Business Advice to my 20-Year-Old Self
On Friday, The Today Show shared the amazing story of 16-year-old Zandra, who started her own skincare line when she was 9 years old. Like many young girls, Zandra loved lip balm. After her dad refused to buy her more, she started researching how to make her own. Once her mom saw her passion for lip balm, she bought Zandra a lip balm kit from Bramble Berry. Zandra’s parents continued to foster her love for making bath and beauty products, and soon her passion grew into a business. Zandra’s line has grown from lip balm to a wide variety of products, including soap, sugar scrubs, lotion and more. Click here to shop Zandra Beauty.
I had the opportunity to meet Zandra and her mom this year at the Indie Business Cruise. I was so impressed with her; she gave an amazing talk and was an inspiration for the entire group. As if starting her own company at 9 wasn’t awesome enough, Zandra gave a TED Talk when she was 14. Watch her talk below. Zandra shares the story of her business and how she uses it to encourage other young women in business and support girl’s education. Basically, Zandra is one of the coolest 16 year olds ever. =) Also, she just completely rocked the Etsy Open Call and **won.** Look for her products in Paper Source. As Paper Source hashtagged it on Instagram, #GoldenPO. Yes, a golden purchase order for a seriously talented individual.
Stories like this are exactly why I started Bramble Berry at 20 years old, and what inspires me to keep pushing everyday. This story is also inspiring to me as a mother of two young children, who I hope will have an entrepreneurial spirit when they are older. If the amount of stuff Jamisen ‘borrows’ and then ‘sells’ back to me are any indication, one of the kiddos is headed in that direction.
My friend, Bob Pritchett, says that all entrepreneurs should start a business before the age of 20 because the stakes are so much lower. There’s something to be said for that. When I look back at the early years, I can’t imagine trying to do all that with the craziness in my life now with juggling kids and full-time adulting. That’s why I find stories like Zandra’s so exciting and inspiring. Hearing about Zandra got me thinking about my early days in business, and what I have learned since starting a company at 20 years old. Read on to learn what I would gently and lovingly tell my temperamental, energetic, enthusiastic, and naive 20 year old entrepreneurial self.
Profit is not the same as cash flow.
This was my toughest lesson. I went into business with no degree. Running a small hamster-breeding-business in high school wasn’t quite the same as starting a raw materials company with a small staff. I couldn’t figure out how the profits on the bottom line showed that there should be money in the bank…but there wasn’t. My big lesson is that growth sucks cash and that cash doesn’t stay in your bank account when you’re a growing company. The only way to get through that hump is to slow the growth. This means buying less inventory, adding fewer products and working more hours yourself instead of hiring someone.
Malice and envy are attracted to shiny objects.
I believe that goodness is in everyone’s nature and that people wish the best for you at their core. As I started to get a bigger presence in the niche market of soapmaking, I saw comments in forums about me from people that didn’t know me and hadn’t met me. They weren’t based in reality and they weren’t great. My feelings were hurt. I cried to my dad. I didn’t understand how people who had never met me didn’t like me, and would judge me on my voice (too perky), my head (too bobble-head-y), my chipper nature (so irritating) and more. It’s not right and it’s not okay, but people can be mean to others who threaten them, make them feel inadequate or for any number or reasons (they’re bored, they’re 13 years old and looking at Periscope, Vine or YouTube to pass the time, you remind them of their ex-girlfriend…so much random stuff that’s not about you). In this case, it really isn’t you. It’s them. And it happens to anyone who sticks out in a sea of sameness.
There isn’t much that a good night sleep can’t fix.
Everything looks better after a good nights sleep; the fight with your best friend, the order you screwed up, the size of your checking account, the embarrassing thing you said to your boss – it all seems more manageable when you’re well-rested. That’s why the prescription for a tough week is a 20 minute bath, a good book, some Sleepytime tea and 9 solid hours in bed.|
Consensus is usually a cop out.
It’s tempting to want everyone to like you. I do. I want every person working at Bramble Berry to think I’m the best boss they ever had and to think Bramble Berry is the best company they’ve ever worked for. I want every person reading this blog, watching me on YouTube, and buying from Bramble Berry to think I’m the smartest, funniest, most approachable, kind person they’ve ever read, watched, and purchased from. The “like me, please like me” nature we have means we want people to approve of our decisions. The easiest way to get people to approve of our decisions is to ask them what they think and involve them in the decision. And that’s great…to an extent. Often, consensus leads to watered-down decisions that please no one and are entirely too long to get to. When possible, make the decision on your own or with one or two trusted advisers. Endless meetings lead to inertia and clunky, slow outcomes. And ironically, they lead to people liking you less than had you just made the decision and moved on.
Websites are never done and they cost a fortune.
This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Everyone goes through this. Everyone. I cannot think of one single website iteration in TWENTY years and countless websites (COHE, Otion, Soap Queen, Best Day Ever, Teach Soap and more) that has launched on-time, on-budget or without glitches. Earlier this year, we revamped the Bramble Berry website (new back end, facelift on the front) and we’re already redesigning the site again less than a year later. As Mark Zuckerberg famously said – and his quote hangs in my office – ‘Done is better than perfect.’ Launch it and fix it later.
Some people will take advantage of you.
It doesn’t mean everyone will. Always assume goodwill until you are forced to retreat and protect yourself. The number of people who have stolen from me or used me cannot be counted on two hands. I had a rash of them over the last four years in particular. It has not been good for my bank account or my psyche. I want to believe that everyone is really lovely and is conspiring to do good. And even with the reality that not everyone is pure of heart and that bad behavior can always be justified, you just have to keep taking the plunge. Choose to risk and trust with your whole heart, even with the possibility that your heart will be broken and your bank account worse for the wear. Being in business means that your capacity for wonder, for excitement and for joy grows daily. It also means your surprise at how cruel, pathological and ruthless others can be diminishes daily.
How you recover from a mistake is everything.
I’m human, you’re human, your team is human and your customers are human. This means that you make mistakes. I make mistakes. They make mistakes. It happens. You can get defensive, justify the mistake and explain the mistake. But the mistake was made and you need to own it and fix it. The customer will remember how you repaired the relationship. Sometimes, this means losing money or accepting blame where none exists (the dog ate it, FedEx didn’t deliver it, the vendor sent the wrong product) but the buck stops with you when you’re in business each and every time. I still remember my first disagreement with a customer 18 years ago about a non-trackable Priority mail shipment. I can’t believe how much time, energy and angst I wasted arguing over $8.
Writing stuff down takes time.
It’s a pain in the rear, but it’s a hugely important thing for consistency, training and continuity. I hate writing Standard Operating Procedures, aka: instructions for someone else to do a task. It’s easier to do the job than write out each and every single step (Turn computer on. Log in as Administrator. Password is DoYouThinkIWouldReallyTellYou? Open up QuickBooks by going to the ‘Start Menu,’ ‘Programs,’ and select ‘Quickbooks’ in the fly out menu. Ad nauseam. Forever. Times a million steps and a million tasks).
I hate it. I loathe it. But, it’s the only way to grow. Do you want to do every task for every thing in your business forever? Nope. So, you have to write it down and update it every time you change a system or procedure. This is an area I’m still weak in and try to avoid at all costs. “Oh today I need to write up instructions for posting to the blog? Hmm… I suddenly remembered I need to talk to somebody and oh my goodness, my office looks such a mess. I can’t possibly concentrate on writing this stuff up if my desk is that messy. I should clean my desk first,” and so on and so on. Remember what I said about bad behavior can always be justified? Turns out, so can laziness and procrastination!
Investors come with strings.
Avoid them in the early stages, unless you need them for connections, talent or sweat equity. I’ve never run into a soap or bath & body business that truly needed an investor in the first year. They may have thought they needed an investor because they wanted to start bigger than they needed to; they wanted foil packaging, decided on the expensive website instead of the one that was good enough, etc. The reality is that you can start a soap business with very little money and build it, one bar of soap at a time. It’s romantic to make bold proclamations, stay in the planning stages forever and skip the hard work of sales. To go it alone, without the investor or bank, sales is indeed what you need.
Do you really want your Uncle Larry advising you on what women want in their bath salts? Or Aunt Patricia calling you when her brakes go out in her car and demand her investment back? Family and money don’t mix. Family is usually where small business gets its capital to start with. In Bramble Berry’s second year of business, I desperately needed cash to buy Bramble Berry’s holiday fragrances (remember lesson number 1: growth sucks cash). I offered my Dad 33% of the business for $5,000. Five thousand dollars. Thank goodness he turned me down because A.) I would never listen to him if I was forced to, and now I willingly seek out his advice. And, B.) I never would have wanted to buy him out now. If you can avoid it, don’t take the money.
It’s okay to not be good at everything.
It’s not okay to be bad at the people part of your business. Your business is all about people. Whether it’s your customers, employees or the reporter you’re talking to, you need to genuinely like people. When you talk to a reporter, it’s key to develop a rapport with them. When you talk to customers, you want to engage with them and be delighted to talk to them. Other than the people part, you can outsource most everything else in your business as it becomes financially viable for you to do so. For me, the things I started with were the obvious things: book keeping, packaging product and then packing orders. It continued to grow until now I focus on creative, sales, growth and company culture. For you and your business, it will be different but don’t feel the need to be the end all at everything. You don’t need to be good at coding to own a website business. It’s nice if you are, but you don’t have to be. Ditto graphic design. Same with operations. The only non-negotiable is the people part of it.
These are the lessons that come to mind right now but ask me again in ten years; there will be more. Business is one big game of taking one step forward, then two steps back and there are so many learning lessons in the process that are humbling, breathtaking and often painful. It’s not for everyone but when you find something you love, what’s that the song says? Hold onto it and never let it go. And, never quit learning.