A few months ago, we posed this question to ShortStack‘s Facebook fans: “What is one business lesson you learned the hard way?” It began as a simple question to garner engagement, but it led to a long list of business owners’ reminiscences that included some great advice.
- You can’t do everything on your own. Building a team is essential because there are only so many hours one person can devote to a business. Exactly when you reach that limit depends on your other obligations. If you’re a young single person, you might be able to do everything for a year or two. But if you have a family, your dedication will eventually hurt those relationships. Build a team that can carry on when you’re not around.
- You may think your product is perfect, but your clients won’t. Listen to user feedback: Your opinion may not be the best one. The key takeaway here is “release your product early and release it often.” You won’t know if you have a great product until it’s in the field and users are beating it up. It’s like some of the contestants on American Idol. They think they’re talented, and their friends and family think so, too, but when they get on a bigger stage, their flaws become obvious.
- Do one thing really well. Entrepreneurs try to be everything to everyone, but it’s hard to be the store that sells bait and baby toys and vintage Beatles albums. Specialize, and you can charge for what you do provide. That said, if there is a skill or service that would make your core product better, provide it.
- Get paid before you hand over a project to a client. This is especially important if you provide a service. Once you turn over that contract or website or design project, you won’t have much bargaining power. When I was a graphic designer, I watermarked all my projects and hosted websites on a private domain until the bill was paid.
- Undercharging is not sustainable. You think, “I don’t need to charge $150 an hour, I can charge $70 and make way more than I was making as an employee!” But you might find out a short time later that your “great” rate is unsustainable. By the time you pay taxes, employees, business licenses, insurance, etc., that $150/hour is looking more realistic. Compete on quality, expertise and your niche focus (see #5) instead of price. When competing on price alone, the clients who are price-shopping will always leave for the person or company that undercuts you.
- Patience and flexibility help you survive the lean times. ShortStack started out as a side project at my web and graphic design studio. We weren’t a software development studio, but when a client asked us for a software product, we didn’t say no. We were patient, scaled slowly — partly out of necessity — and it allowed me to build with company without debt.
- Build for your actual market. All of my software-building experience so far has been in answer to a demand. It is purely opportunistic. If you’re an app developer and you think “Wow, I think xx industry could use xx,” you might be disappointed. Put another way: I would never start a restaurant without having worked in one…for a long time!
- Never enter a partnership without a buy/sell agreement. No matter how well you think you know someone, you just don’t know when he or she will want to retire or do something else. Even if it’s on amicable terms, know how you can get rid of one another when it’s time for one of you to move on.
- Be grateful. Appreciate loyal customers who show you there is a demand for what you do. There is no dollar amount you can put on brand advocates. Good will translates to loyal customers.
- Look after those who look after you. We offer referral commissions at ShortStack, but it’s very much under the radar. We want people to recommend the product because they like it, not because they’ll say anything for a dollar. If we notice someone said nice things about us publicly, we might send them a t-shirt as a thank you. If they do it again and again, we might say, “Hey, you should become a referrer and earn a percentage of the business you send our way.”
- It’s not a sale until it’s paid for. This sounds obvious, but I’ve known small business owners who get very excited about orders and/or meetings with prospective clients. But until the money for those products or services is in the bank, it doesn’t count.
- You’ll make more money being “wrong” than proving you are right. Rather than fight with an unhappy customer and say, “You’re using it incorrectly,” or “You don’t know enough CSS to use our product,” we just refund their money. In the long run, these people consume so much of the support team’s time and energy that it’s more cost effective this way. They’re not our ideal client, and that’s OK.
- People don’t leave companies — they leave management. This lesson goes for both employees and customers. A manager will lose staff if the employees think they’re not being listened to or valued. Customers will stop using your products or services if they are dissatisfied with them. The quality and reliability of your products and services is a reflection of management.
- The way you present your business should be a reflection of your audience. If you have serious clients, be serious. If you have hip, fun-loving clients, have a sense of humor. You have to find your niche and build your content to suit them. For example, Constant Contact and MailChimp do essentially the same thing, but their marketing content reflects very different client bases.
- Agree on scope in advance. Have a clear contract before work begins. Once a project goes beyond the documented plan, charge for it. If you agreed to build a website with 10 pages, but soon the site is 20 pages, the client should pay you for them. If your contract makes that clear at the outset, it is easier to control scope creep.
- If your company sells a variety of products, make sure you know how to use/operate every single one of them. It might sound like a tall order — depending on how many products your company sells — but learning to use what your company sells will help you look at things with fresh eyes.
- When you think you’ve tested your product enough, test it some more. Never release a product until it has been tested and tested and tested by people who don’t work for you.
- Understand how social media networks work. When Twitter was first available for businesses, I’d see people use it like an ad in a newspaper. If you go on a channel and use it the wrong way, it could do more long-term harm than good.
- Save up. You can operate at a loss for a number of years but you can only run out of cash once. Have a rainy day fund that has at least two or three months’ operating costs in it. And have a line of credit available, even if you don’t plan to use it. Having a CPA look at your books once a quarter is also a must.
- Always let the CFO pay for drinks. Cheers!
Have you learned any business lessons the hard way? Let me know in the comments section below.
Jim Belosic is the co-founder and CEO of Pancake Laboratories, a software company based in Reno, Nev. The company is best known for its flagship product, ShortStack, software that’s designed to help small business owners and designers create custom apps that harness the power of social media. ShortStack recently celebrated its third birthday; Pancake Laboratories has several new software products slated for release in 2014.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.