Mighty Life List
May 5 2011

Small Business Lessons

American Express asked me to write about my experience as a small business owner. A few things I’ve learned over the years:

Know when to celebrate. Your dreams for yourself and your business will evolve as you learn more about what you’re doing, so remember to give yourself credit along the way. Set goals up front, so you know when you’ve reached a measure of success. I use my Life List for this (note to self, include more of my business goals on my Life List), but annual business plans are also helpful, as are contracts with clients that outline not only the scope of work, but what you hope to accomplish together.

Good enough is sometimes good enough. I tend to agonize over the “best way to approach something. Being meticulous is fine, but being a perfectionist is a handicap. If you have a great opportunity or idea, take immediate action rather than wringing your hands over the best approach.

Get an elevator pitch. When I first started blogging professionally, I was also writing a book, copywriting, editing, and doing some freelance writing to pay the bills. If someone asked me what I did for a living, I practically froze. The answer was different every time. Stammering about my job made me seem unprofessional at best, and unemployed at worst. When people ask what you do, have a succinct, interesting answer at ready. If you don’t think what you do is all that interesting, ask an eloquent friend for help. And then consider changing careers.

If you hate it, avoid it. This is true of every aspect of your business. When it comes to discrete tasks like bookkeeping, pay someone who loves it, and they’ll do it faster and better than you will. If you’re building a portfolio, accepting projects you find unappealing will only attract more of the same. If you bend over backward for a difficult client, you’re guaranteeing repeat business from them, plus word-of-mouth recommendations to all of their equally difficult friends! Hooray.

Be generous with your knowledge. Sharing what you know is my preferred marketing tactic. It generates goodwill in your professional community, helps establish you as a leader, and attracts talented peers who can help you make cool stuff.

In negotiations, be as quiet as you can. If you’ve ever met me, you know how hard this is for me. I’ve rarely met a silence I didn’t want to fill, but I never resist the impulse so strongly as when I’m on a sales call. Don’t interrupt, don’t finish anyone’s sentences, pause before you respond. People want to tell you what they need. Let them.

Work with good people. This goes for clients and partners. Working with people you enjoy makes your business stronger and your life better. Choose well.

What’s the best business advice you’ve heard recently? Let us know in comments.

Thanks to to American Express OPEN for sponsoring this post as part of their Big Break for Small Business program. If you have a small business, visit their page on FaceBook to enter for a chance to win $20,000 to grow your business.

16 Responses to “Small Business Lessons”

  • Rebecca Says:

    I love the “good enough” advice. I had to learn that at the start-up I’m working at. I wanted everything to be perfect and it was actually getting in the way. Finally my boss said, we’re going to have to accept good enough sometimes and that will be okay! I was floored. I actually think it’s one of the best things I’ve learned in work.

    I also like your negotiation advice. The company I work for worked with you for an event, and I thought it was very smart that all the negotiations went through someone besides you/your partner at the time. Makes it much easier for you to stand firm! And it’s a tactic I’ve used since.

  • The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful Says:

    I think I might be in the If You Hate It, Avoid It phase with some partners of mine. When they speak I find myself summoning the Cone of Silence to encase me while simultaneously attempting to disappear like a hologram.

  • Amy Says:

    I am not a small business owner, but an under-40 new manager of a team of 10 highly-stressed individuals in a service-oriented department in an excellent academic institution. Nonetheless, I hope I can jump in. Here are some things I try to keep in mind:

    1 – Pick your battles. Which ones are the most important? Items can move up and down the list.
    2 – Take the high road whenever possible – and it is always possible.
    3 – Change takes time.
    4 – Go where there is openness.

  • Amy Says:

    This is contrary your advice, but here goes: one of my rules (especially at the beginning of my business) was “Never Say No.”

    Saying yes to projects that may not have thrilled me, not only helped pay the bills, but opened up some remarkable opportunities. For example, one client hired me to write a meeting report (I work in public health). I wasn’t thrilled about the topic and sort of dreaded the technical nature of the meeting. However, over the next three years, I grew to become fascinated by the subject matter and traveled to Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Colombia, Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia with this group to help further the overall goals of the organization. One report grew into a major consulting opportunity. Not a bad gig, all because I said “yes” to something that I felt like saying NO to.

    Another rule is “what goes around comes around.” Karma is true, and if you don’t live long enough to see it come around, at least you can sleep at night.

    Best wishes!

  • 101 Things Before You Die Says:

    I think (personally) the best advice on this list is sharing knowledge. I’ve always been in a believer that if I share my knowledge with you and you share your knowledge with me, we’re now both smarter and know more! Why do people hold on and guard what they know like it’s some big secret. I’ve working in non profits all my adult career and they seem to be the worst for it, or maybe it just seems bad b/c you’d assume people that work at doing good in the world every day would be more open to helping one another!

  • Cecily Says:

    Such good advice! I wish I’d learned about the bending over backward/taking bad projects thing sooner; arg. Ah well! I know now.

  • erin / dfm Says:

    i’d add “ask for you what you want” to that list, my genius girl. changed my life.

  • Heather Says:

    I have a little etsy shop and sometimes do craft fairs and the one thing I’ve learned is: answer inquiries as soon as possible. Even if the answer is “No”. If time is money, then don’t waste potential customers. They’ll remember your professionalism.

  • Mia Says:

    Don’t treat people how you want to be treated. Treat them better.

  • Eliza Says:

    I agree with all except the one about not working with difficult clients. Sometimes once those difficult clients find someone (ie you!) who will work according to their admittedly nutty and picky specifications, they become huge advocates of your work and great referral sources.

  • jenG Says:

    My mom, who owned her own business for most of my life, always said, “Fake it ’til you make it.” (The confidence, that is, not the skills.)

    Also, budget for improvement and networking. There’s nothing like a class or a conference to dust off your love for your craft and meet other people who either share that love or are looking to hire some of it.

  • Lara Says:

    As a new small business owner I am grateful for your wisdom and insight. I have been following you for years. Thank you.

  • amanda Says:

    Hopefully this won’t come across as rude or nosy but I’d love to hear your current elevator pitch. What is it you do, exactly, Miss Mighty? Events? Life coaching? Professional blogger? Tastemaker?

  • Kathleen Says:

    Very timely advice in my case. My shop opens next month, gulp!
    I love the tip about “The Elevator Pitch.” Learned that one by experience too. I’d also like to add: Don’t let your husband, mother or children introduce you in a “networking” type situation.

  • Arachna Says:

    Am just about to step off the corporate ladder to join a small business so love this post.

    Can I make a bid for knowledge in the comments?

    Does anyone know a good webdesigner that works with small businesses? I need three or five websites and have no real idea of how to find someone good.

  • T. Chandler Says:

    When hiring, in any business, I have followed this advice for years and it has never failed me.

    “Hire easy…Manage hard
    Hire hard…Manage easy”