One of the reasons I love my job is having access to so many customers who are bright entrepreneurs. When you treat your customers like the gifted business people they are, you’ll be surprised how much they can teach you.
A few weeks ago I was curious to see what SurePayroll customers consider their most valuable learning experiences. For years, I’ve said the best learning tool is making mistakes — I even give one lucky employee an award for the year's best new mistake every year. After sending a survey about their most valuable learning experiences, I learned quite a bit from their real-life stories and what their experiences have taught them.
Many of their learning experiences fall into three main categories, ranging from practical office tactics to the philosophy of running their businesses.
1. Effective employee management is a must.
One of my customers summed it up nicely: “I have been in business for over 35 years, and I’m not sure any one experience is the most important. But one thing is for sure: Hiring the right people is critical to anyone's success.” I’ve learned over years that hiring is one of the most difficult aspects of running the show and that the overwhelming majority of my customers agree.
And they’ve also learned that part of having the right people is firing the wrong people, and doing so quickly. That may sound cold, but it’s a reality business owners need to face. A few customers discussed how they struggled in their first few years because they didn’t want to be the small business owner who fired people. Or they weren’t checking candidates’ backgrounds and references properly.
Once the right employees are on board, you have to communicate the vision of your company and make sure they’re aligned with it. And as tough as it sounds, you’re going to have to give your employees breathing room to do some things their way, and to make the occasional mistake. You can trust me that when employees aren’t belittled for making mistakes, it’s good for your business. But you don’t have to take my word for it — many of my customers feel the same way.
Employees want to work somewhere they feel welcome and appreciated – and like they can be themselves. As another customer said, “We all spend so much time at work, it is important to make it a fun environment. When people feel good, their work performance improves. It’s a win-win situation.”
2. Sales and marketing won’t take care of themselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous for a lot of good reasons, but he couldn’t be more wrong when he wrote “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” My customers agree that your mousetrap won’t sell itself.
Many SurePayroll customers started their own businesses because they loved what they were doing, and wanted to concentrate on it full-time and be their own bosses. Then they found out people weren’t beating paths to their doors, even though they offered top-notch products or services. They needed to spread the word via marketing and acquire new business by spending time on sales.
One of my customers learned this by accident, quite literally. After an injury took him out of commission from his carpentry, he needed to hire a replacement for six weeks. That’s when he discovered his strength wasn’t just in his carpentry but in promoting his business. He wrote that “There were plenty of competent carpenters willing and able to take my place as lead site carpenter. I focused my efforts on sales and marketing. Sales picked up significantly. My net income doubled in the span of a year and grew by 50% more the next year.”
Taking on sales and marketing yourself might not be the answer. If you want to stay focused on your trade, let someone else take care of it. The joy of owning your own business is that you can focus on your strengths and outsource your weaknesses, whether that means relying on services or hiring competent employees.
Even the carpenter-turned-salesman would have done it differently: “The next logical step in that duplication would have been to replace myself in my sales and marketing duties, too. Remember, the duplication of effort can be applied to all people in all positions performing all tasks. My end goal could have been to become CEO where all lower level tasks were delegated to highly qualified employees.”
3. You’re your own boss—and your own teacher.
Yes, hiring experts can help you grow your business, but at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to keep learning. As my customers can attest to, education covers everything from gaining new skills to realizing your limitations.
What’s the best place to begin your education? One customer offered a great starting place: “Read. Sounds simple, but it is one of the most important things a business owner can do to improve his or her business. While it is great to have a mentor, and I have many, books are portals to some of the brightest minds from our past and present.”
In addition to traditional education like reading and business school, many customers stressed the importance of on-the-job learning — taking on projects that require them to become experts. One customer wrote, “I had a client ask me to work on a project that required me to do educate myself about the details and the best way to accomplish the task. Rather than tell them, ‘No, I do not have those particular skills,’ I tell them, ‘I will look into it and give it a try.’ So far my clients have been pleased with the results, and I continue to learn and expand the services I can provide.”
Unfortunately, sometimes you learn the hard way. A few customers got caught up in the whirlwind housing market a few years ago before the crash, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars on their office space and housing purchases. Learning not to succumb to pressure is a hard pill to swallow, but an invaluable one.
What’s the most valuable learning experience you’ve had as an entrepreneur? Please comment below so we can all learn from your experience.
Last updated: Jul 14, 2011
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter