Building a successful business is typically done by trial and error, with many hurdles along the way. And when it's your first company, every day involves making mistakes and learning something new.
We asked small-business owners around America to tell us the one thing they wished they'd known when they first started their businesses.
We've broken out some of the best to serve as a primer on getting as much as possible right the first time around.
Jim Scott, founder and managing partner of mono, has learned that things never get easy in business.
Scott's award-winning creative agency, mono, has had clients including Apple, Target, and the NHL. But in the beginning, like many business owners, he assumed that at some point they'd "make it" and things would get easy.
"It really doesn't get easier," Scott says. "That's one thing I wish I knew back when we started our agency. Like a lot of startups, we launched the company from an attic. And as my two partners and I set out to conquer the world, we thought we'd follow a particular path, one that was exceedingly difficult at the beginning, but eventually, when we made it, it would be easy. As it turns out, we're still working as hard as we ever have."
John Coleman, CEO and founder of the VIA Agency, has learned that sharp focus enables sustainable growth.
Coleman founded ad agency VIA in 1993, despite having no advertising experience. Today, the Portland-based agency has national clients like Sam's Club , Perdue Farms, and Welch's. He's always had big dreams, but initially that got him into some trouble.
"Don’t spread yourself too thin," Coleman says. "When I started VIA, I had grand visions of a global network of small, independent offices, and within five years I had people everywhere from Silicon Valley to the mountains of Switzerland. Although the vast group was exhilarating, it spread our resources and attention across too many fronts. Once I established greater focus for the agency, we began to grow in a much stronger and more profitable way. So the fundamental lesson learned was that focus trumps freneticism any day."
Magnetic CEO James Green has learned that you can't grow too attached to a business.
Green, who joined ad technology company Magnetic as CEO in 2011, got his start in entertainment at Walt Disney and Pixar, and has built and sold four tech companies.
The lesson he learned is a hard one for most business owners: Sometimes you can get too attached to a business.
"The one thing I wish I’d known when I started a business is that I shouldn’t get emotionally attached to it," Green says. "Companies have no feelings, and they are things, not people. Put bluntly (and laying aside non-profits and other nontraditional entities), companies are here for one reason and one reason alone: to make money. Everyone knows that money can’t buy you love, and by extension it makes no sense to love your company. There may come a time when you have to change it, dissolve it, close it, give it to someone else to run, cede control to investors, or any other number of things."
Anisa founder and CEO Anisa Telwar has learned that you can't do everything yourself.
Telwar founded her cosmetic brush company at age 26 in 1992. The business now employs more than 600 people and brings in over $30 million a year.
She's learned that one of the keys to leading a business is learning to let go.
"The one thing I wish I would have known when I started my business was that I did not have to be the smartest person in the room," Telwar says. "I thought as the owner and president that I had to have all of the answers and create all of the solutions. Over 20 years and through the maturity and growth of the business, I learned that it was impossible for me to do it and know it all. In order to grow my company and increase its value, I was forced to let go."
Sub Rosa CEO and founder Michael Ventura has learned that business is best viewed as a journey.
Ventura founded Sub Rosa, an experience design agency, in 2005 when he was only 23. Clients have included Levi's and General Electric.
He's found that you can't think of running a business as a series of tasks to complete.
"Business is the amalgamation of challenges and their mitigation," Ventura says. "If you look at the business through this lens it may feel Sisyphian at times, but we must remember that there is no finish line. There are only mile markers. No job is ever fully complete and as soon as you move past one mile marker, another rises on the horizon. Continue to meet the day's challenges head-on, and trusting your honesty, ethics, and instincts will lead you to where you want to go next."
Palo Alto Software CEO Sabrina Parsons has learned that a basic interview and glance at a resume aren't enough.
In 2007, Parsons took over as CEO of Palo Alto Software, which acquired her and her husband's software distribution company in 2002. It provides planning and tracking tools to small businesses.
An important lesson she's learned, and one that's essential for every business owner, is that you have to be incredibly rigorous when you hire.
"I've learned the importance of taking the extra steps to hire and retain talent that fits best with our company and culture," Parsons says. "It's important to assign 'homework' assignments that fit the role we're hiring for and have candidates present their assignment to us, or even the entire team they'll be working with, during the interview process. We also make sure to check several references, ask challenging questions, and role play during interviews."
"We've found that if we don't take these steps it can sometimes result in a hire that is not a good fit for either party," she says. "So taking the time to do due diligence on candidates has been tremendously helpful."
Sky Zone CEO Jeff Platt has learned that you have to slow down sometimes.
Platt managed to grow the revenue at Sky Zone, which is a franchiser of indoor trampoline parks, by more than 200% between 2011 and 2012.
A bad experience developing an app to centralize data for franchisees taught him the importance of slowing down.
“I have learned that in the absence of systems and processes, inefficiencies can be created, which makes growth more challenging," Platt says. "It is important to spend the time upfront to invest in systems and processes to make long-term growth sustainable. Oftentimes you focus more on completing the task that is directly in front of you versus investing in the future and long-term initiatives. That is a mistake.”
Lisa Firestone, president and owner of Managed Care Advisors, has learned that you succeed when you give up control.
Firestone has been running Managed Care Advisors, an employee benefits consultancy, since 1997.
For the first few years after the company started, she did everything from the accounting to setting up computers. That couldn't be sustained.
"I realized that to grow my business, I needed to let go and focus on what I do best 14 strategic planning and business development 14 and rely on experts and advisers for some of the other details," Firestone says. "I started to learn how to hire smart. I brought in a part-time CFO who told me I had to get away from accounting. I hired a part-time controller but didn’t trust him at first, so I had him work on a duplicate system for a year. Once I learned how to effectively delegate, our growth skyrocketed at a rate of 30% to 40% each year."
David Morken, CEO and founder of Bandwidth, has learned the importance of balancing his life with work.
Morken founded Bandwidth, one of the fastest-growing voice technology providers in the United States, in 1999. It now has more than 300 employees.
Like many small business owners, he frequently spent long hours at the office and learned that it came at the expense of personal relationships.
"My company has an 'embargo policy,' which means that when on vacation, none of our employees are allowed to contact work and vice versa," Morken says. "The lesson is that business owners do not put enough value on free time, so face burnout. Leaders also need to hire and train employees effectively, so others are best prepared to lead in their absence."
Spending time with family means setting firm boundaries as well, Morken says.
"My wife and I are fortunate to have six children, so obviously family is super important to us," he says. "To spend the most time with them as possible, you have to set strict priorities on what’s essential to accomplish today, so that you leave work in time to spend with your kids."
Jodi's Gym founder and CEO Jodi Levine wishes she had spent more time focusing on the big picture.
Levine, a former gymnast, started her chain of children's gyms in 1982. There are locations in Westchester County and New York City.
In the early years of her business, she spent too much time focused on the little details rather than the bigger picture, and she now wishes she'd had a great mentor to help her work through that.
"I would say find a great mentor, someone who has already been through the many challenges of being an entrepreneur," Jodi says. "I would seek out and accept more help early on and not try to do it all alone. I would have worked less on the daily grind and harder on the big picture in the early years. Perhaps be less of a perfectionist, and let the smaller things slide a bit.”
Joel Babbit and Chuck Leavell, cofounders of Mother Nature Network, say that things change faster than you expect.
Founded in 2009 by Babbit, a former ad man, and Leavell, a keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band and The Rolling Stones, Mother Nature Network (MNN) is a for-profit online network focused on environmental and social responsibility.
Both wish they'd had some idea of how much the digital space and their publication would change in a short amount of time. Small businesses have to be able to adapt.
"We launched MNN in 2009, and while it doesn’t seem that long ago, the role and usage patterns of technology, social media, and search tools since have shifted dramatically," Babbit says. "I wish I had known then which would grow to become culturally important on a long-term basis and which were simply destined to come and go. Regardless, it demonstrates how important it is to not only understand and appreciate the current landscape, but also what is fast approaching in the rear view mirror."
"While I was confident that MNN would do well, I didn't anticipate we would go far beyond environmental concerns, and deep into personal, social, and corporate responsibility issues," Leavell adds. "Lesson learned? Life and business inevitably throw us curve balls, so be prepared to broaden your horizons sooner than you might expect."
Heidi Ganahl, CEO of Camp Bow Wow, has learned that you shouldn't settle with people who just look qualified.
Ganahl started Camp Bow Wow, which provides day care and boarding for dogs, in Denver, Colo., in 2000. There are now more than 100 locations throughout North America.
Early on, Ganahl made the mistake of hiring someone who seemed authoritative but was a bad fit, and her business suffered for it.
"I hired a professor from my Master's program to help build the Camp Bow Wow business, and it turned out to be a disaster," Ganahl says. "This person fired several of Camp Bow Wow’s vendors that were key players in the franchise industry. I trusted him because he was a well-respected professor and was at one time my superior, but that is not enough. As an emerging entrepreneur, it is important to carefully check all employees’ backgrounds and qualifications. It is also helpful to set up a pay-per-performance compensation plan or start them out as a consultant and make them prove themselves."
Maxymiser founder and president Mark Simpson has learned that when you get too wrapped up in the day-to-day, you don't realize when employees aren't happy.
One of the company's biggest challenges came when it moved headquarters from London to New York.
"We learned it’s easy to become heavily focused on the day-to-day of securing new clients and increasing revenue in the first months 14 so much so that you might not notice when people aren’t happy or aren’t getting the motivation and challenge they need," Simpson says. "For instance, we had one manager who we stuck with for a while, who was having a lot of employees/direct reports resign. It cost us valuable talent, and we’ve learned from it."
Now the company is more careful about objectively measuring managers, speaking to everyone in the business regularly, and hiring people who are intelligent, modest, and good team players.
Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, has found that it's worth the effort to find truly passionate people.
Poon Tip started G Adventures, a global adventure travel agency, in 1999. It now has 2,000 employees and offices in 28 countries. His recently released book, "Looptail," tells the story of the company.
"I wish that I had known the importance of hiring people who are passionate and purposeful about what they do for a living, and not people who just worked to live," Poon Tip says. "People are what drive any great business, but even more so when you aspire to be a social enterprise."
Though he assumed at first that everyone would be as passionate as he was, finding those people takes effort and rigor in recruiting.
Legacy Publishing CEO Steve Anderson wishes he knew better when it was time to pivot.
Anderson started Legacy Publishing, which produces multimedia self-help programs, a decade ago. The programs are now sold in 70 countries.
After getting too wrapped up in the money surrounding his first business, Anderson is now more careful about knowing when it's time to move on.
"Knowing when the entrepreneurial spark is gone is the key to innovate in another area and the sign of a wise leader," Anderson says. "I would advise my younger self to change direction early on if the values and mission of the company no longer resonated with me, instead of having a business decline and personal relationships suffer. Innovation and ideation are internalized. When the excitement is missing from any key member of the team, it is time to pivot."
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