Tips for Small Business Success: what I’ve learned so far

Depending on who you ask, Your Spice of Life will be celebrating with either iron or sugar, when we reach our 6 year anniversary in a few months.

I am very proud of what I have accomplished. Could it have been more — bigger, better, smoother, more profitable, more products, more stores? Of course. But the fact that it is still standing, in fact growing and appreciated by many, makes me happy.

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So rather than receiving gifts of iron or sugar, I have a small gift for you:  I’d like to share some observations from these last few years, when I went from a corporate-all-the-way, software training, pearls and pumps-wearing gal to a sole proprietor of quirky seasoning company in the Berkshires.

This list is my version of “What I wish I knew when I started out”. Everything on the list represents something that I didn’t know, or knew but ignored, and each one affected me in some way:

1,  Ask for help and advice. People can be are surprisingly generous. Get over the hesitation of asking for advice, thinking you you “should” already know it. Listen carefully to what they tell you, then check in with your own gut instincts and do what feels right to you.

Don’t forget your customers; they can be a great source of ideas.

2.  Have a clear vision of what you are trying to build, where you are going. This will help you to not get sidetracked into areas that may look or sound interesting, but that won’t serve to get you where you want.

Example: at one point, I was inspired to start making some body products, by a friend in New Hampshire who was having success with bath salts and lip balms. I felt that it would be a logical move to start producing bath salts. They were easy to make, used lots of organic essential oils and plant materials, and turned out to be fairly popular. However, when I looked at the whole product catalog, I realized that these just didn’t fit in, and I eliminated them. No major harm done, there wasn’t much of an investment in this case, but I learned from this experience.

3.  Watch your expenses and inventory like a hawk. It’s easy to justify that you “need” this or that for your growing business, or that the sale is too good to pass up. Like a magic trick,  a dollar here and a dollar there actually add up to $100.

4.  Pick your causes. As soon as you hang out your shingle, you will get requests for donations of time and money. Up front, decide what causes you will support, and what your annual budget is for these causes. Stick to it, and consider publishing your policy so that you can refer requestors to it.

5.  Become an expert at finding high quality but free resources that are available to small businesses. The Small Business Administration (SBA), SCORE, local economic development sources, industry professionals, the business rep at your bank, even online industry groups in LinkedIn or Facebook may offer knowledge and expertise to you.
As long as you’re dreaming, why not dream big? Don’t limit yourself. Get used to thinking big and it will start to become less scary, and more real to you.

6.  Know the rules. Each industry has them, whether it be biscuits, banking or bodywork. Do your homework and find out everything you are supposed to be doing to meet regulatory requirements — and do them.Example:  For a short time in the early days, I used the word “organic” on the front of my product labels until another food producer made me aware of the fine print; although all of my ingredients are, indeed, certified organic, my company has not sought out certification. So I am allowed to use the word “organic” in the ingredient panel, with an asterisk,  but not as part of the product name on the front. I was mortified and quickly corrected this, but the lesson has stuck.

7.  Know your numbers. Don’t wait until tax season to look hard at your financial picture. You don’t need to do a full analysis every week, but generating and studying a few key reports on a regular basis will avoid surprises later.

8.  Know your target audience/customer. Be very clear on who your customer is, down to age, gender, income levels, and location. Why?  This knowledge allows you to tailor everything that you do, to appeal to them. When I say everything, I mean your designs, pricing, social media campaigns, sales outlets, advertising, and packaging.Example: if your target customer is “green”, socially conscious and aged 20-35, would they be attracted to a product in voluminous, non-recyclable packaging? If your Facebook fan base is mostly women 55-65, maybe the use of some current cultural or tech references may not resonate with them.

9.  Embody your product. Wear it, use it, gift it (sparingly), love it, look it, be excited by it and be in love with it!Example:  I cook with my own products every day. Because my logo is made up of stylized leaves,  I wear leaf earrings almost every day. It reminds me of what my goals are, and I like feeling that connection. I often dab on a spice or herb scent, such as lavender, clove, or vanilla. Do other people notice these things? Maybe, maybe not… but in Law of Attraction parlance, I try to be “in alignment” with my vision, and it feels right to me.

10. Continuous improvement: Look for better suppliers,  better production methods, better work flow. Although it is a thing of beauty when you finally find the right supplier and you build a relationship with them, you have an obligation to your own customers and your own business to explore all options.Example:  I’ve found that some suppliers are open to hearing “I’ve been working with you for x years and it’s been great in every way. But there’s this other guy who matches your product and price but is offering me discounted shipping — can you do that for me? I’d love to keep working with you but the discounted shipping represents a 10% savings for me”.

11.  Know the precise cost of producing your product — down to the penny. Otherwise, how can you figure out pricing? How can you decide if it is worth wholesaling it? How else to know if you should even continue selling it?

Example:  Most of my products are available via wholesale, but I have a few where the combination of materials and labor make them unavailable — that is,  at least until I take my own advice from point #11 and continue to seek out lower priced raw materials and packaging, and improve my production process. For now,  those 3 products are staying off the wholesale list.

12.  Standardize what you can.  If you print product labels, try to use the same label size/style for several products. Instead of 6 different jar sizes, see if you can make everything work with 3. This will save you headaches when it comes to keeping track of your supply inventory, and make the ordering process easier. You may also see savings from being able to buy larger quantities at once.

Example:  one of my label sizes is 4.5″x2″. I use that label in 3 ways:  horizontally, on salt grinders and baking spices;  vertically on the Lula’s Fruit Crisp bag;  and vertically but folded up and over the top of my sample pouches, providing a tamper-evident seal.

13.  Know your competition. I don’t actually think of other spice companies as “competitors”, because we all do what we do in ways that are unique to us. But you will want to look closely at what others in  your industry are doing, both so that you can avoid some of their practices and be motivated by others.

Example: some of the other spice companies refuse to list their full ingredients on their blends; although that is perfectly legal, I find it very unhelpful and in fact offensive, and I’ve vowed to stick to my guns and always divulge all of the ingredients.

On the more positive side, some companies are great about providing lots of education along with their products, and that has definitely inspired me to do the same. It’s helpful and makes for a more “full service” experience.

___________________

The encouraging news is that it is seldom too late to start changing your practices and habits. Do I wish that I had known all of this on Day One? You betcha. But I know it now, and this next year will be better because of it.

I have my heart set on copper and wool for year 7!

Do you have any tips for new businesses? What’s on your list of “Things I wish I knew when I started”?

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Posted on February 8, 2014, in Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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