Folks, to say that 2015 has been crazy would be a massive understatement. This has been a year of change, of stretching ourselves, of learning, of success, of failure, of frustration and tears, of laughter and joy; a year of the highest highs and lowest lows, many a sleepless night and holding on for dear life; a year of saying goodbye to the security of being employed and becoming employers. (Is this real life?!?) The gravity of it all has me tearing up right now as I sit here and write. Let me start you from the beginning and at the end I'll indulge you in a few things we have learned along the way.
In December of 2014 , after three years of living in Los Angeles, James and I decided that California wasn't home for us- we missed Pacific NW life. A little over a month later, in January of 2015 we packed up our small apartment and happily made the trek back to Portland, Oregon. We crashed at my brother and sister-in-law's for a couple of weeks until we found our own place in North Portland. We moved in the second week of February and started the search for work while simultaneously beginning the paperwork for Nineteen27 S'mores.
Initially we thought the process would take much longer than it did, and were surprised when we were able to launch our cart on the street in August! August 22nd, the beginning of the madness.
James and Elise, welcome to the school of hard knocks.
Our business was fairly successful right from the start. Each day I woke up and was surprised to find new inquiries in our inbox. James and I kept looking at each other perplexed- how were these people hearing about us? On the street the crowds kept coming...and coming back. (A huge thank you to our regulars! We love you and are so blessed by your constant encouragement!) Running the business alongside my waitressing job quickly became very difficult; in September, a month after our launch, I left the security of a sure income. James whittled down his schedule, and whittled it down a little more until it became obvious that he too would have to leave his sales position at T-mobile. Admittedly, this was a little scarier.
First of all, this meant that we would be saying goodbye to any source of regular income. Also, we had a really great health insurance policy through T-mobile. None-the-less on November 1st, James said his goodbyes to his fellow employees. Three months after officially launching our business, we were self-employed.
Woof. This is the part where I wondered what on earth we were thinking! Reality quickly set in. There we were- completely reliant upon catering business during the next several cold, wet winter months. (Due to our cart being weather permitting, we closed shop on NW 23rd at the end of October.) Though at the time we hardly had anything on the books, that rapidly changed. By the end of November we had essentially bit off more than we could chew as we got blindsided by a landslide of events. On top of that, we launched our online store of awesome s'mores kits! Before we knew it, our kits were flying off their digital shelves. Oh hello sleepless nights. By our last job before Christmas on December 23rd, we were running on fumes, or maybe just a single fume. We did it, but we were dead. Perhaps more robot than human.
So what's the point of sharing all this?
Nineteen27 S'mores is the first business James or I have ever started/ran. Though we are incredibly thankful for our swift success, we know that it certainly made managing both ourselves and the business much more difficult. Metaphorically, we were thrown or maybe it's best we say "jumped" into the deep end of the pool. No time to adjust, it was sink or swim. So in hopes of helping those that may be on the path to starting a business of their own, I've compiled a little list of insights from our own start:
1. BUSINESS REFLECTION. I couldn't stress this more. In business, reflecting is a powerful tool. Get a notebook + pen and take some time to consider the following-
- What worked? Why?
- What didn't work? Why?
- What could have been done better?
- New projects or ideas
- Action plan to address areas of need, problems, or ideas
2. ASSESS. No, I am not being redundant. Realistic assessment of your abilities will save you from disaster…or at least from some really big headaches.
- How much time will ________ (fill in the blank) take me? Take whatever number you come up with and multiply it by one and a half. In the beginning you need to allow yourself time for the unexpected or mistakes.
- Do I have the ability, staff, tools, product, etc. to meet the expectation of the client? Oh for real. There's so many things to take into account here. As far as ability goes, you may be capable of doing something, but lack the means of doing so like appropriate staffing and time. Also, be careful to pay attention to time constraints. If you are reliant upon another business to ship you something in order to fulfill your orders, then beware. Give yourself ample time to plan and figure out exactly what you need without having to rush shipped items. Shipping is expensive and will even be more if left until the last minute. It's a sure way to eat into your profits.
- Is it worth how much $$ I will make from it? Not all jobs are created equal. You may be new and desperate for money and customer awareness. I get it, believe me. But spare yourself and take it from someone who has walked the walk before you and consider carefully the amount of time, energy, & money a project will cost you. What will your return on investment be? Be honest with yourself on whether it's worth your time.
3. PAPERWORK/CONTRACTS. You can never be too clear with a client. For those who are or will be working in catering, or businesses that require paperwork/contracts and a certain level of client direction, I discovered the following to be very helpful-
- Have a notebook and pen on hand for every. single. phone call with the client. Record detailed notes on all topics discussed. Pay attention to even personal details that are discussed (i.e. they mention they are going on a vacation, their little one has been sick, yada yada) and address all points of discussion in a follow up e-mail. The more points of clarity you can have, the better. If there's one thing more obvious to me from the last few months of business, it's this: People don't listen. People misunderstand. People don't read. People are human, busy, and sometimes it can be difficult to get on the same page. Do yourself a favor and eliminate as much room for error on your part as possible.
- List all things discussed in the paperwork/contract no matter what. Doing business with your best friend? Doesn't matter. Make a contract, fill it out with as many details as possible. Are you doing something visual? Include any pictures that the client may share with you and vice-versa. It wouldn't be a horrible idea to include e-mail correspondence as well.
- Have clear deadlines. This goes for both yourself and your client. List, date, highlight, put it in bold, large letters. Do whatever you have to do to make sure both parties are fully aware.
- Make sure it's signed! Self explanatory. Don't be a silly goose.
4. MAKE A LIST OF STRENGTHS/WEAKNESS. Sit down with any partners you may have, and evaluate your own strengths & weaknesses as well as theirs. Share your list openly and then decide on roles accordingly. It's a practice that is helpful to do every few months in the beginning.
- Strengths & Weaknesses. As much as we may like to pretend we are perfect, we aren't and it can cost us (I'm not talking just money here). Simply put, I truly believe the way to minimize error, frustrations, and burn out and maximize productivity and the enjoyment of running your own business is found in understanding ourselves and our partner(s).
- Ideal Roles. So now that you are armed with the above listed information, discuss and write down ideal roles AND duties for each partner. Stick to what you decide, revisiting as needed to adjust.
- Areas of growth. We can't be good at everything, but some things just require a little confidence, direction, and practice. Take clues from the people and companies that are killing it, draw inspiration from books and blogs, and then set some growth goals for yourself.
- Expectations. Last on this list, but certainly not least. This includes personal expectations, expectations of your business partner(s), business expectations, time expectations, the list could go on and on. Listing these things out could quell a lot of fights before they even begin. Communication is a gift, use it.
5. SOCIAL MEDIA IS KING. DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA. REMEMBER HOW I SAID WE WERE PERPLEXED BY HOW PEOPLE WERE HEARING ABOUT US? IT WAS ALMOST ALL SOCIAL MEDIA.
- Get the cylinders firing on all engines. As a small business this is probably going to be your most valuable marketing tool. 1. It's free 2. You have a bajillion people at your fingertips with the click of a mouse. Sign up for all the major sites: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Pinterest.
- Choose one or two to focus your efforts on at first. Face the music, you don't have a ton of time so you have to be extra careful where you invest it. TIME IS LITERALLY MONEY WHEN YOU'RE A BUSINESS, or even a business owner for that matter. So until you have a social media manager running things, choose what works best for you and your product. Instagram is a great choice because you can connect Facebook and Twitter and post to all three at once! Bam! You just punched time in the face. Thanks #Instagram!
- Collaborations, #hashtags, & tagging are important. Small businesses gotta stick together! Find other local businesses, new businesses, products that complement yours and vice-versa, or companies that somehow fit with what you're doing AND THEN contact them. It doesn't hurt to see if they would be willing to collaborate! Get involved in each other's business and then spread the word. Also, figure out top hashtags that relate to your posts. Lastly, what are you selling and who would like it? Start tagging people/businesses; It's a great way to start gaining followers and potential clients.
- Plan it out & stick with a theme. As I dove head first into the world of instagram, a platform with which I was very unfamiliar, I decided to look at pro accounts. By that I mean established companies, awesome local companies, and big time bloggers. Something I noticed was though all pictures and posts weren't the same, there did seem to be a theme in colors, products, target market. Take a few hours to plan out your posts for the week and what products you'll need to make them possible. Having a regular and engaging presence on social media is super important, and that's where planning it out is key.
We wish you the best in all your endeavors, entrepreneur or not. If you decide to take the path of the former rather than latter, don't be too hard on yourself! The business will become your baby, but be careful that it not suck out your soul. God, family, and friendships are important and a well balanced life is worth far more than gold in our opinion. Thank you for reading!