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6 Lessons I Wish I Knew When I Started My Business

  • Tom Bills
  • 2015 1 Jan
6 Lessons I Wish I Knew When I Started My Business

Starting a small business can be one of the most exciting experiences in your life. In some cases it is the literal reinvention of yourself. For me, I never really intended to start a business and never gave it that much thought. I simply had a passion for my work and it naturally transformed into a business. This might sound pretty cool but really it is not a very good way for things to happen; you will understand why as I share a little bit of my story.

I studied jazz guitar in college and I always planned on being a professional musician or maybe even a music teacher. Like many students, while I was in school I had a hard time being able to afford a guitar that was of high enough quality to really get the kind of sound and playability that I needed for my exercises and performances in class.

Coming from a background of woodworking, I had the idea of building myself a guitar. I figured it would be a lot cheaper and it sounded like fun.

So over a period of time I built my first guitar using whatever materials I could find and scrounging for tools that would get the job done. To my surprise, I found that building guitars was just something I could do well, maybe even what God designed me to do. Eventually, after being asked to make guitars for my college guitar instructors and other players, I ended up being a guitar maker by trade.

Because my career just seemed to happen to me and because of my creative personality type, I began my career with no plan whatsoever, just a starry eyed artist wandering out into the mysterious future letting his destiny unfold. Needless to say, this approach can lead to many problems from a business standpoint. I traveled a very difficult road, but I have come a long way since then and learned a great deal both in my craft and my business.

Today I am very satisfied with my work and feel a great sense of accomplishment at having endured the long years and many trials and coming out on the other side a better person with better guitars too.

The good news is that I don’t believe it has to be as hard for you as it was for me. That’s why I’m happy to share with you a few lessons I learned the hard way that might help you avoid some of the common pitfalls many new business owners encounter as they venture out into their own entrepreneurial destiny.

1. Balance Your Craft and Your Business

One of the first important realizations I came to was that just because hand crafting guitars came so naturally to me, didn’t mean that I was by any means good at running a guitar making business. They are two totally different skills, and for me the latter is much harder to master. I am still and always will be a head in the clouds dreamer, reaching for the ultimate quality regardless of cost. But I am happy to report that you can find a balance by incorporating some structure into your business that enables you to to keep reaching for the stars, just in a little more controlled and consistent way.

The first step to getting a handle on this aspect of running a small business for me was a book that I highly recommend. It helped me understand this concept and find ways to make the necessary changes in the areas I was struggling with and is called “The E- Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don’t Work and What to Do About It” by Michael E. Gerber.

2. Cultivate Your Business Organically

Once you can incorporate some restraint and measured application of your powerful creative drive to pursue excellence, you can make the wisest choice you can ever make: to not go into debt. This choice doesn’t seem like a possibility in some people’s minds, I know it took me along time to realize that the debt-based system almost always ends in failure. Not borrowing when you are starting your business will force you to have restraint and move at the slow steady pace necessary for healthy growth.

Growth is all around us, look at the trees and the grass, they never grow in huge spurts! They just keep at it, day in and day out, and that slow growth from season to season, year to year, is the very thing that makes the trees strong and beautiful.

When we try to artificially stimulate growth by borrowing money – or keeping with our analogy, by adding some fertilizer to get a fast response – at first it looks like a great deal. Eventually though things get out of balance, and before long all the gain that was made will be lost and usually more.

A tool that helped me get some balance and much needed education in this area is budgeting software called YNAB, which stands for, You Need A Budget. I tried other budgeting software before and I could not make them work for me. YNAB finally got through to me because it is built on clear principles and has great resources available like an eBook, training classes, and the software itself is really great as well.

3. They Don’t Always Come if You Build It

The next epiphany is one that was very hard for me to embrace. My beliefs about this topic were deeply ingrained. I’m not sure where I got these ideas, but I was willing to sacrifice everything for them.

I’m referring to the idea that if you make the best product in the world you will be successful. Unfortunately, there are many incredible products out there that go totally unnoticed. The world at large may completely and tragically miss out on these products because the person who created them, like me, had the notion that if their product was that good, it would simply have to be a success.

Once I began to understand this truth, I had to restructure my time and efforts to incorporate set times for working on ways to help people become aware of my guitars and their unique qualities and true value.

In order to be able to build my guitars and find ways to communicate their value, I first had to learn to organize my time. The biggest help to me in this area was a book called, ”Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Since time was the issue here, I just listened to the audio version of this while I worked on my guitars and stopped to take notes as needed. This book laid the foundation for the systems that I still use today.

For those of you who use an iPad, I also use two apps; a “to do list” app called Omnifocus which is expensive, but definitely worth it, and a Gantt chart app called SG Project Pro which is really powerful and that I really enjoy using. The head programmer who designed SG Project is a guitar player too, so it must be good. 

4. Making Friends is More Fun than Marketing

When it comes to marketing I don’t advocate throwing money around to build up some flashy tricks or gimmicks, but I have seen great results in the slow, hard, diligent, and very rewarding work of being genuine and connecting with people in a meaningful way. It really isn’t marketing, because there isn’t that much of a strategy, essentially it is just making friends with people, getting to know them and understand what they need and want from your product.

Once I know someone, I can better understand how to express the true qualities of my product. If they have needs I’m not currently meeting, then I can try to redesign my product to incorporate the needs and wants of my potential customers. The best part is that making friends is not only more effective than marketing, it’s more fun too.

Simply taking the time to communicate with people via email has been the best tool for this aspect of connecting with people. In addition to regular emails, I use a free email list service called Mailchimp which helps me easily send out a newsletter to the rapidly growing list of people who subscribe to my blog. Building a list of subscribers is a fun way to interact with people who are interested in your product. I even give away a free download of my eBook to every person who subscribes! This is great because it’s a win-win. The book helps me in that it gives people more insight into who I am and what my product is about, and it gives them something of value that they are interested in for free.

5. Connect and Grow Online

The most useful tool of all I have found to help build these essential relationships is having a website that I can make changes to myself. Like many small business owners, I was set on getting the ultimate custom original website regardless of the cost. I ended up paying around $4,000 for a website which at first seemed like a great deal, it was really cool looking, but I soon began to realize that having such a fancy custom website wasn’t all that I thought it would be.

After only having the website for a short while I came out with a new guitar model, and suddenly my new website was no longer accurate and as time went on it quickly became outdated. Because it was totally custom made I couldn’t make any changes to it, and to hire someone to do it was more than I could afford at the time, especially after spending so much to have it made the first time.

Thankfully, I found out that there were cheaper and better looking ways out there that cost a fraction of the price and were simple enough for me to make changes and add products myself to keep my website growing along with my business.

6. Don’t Just Learn from Your Mistakes

My hope is that as you have read this article you may have realized that you are not alone in your struggles and were inspired to make some changes in your business, or if you are just starting out on your entrepreneurial adventure, maybe you will avoid some of the hardships I endured in my journey. Learning from our own mistakes is essential to make progress as individuals and as business owners, but there is still an even better way: learning from other people’s mistakes.

Now that you have heard about a few of my mistakes and some of the ways I’ve overcome them, do you have any lessons you learned the hard way that you’d like to share? If so leave a comment below!

This article originally appeared on Christian Personal Finance. Used with permission.

Tom Bills has been hand crafting one of a kind custom archtop guitars since 1998. Tom’s guitars are considered to be among the best instruments ever made by collectors and players worldwide. He has written for many online and print publications including his book, The Creation of the Natura Elite Archtop Guitar which is currently available in print or for free download on his website.

Christian Personal Finance is a resource dedicated to building God's Kingdom and helping others through money.

Publication date: November 20, 2012