It’s hard to know what to focus on when you’re starting a business. You’ll have such an incredibly long list of things to do at any time that you may lose sight of your priorities in the short term – let alone your long-term goals – and suddenly the picture can become muddled. This can become a big problem – as soon as you lose focus, things can start to go wrong.
Instead, what you need to do as you work to get your business off the ground is study other companies that have gone through the difficult starting days and landed on their feet in the end, especially those who have endured the struggles of recent years. If you want to start your company, you need to make sure your priorities are in order and you’re doing what others did successfully. There are plenty of lessons you can learn from those who have gone before you.
Kari Warberg Block is CEO of Earth-kind.com, a site that manufactures and sells organic rodent repellent and all-natural air fresheners. Her company has grown and evolved massively in the time since she began it, and she has learned a great deal along the way about the best way to both start and run a business.
The frank truth is that it isn’t easy to start a business – especially at the beginning, you will be forced to do a lot of different things. If you aren’t prepared for the inevitable stress that comes with the sudden challenges and obstacles, then you won’t be able to get your business over the hump. Stick with it and easier days may come, Block says, but you need to have the fortitude to get through in the first place.
“When you are growing a company in the beginning, you have to wear a lot of hats, but as the company matures, you have to become a coach, a mentor and a leader,” she said. “I love that part of it, although it was really stressful for me in the beginning because I wasn’t practiced in it and I was frankly scared of it.”
Of course you should hire the best people available – everyone knows that. Hiring is one of the most essential parts of managing your business. But if your company is just beginning, you won’t have much staff, so you need to make sure that whoever you hire is the right person for the position and is adept at a variety of tasks. Not only because they will have to do a lot as your company grows, but also because they may, in the end, be perfect for the next position your firm needs to create.
When Block hires, she looks primarily for general abilities, not specific experiences, so that as the company’s needs grow, she can promote from within knowing that she has good performers in place who are also willing to be quick learners.
“One of the things we do that makes us different is that we hire more based on culture than experience, and we use a service that helps us develop a coaching program based on employee strengths,” she said. “For instance, we had one employee who had been with us about five years and she came in for customer service, but her profile showed that she would be very good at marketing, so we coached her in that direction, and now she is our digital media specialist and continues to work her way up the ladder. Everybody in the company has a coaching program, and they meet once a week with their supervisor.”
Listen to customers
With recent technology, there are more opportunities to get feedback than ever before. Customers always have one method or another at their fingertips, whether they’re sitting at their computers or on their smartphones, and more often than not, they will be in touch with you as soon as something goes wrong. Sometimes, negative responses can come in more public forums like social media or, if you have a particular sort of business, on Yelp. Too many businesses, Block said, take these criticisms as slander, rather than as opportunities to engage with customers and look for ways to improve.
“We welcome [criticism], and we celebrate it as part of the company,” Block said. “People get points for finding issues and bringing them to our attention. Each week we have a staff meeting and we share feedback from customers – good and bad. Negative feedback is rare, but what we do is we give the customer a refund and then we send them a free box of our products with a letter from me thanking them for their feedback.”
Customer feedback is also important for ensuring retention – when you’re just starting out, every new customer is a big success, and it’s essential both to keep them coming back and to urge them to spread the word about your business. If you can make sure people have a memorable experience with you in customer service, even if they initially had complaints, they may find you trustworthy enough to keep coming back.
When your company really, truly starts, it’s rarely based on anything more than a single idea. Hopefully you have a strong business plan and smart, competent people ready to help you see it through, but at first, you haven’t really let it loose upon the market to see how it will be reacted to. Once you do, you may see all sorts of things you didn’t expect – from small, necessary adjustments to large-scale needs to overhaul your entire operation.
Block, for instance, started her company as a truck garden selling organic produce – now, the company is a manufacturer of organic pest control products. The two clearly have a great deal in common, but how exactly did she get there from here? Simple – she was flexible about her business model and changed when she saw a better opportunity.
“The reason I went full-time with [the new idea] was that we had a new innovation on the market – the first ever EPA-registered natural rodent repellent for indoor use,” she said. “So at that point, I really needed to rev things up, which meant hiring people, putting better structures in place and coming up with a sales and marketing plan. Prior to that, it was more of a bootstrap operation.”
You may have spent months working on your business plan, and you may have spent years with the seed for your idea developing in your mind. But if you see a better opportunity come along, you need to think of that time as a sunk cost – being wedded to your current operation will only take you down. You need to adapt to what happens and go where you business takes you. Make sure that once you start your company, it keeps going.
If you were giving advice to someone who was about to start a company, what would you say? What was the best decision made in the early days of your own company?