer isn’t “everyone.” 

Not even Walmart has something for everyone. And sure—it’s easy to think that your product or service has widespread appeal (who wouldn’t want what you have to offer, right?). Skip the selling and attempts to convert. Find the people who will love what you do (and all the things you don’t do). Preach to the converted and they’ll share your brand with more people just like them.

 

2. What you do isn’t special. 

There are roughly a gazillion other people in this world who do what you do. What you do isn’t the magic. The real magic comes from a combination of why you do it, for whom you do it, and how you do it. What + Who + Why + How = Awesome.

 

3. Value lasts. Cheap is fleeting.

Let me ask: How many “things” have you replaced since starting your business? Odds are, they’re the things you scrimped on in the name of "now." Remind yourself of that the next time you’re tempted by a cheap solution and go for value—what’s best, what will last, and what’s best for your business and customers. Cheap and a great value sometimes happens, but it’s rare.

 

4. The customer isn’t always right.

They’re not. Period. You can’t make a living without your customers, though. So where’s the middle ground when someone is unhappy, but definitely wrong? First, listen. Second, weigh the options—does it make sense to give a bit in exchange for appeasing someone who’s having a bad day? Finally, stick to your principles. Some people will just never be happy and are looking for a reason to complain. If we built our business around the complainers, we’d be broke in no time.

 

5. Trade sucks when you don’t treat it like a business transaction. 

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember to treat every trade agreement like a business transaction. Have a contract. Establish deliverables. Establish a value. Establish a deadline. If you don’t, someone’s always going to come out "feeling slighted.” Just because there’s no money changing hands doesn’t mean business isn’t being done.

 

6. Your business bank account isn’t a piggy bank. 

Get a CPA and a bookkeeper. Everything you buy once you start a business isn’t a business expense (shall we ask the IRS?). The day I was able to look at my business and run a real profit and loss (P&L) statement was one of the happiest days of my life. The next happiest moment was knowing that I was actually profitable. You can’t fix your business finances if you don’t know what’s going on behind the banking curtain.

7. Tech won’t fix a crappy business model. 

I don’t care how many devices you have or if you’re using Silicon Valley’s latest and greatest app. Tech is a tool, nothing more. Upgrading your computer won’t make your business run better. When something’s not working, ask what’s not working with the business model.

8. You can’t do everything. 

You’re awesome. You’re talented. You’re motivated and the reason this whole business thing gets done each day. But you can’t do everything. And like me, I know you’ve tried. We’re small-business owners, a brand of superheroes of our own class. But when you do everything for so long, you’re bound to break.

9. You’re going to have to learn to outsource. 

Finding people you trust to help you run your business is paramount. And since you can’t do everything (and certainly don’t enjoy doing everything), find people who are great at and love doing all those things you loathe. We can’t all afford it when first starting out, but remind yourself that there are people to help you lighten the load and run leaner and meaner than you’ve ever run.

10. You are not the most important asset in your business. 

Shocking, right? You open the doors and foot the bills, but none of that happens without your customers’ permission. Your customers are, and always will be, the most important asset your business will ever have. Period.

11. Listening is the best business skill you’ll ever acquire. 

To your customers. To your employees. To your community and industry colleagues. If we listened half as much as we spoke, blogged, tweeted or Facebooked, I can only imagine where each of our businesses would be. Try counting to five before you chime in the next time someone shares a thought with you. And try listening when no one thinks you’re listening.

12. Infrastructure—it’s what’s for breakfast. 

Growth is the goal, right? More revenue, more sales, bigger and better customers. But what happens when the volume we crave comes along and we haven’t built a business that can support it? When making decisions to scale, always ask, “Do we have the infrastructure to support this move, and if not, how can we create it?” Less full speed ahead and more full attention to the most important business meal of the day—it will fuel and support everything you do as the day (and years) go on.

13. You need a great team. 

You can’t do everything alone. Find people who are committed to building your dream and vision. Some of your greatest ideas will come from people with the gift of being on the outside of your head looking in. This makes having an amazing, motivated team all the more important.

14. Don’t hire people you’d never empower. 

Again, since you can’t do everything, you need people on your team whom you trust to act in the best interests of your business. Hire wisely and invest in training and mentoring. Great employees all start off good, but they’ll need your guidance along the way. Don’t hire anyone whom you don’t feel you could ultimately trust to act in your business’s best interest.

15. There are no overnight successes.

If you hear otherwise, it's a lie—a damn lie. Success comes from an artful combination of humility, tenacity, failure, and opportunity. None of those things happen overnight—despite what some may say.

16. Don’t think like a business owner—think like a customer. 

Not much explanation required here. The greatest successes I’ve seen come from businesses that anticipate customer needs and meet them in delightful and unexpected ways.

17. You are your most important client every day.

You know the story about the cobbler’s children and how they have no shoes? Well, that's no way to run a business. Set time in your calendar every day to work on your business.You are your first client every day. Put it on a sticky note. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Say it out loud. Repeat.

What's your one hard truth you've learned as a business owner? Share with the community in the comments below.

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