The first few years of a business startup are often the most exciting and most frightening. Many times the decisions you make (and don't) during this time can dictate whether your business will succeed.
It's easy to look back and wish you had done things differently when you're older, wiser, and more experienced. But, of course, we don't have that luxury. This is why I asked other successful women entrepreneurs to offer their own valuable insight, what they learned after they launched their company and the advice they would offer would-be women business owners.
Here are six pieces of advice from women business leaders based on their early-year experiences.
1. Prepare to change direction.
When I began my first accounting practice, I decided it would be a bookkeeping service. However, once it got started the prospects wanted to do their own accounting and instead hired my company for consulting services to ensure they kept their books correctly and advise them on what the financial results showed. I had to step back, listen to what my customers wanted, and make the necessary shift in my offerings.
My friend Sarah Elliott, owner of Intend2Lead, a leadership development company in Austin, experienced something similar. Her company's original focus was to create a public leadership development program for the CPA industry, but then Elliott found that larger firms wanted to work with her company to design and develop in-house leadership programs, so she shifted her business model. "Opportunities can occur when you least expect," says Elliott. "I learned not to be afraid to let go of something just because I made some past investment in it."
2. Seek advice from others.
The more due diligence you can do up front, the better, says Sarah Webb, owner of Plaid for Women, a Fort Worth-based digital media platform for women. "Interview as many women business owners in your industry as you can. You can better understand your market from day-to-day interactions compared with a textbook perspective."
I've found it's important to develop these relationships so you can cross-reference clients as well. Even though you're in the same industry, you typically have a different focus or niche, so you can refer customers who are not a fit for your own business.
3. Be ready to learn new skills.
Your responsibilities will always expand beyond what you think. When I opened my first business, I thought I would be working part time. I soon realized that I alone was ultimately responsible for what happens with the customer. That's why it's important to have a working knowledge of what the people do in your business in case you are in a pinch.
Suzanne Daniels, owner of the coffeehouse Brentwood Social House in Austin, quickly realized that she had to be more than a restaurant manager. "I had to be the plumber, repair person, and overall knower-and-fixer of all things," she says. "Realize you will have to learn on the go, or need to set aside time to learn new skills that affect your business." This way when the "what ifs" occur--if this happens or that happens--they won't be so overwhelming.
4. Get your personal finances in order.
As an adviser and board member for many startups, I see company founders take out loans on their personal assets to run their businesses and max out credit cards. It's important to create a business plan and financial forecast to ensure you have the financial stability to run your business. One of my key learnings is that whatever you predict it will cost, double it on your forecasts!
Webb, owner of Plaid for Women, agrees: "Reduce your personal debt and save as much as you can before you begin. Lowering financial stress in your personal life can mean you can focus more attention on your business's cash flow, bottom line, and budget."
5. Listen to your gut.
Our bodies warn us when something doesn't feel right. It's our choice whether or not to listen. "Too many times I have second-guessed my decisions and looked for validation and guidance from others who I thought knew more and dismissed my own thoughts and opinions," says Daniels of Brentwood Social House. Insight and advice from others is great, but trust your instincts on whether a particular course of action is the right move.
6. Change your idea of failure.
Be OK with "failing fast," and always have an innovative mindset. Don't waste too much time on an initiative that is not producing results. Instead, learn what worked and what didn't, and apply those lessons next time.
"I believe all things we characterize as 'failures' are really learning opportunities," says Elliott of Intend2Lead. "A new business is a continuous learning cycle and feedback loop. The key is to look for lessons every time until you get where you want to be."
Startups are exciting for women business owners, because of our natural ability to build relationships and collaborate. No two journeys are exactly the same, but most women can expect to face similar challenges, surprises, and successes. Following the insight from those who have already traveled the startup path can help you better prepare for the unknowns and help you and your new business grow and flourish.