I started a business — more-or-less by accident — the day I decided to hand in my notice at my full-time job and go freelance. I had done some freelance work during evenings and weekends alongside my day job for a while, and so felt relatively confident that I had enough work lined up to keep me going at least for a few months, but at the time I was the main breadwinner for my family, so it was still a rather terrifying leap of faith.
It took me a few years of working part-time for various clients before I realized I needed to think of myself as a business owner (even if I’m the only employee of my business), rather than a freelancer.
I now know that thinking of myself as a business owner helps keep me focused on the bigger picture, which allows me to be more strategic about the kind of work I take on. As a business owner, I feel empowered to turn down some work because it doesn’t fit well with the other projects and plans I have coming up, and I can make those kinds of decisions from a more confident place than when I was just living from freelance project to freelance project. I can plan ahead and pay myself a salary from my earnings, keeping some reserved for months when I’ll have less work or be on holiday.
Starting your own business can be freeing, exhilarating, humbling, and terrifying all at once. It pushes you to the limits of what you know, and forces you to keep adapting and learning. Talk to any entrepreneur about what it’s really like to start your own business and the most common reply is that it’s more complicated and challenging than they thought it would be, but they love it.
I asked nine inspiring entrepreneurs to share the one thing they’d want to tell someone who was considering starting their own business, and here’s what they said.
Know who your work is designed to serve (but be adaptable)
Janet Easter is the co-founder of Verily magazine and currently a stay-at-home mom running the beautiful online thrifted clothes store, Ever Thrift. She shared that it’s vital to have “an extremely clear idea and vision about what your mission and product is, and who your audience or customer is” before you start your business.
At the same time, it’s also important to be flexible and open to change. “I could laugh about how many hours and months and years it took to refine and hone in Verily‘s content and tone. We were constantly refining — and it’s an ongoing process. As important as it is to have a clear idea about your business in the beginning, you also have to be willing to pivot and adapt to what’s working.”
Remember there’s no fast-track to success
Christina Lynn is a creative storyteller, writing teacher, and couples photographer living and working in England. Her advice? “Ignore ads from the business gurus who promise you the ‘secrets to quick success.’ I was inundated with them at the beginning, and it was awful. Every ad that targeted my amateur insecurities made me feel inadequate and like I had to immediately do all of the things,” she said. “Every business guru who acts like those ‘tips’ are somehow a trade secret that is going to help you ‘make 10K in a month’ just isn’t telling you the whole story.”
Tom Runger, founder of Vitruviance (a health and fitness testing and consultation business), also points out that “there is no road map to success. It is different than working for an established business in this regard, which can be intimidating.”
Starting a business is emotionally challenging
“Starting a business is incredibly challenging emotionally,” says Steven Lawson, Founder of the Monk Manual. “Every win you have will bring with it a set of new challenges and new ways of stretching you. This may sound like a good thing, but for many would-be entrepreneurs the idea of growth is challenging.”
He explained that “the growth is almost always tied with confronting some of your deepest fears and insecurities. You will often find yourself venturing into unknown territory and dancing with your fear.”
There’s no shame in keeping your day job
Jasmine Shells, the CEO and co-founder of Five to Nine, recommends making sure there’s a market for your idea before you go all-in, whenever possible, and learning “on someone else’s dime — aka, don’t quit your day job just yet!”
And, as Jasmine points out, while you might feel impatient to get going, your current job might actually be the best training ground for your future dreams. The idea for Five to Nine, an event management and analytics platform for organizations, came to her while she was working as an IT consultant, and that day job gave her the experience and insight she needed to spot a gap in the market that she could fill.
Get clear on your values and what success means to you
“In my experience, most people who choose to start their own small business do so because they want to live and work on their own terms, outside of existing corporate or organizational frameworks,” says Maddy Lawson, a slow and seasonal living coach and co-founder of Folk + Field.
“It’s important to establish a new set of guiding principles that are unique to you and your values, otherwise you risk creating a business founded on the very ideas you wanted to escape,” she points out. “A great place to start is by writing your own definition of success, because getting clear on this will help you stay true to your vision even when you might feel as though you’re swimming against the tide.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of community
Eleanor Cheetham, a writer and independent publisher and the other half of Folk + Field, says that community has been one of the most important aspects of her life and work. “Believe in the power of connection, and trust that things are building beneath the surface,” she says. “It’s impossible to run a business without a supportive community around you, and while on the surface it may feel like you don’t have time for making connections and building relationships, I’ve found that these are the most integral part of survival and growth. Trust that you are building a foundation for the future.”
Trust your gut, and stay in touch with your vision
“There’s so much information out there it can be difficult to know what is the right thing to do,” says Trona, the blogger and Pinterest coach behind Aye Lined. “If something doesn’t feel right for you and your business, don’t do it! This is your own business and while it’s good to learn from others and their successes, ultimately you will know what is right for you.”
Sometimes the only way to learn is to make mistakes
Erica Tighe, illustrator, designer, and founder of Be a Heart, says that to start your own business you need to “be okay with making mistakes, changing course, trying new things, being open to the Spirit working.”
While it’s easy to look back and see where you could have done things differently, messing up and learning from your mistakes is all part of the natural process of starting your own business. “I have mostly not had any idea what I was doing and taught myself everything along the way,” Erica says. “The means there were a lot of lessons I learned due to user error.”
Tom agrees, saying that failure is unavoidable: “You have to be willing and able to try things that have a high likelihood of failing. Micro losses are absolutely part of the growth and eventual macro success (hopefully) of a new business. So essentially, you have to train yourself to have a thick skin and be alright with failure.”
Be patient, and focus on your “why” when things get tough
Time and time again, the theme that came up for every entrepreneur I talked to was patience. Kara Eschbach, a startup consultant and co-founder of Verily magazine wants to remind aspiring entrepreneurs to remember that building a business is a slow process that takes a huge amount of vision, dedication, and commitment. So “be kind to yourself, and be patient!” she says. “A business doesn’t just appear overnight.”
In Kara’s experience, “No matter what size or scope the undertaking, it’s always more than you expect — more expensive, more time-consuming, more decisions, more everything. Even serial entrepreneurs I’ve talked to say they underestimate and forget this.” But, even though Verily was hugely challenging to launch and run, staying focused on the people she hoped to serve kept her going: “Whenever I hear someone say that reading Verily changed their outlook in a positive way, I think it was worth it.”