A lot has changed since I started my small business in 1999, but the basic principles have not – you have to work hard every day, you have to make a lot of sacrifices, and you have to believe in what you’re doing.
These days starting a business is very simple. You can go to one of a number of websites like legalzoom.com or incorporate.com, pick a name for your business, pay a few dollars, and bam! You’re incorporated in the state of your choosing. You can then easily register a domain name with companies like godaddy.com or 1and1.com, and you’ve just become the proud owner of a small business. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is making sure you have a solid plan and then following up on that plan even when the going gets tough. When I started my business in flower importing I had a desktop computer, a few contacts in the Netherlands, and a phone book for florists. I cold-called retail flower shops offering my services for days and weeks, and had to put up with a lot of rejection and a lot of people hanging up on me before I found even the slightest success. But when I did, boy did it feel well earned. Today I still have most of the customers I got over a decade ago. That’s because to this day I make sure that every customer I have feels like he or she is my most important client. I go to great lengths to work with my customers from the minute they place their order until they have the product in their hands, and I make sure to leave them happy no matter what. The only edge I have over my bigger competitors is my personal relationship with my clients. As a small business owner I can’t delegate and I can’t leave things to chance. I have to make sure everything is planned and scheduled. When I first started I used to take a notepad with me to take notes and write down orders. These days I carry my cell phone and my Ipad wherever I go, just in case inspiration strikes or I get a phone call from a customer needing help or a vendor who has a question about an order. One of the most important things I’ve learned over the years is that as a small business owner, I never really have a day off and I don’t really have set hours. I make sure to be available to my customers 24 hours a day, and because I work with people overseas, I’m available to them around the clock as well. My customers can go other places to get their flowers but they stick with me because they know they can count on me.
The flip side of that coin is that I need to know I can count on them when it’s time to collect on their bills. I made a very conscious decision when I saw that my business was starting to grow: I decided to stay relatively small on purpose. Selling a product or service becomes easier and easier, but collecting money for that product or service never does. It’s something small business owners struggle with all the time and my advice to those just starting out is to set very specific payment terms for their customers. C.O.D is always best, but net 15 and net 30 work just as well, as long as you stick to those terms religiously. A small business owner has to make sure he or she does some homework on prospective clients and gets credit applications and personal guarantees where applicable. This will protect the business and the owner. They have to make sure not to extend too much credit, as it becomes a slippery slope and has endangered many businesses in the past.
Starting my own business and then seeing it through and watching it grow has been an incredible experience. If you have a product or a service you believe in, and are willing to put in the hard work and make the right sacrifices, I heartily recommend giving it a go.