Around four years ago, my wife and I decided to take a massive gamble.
We had been playing at entrepreneurship for a few months. We had been curating an online shop of vintage goods. Our basement was flooded with art supplies as we made our own art and jewelry, which we sold on Etsy and on the craft show market.
But winter was coming, and the craft markets were starting to wind down. After the Christmas market, there wouldn’t be another show until May. That was a long time to go without a paycheck.
So we decided to pull the trigger on a brick and mortar. We didn’t have any experience—hell, we barely had any capital. We wrote a business plan based on a template we found online, listened to a bunch of business podcasts, and started a crowdfunding campaign. We signed a lease, and got to work.
We knew it would be a learning experience. But there were a lot of things we didn’t expect at all.
Here are the most surprising things we learned.
You Won’t Just Meet Customers
We have a little bell on our front door that rings every time someone walks in.
It’s a bit of a joyous sound. It signifies that someone might be coming to do business with us.
But we learned pretty on that not everyone that walks through that door is interested in giving you their business.
And I’m not just talking about the browsers. We’ve seen our fair share of browsers end up buying something that they just couldn’t resist.
No, I’m talking about your neighborhood characters. The folks who you might see walking up and down the sidewalk every day but never stop to say hello to.
We’re across the street from the liquor store, so a lot of their...ahem...”frequent customers” end up coming into our shop too. We have a small group of men who are, let’s say, between addresses. They never buy anything—I’m not sure they could even afford to. But they have nevertheless become fixtures in our little community. We’ve hired them for some labor on occasion. I’ve given a couple of them rides.
For the most part, we like having them around. They’re always respectful, and two or three of them have made us parts of their own recovery process. One of them told us we inspired him to get sober.
It’s not always easy though. Those relationships can be complicated. We’re reasonably sure that one of them is behind the $150 missing from our drawer (he’s stolen money from our friends’ cafe down the street too).
But to be honest, I’d rather suffer the very occasional short drawer than to become the kind of person that kicks homeless people out of my store.
People Still Use The Phone—A Lot
Before we started our business, I had maybe one phone call per week. And that included the long, frustrating calls to various customer support lines.
With text messaging, social media, and Snapchat, it sometimes feels amazing that the telephone still exists at all.
But when we opened our business, we learned just how much people still use the phone.
And I’m not just talking about telemarketers and robocalls.
We take at least five phone calls a day. Many of them are people asking questions that can be found on our website if they do just a little digging. Some of them are cold callers who saw our page on Facebook and want to know more about our business.
Sometimes, it can get pretty frustrating. Why can’t they just read the information on our website instead of hassling me on the phone? Are they lazy? Or just stupid?
But we learned pretty quickly that the answer is neither. And if you act like they’re stupid or lazy, you won’t give them the type of customer service that creates repeat customers.
Instead, many people call first because they want to make a human contact. There’s no denying that a website is convenient, but it’s a bit impersonal. It doesn’t matter how many photos of yourself or blog posts you put on your website—you can’t dialogue with a web page.
A lot of people just want to get a feel for you before they come in. Are you kind? Are you helpful? Other people want to bypass all the impersonal nature of emails and online chats. And a surprising amount of people are still suspicious of sending financial information over the internet. You can read more here about some of the reasons that people still like to use the phone—and those reasons are legion.
But the point is, if you plan to open your own business, brush up on your telephone voice. If you’re short or disinterested on the phone, potential customers might decide that they don’t want to give you their business after all.
You Never Stop Telling Your Story
We live in a city of a hundred thousand people. That’s not really that big. We’ve managed to gather a ton of press, ranging from front page newspaper articles, local magazine feature stories, and dozens of local news segments. We’ve organized festivals. We’ve shown up to other festivals with pamphlets filled with information. We’ve hosted press conferences for the mayor.
And yet, every single day we find someone who has no idea who we are or what we do. I’m not just talking about people who live under the proverbial rock. We meet these people at networking events—some of the same networking meetups that we’ve been going to for four years.
With that constant introduction, you get really good at telling your story. The best marketers understand that marketing is storytelling. And while you might grow tired of constantly trying to get people to know who you are—and why they should care—all of that practice telling your story can help hone it to something memorable and engaging.
For instance, our story generally goes a bit like this.
We were making things in our basement and selling them online, then we started getting into art forms that we couldn’t easily do at home—ceramics, screen printing, and metalworking, specifically. We looked for a place that had the tools we could use without making a huge investment ourselves. There wasn’t anything in our area, so we opened one ourselves.
But telling that story is more than just a marketing tactic. It helps ground us to our purpose. When other opportunities come along that might bring a huge boost of revenue at the expense of that purpose, remembering our story keeps us from giving time to things that we honestly aren’t all that passionate about.
Your Landlord Can Be a Great Partner—Or a Liability
This is a more recent lesson, but it’s the most painful.
When we first talked to the owner of our building, they gave us a lot of reasons to be optimistic. He was on the board of a local alternative school with a similar vision for our community. He talked about collaborations with the school that would give us a jump start to investing in our community.
That never panned out. But he was still a reasonable landlord. Where other landlords might have demanded that we pay up or move out, he was open to negotiations when we were going through those early lean months. He gave us an amazing deal on a second space next to ours which allowed us to expand our business by leaps and bounds.
But then, he sold the building. And everything changed.
Suddenly, we weren’t able to get anyone on the phone. A property manager would show up every once in a while, but he didn’t seem to have much more contact with the owner. One month, our sales were low, so we asked if we could have a break on rent. Judging by their response, you’d think that our heads were on backwards.
Then, a few months ago, a chunk of our facade fell off of our building, breaking on the sidewalk below. When we called the property manager, he mentioned that they were warned that something like that might happen. It still hasn’t been fixed.
In the meantime, we’ve had conversations with other property owners and developers about moving into a new space. And in those conversations, we’ve realized that a landlord can be much more than a name you send your checks to. A good landlord can be a partner that actually helps your business thrive.
If you’re starting a business and looking for a space, don’t just think of the building itself. Get to know the landlord. Is that someone you would want to do business with? Is it someone who understands the vision of your business and wants to partner with you? Or are they just going to cash your rent check?
This isn’t to say you should ignore the perfect space because the landlord is less than ideal. Just understand that it will bring some struggles that you’d otherwise avoid.
It’s Worth It
But through all of its surprises, running your own business is one of the most rewarding things in the world. The line about forging your own path and being an adventure aren’t just motivational poppycock: it’s true.
Starting your own business is a great way to put something into the world that’s bigger than yourself. And even though it definitely has its struggles, it’s absolutely worth it.