Following the right steps in any endeavor is important. Getting expert advice on starting a small business, critical. What should you do first? Where are your energies best spent? How do you avoid costly mistakes?
To answer those questions, I reached out to seasoned entrepreneurs, owners, and advisors to get those invaluable insights and direct quotes.
In this post, you’ll find lessons from people who’ve lived through it all—success, failure, burnout, legal issues, cash flow challenges, and more.
Start building processes from the beginning
“There’s a common belief that process is the enemy of startups. But I believe without process, startups devolve into chaos,” says Erin Bury, CEO of Willful, startup advisor, and the founding editor at BetaKit.
She says the best time to put structure around things like employee policies, invoicing, flexible work, benefits, onboarding and offboarding, and internal communication is when you’re a small team. If you wait until you’re 10 people, you’ll struggle to catch up.
“Sit down and talk about your mission, vision, and values as a team in the early days. It’ll help you determine your approach to culture, policies, and structure,” Bury says. The more effort you put into those strategies early on, the more time (and headaches) it’ll save you as you scale.
Learn how to tell a great story about your company
When Erin Bury was a journalist, she found that startups would pitch their company to her by explaining who they were and what they did in general.
“They forgot the key element of telling a story: Why does this matter now? And why does it matter to my readers?” Bury says. “Unfortunately, the existence of your business is not news.”
Small businesses must first learn how to tell its founder story: why you started the company, the problem you’re solving, and how your team will solve it. This is the backbone of your branding strategy. You also need to frame your business in a newsworthy way. For example, tie it to current events or industry trends and use data to make it more relevant to the media.
Build a digital presence over time
Even if most of your business comes from walk-ins or referrals, it’s essential to have a digital presence.
“Websites, Facebook pages, and Instagram profiles are not just for being found at the top of your sales funnel or coming up in someone’s search results,” says Andrea Lown, Co-Founder, Head of Marketing and Strategy at DigitalCoconut.
“They go a long way to building your company’s credibility and ultimately getting a person who knows about you to click, book, or pick-up the phone and call.
Make sure your digital channels—especially, social media and your website—are up-to-date and accurately reflect your products or services. “To drive conversions, your copy should also give customers all of the reasons why they should choose you over your competitors,” says Lown.
Develop an online marketing plan
The key to developing a digital marketing plan for your small business or startup is to keep it simple.
“Choose the few channels most used or important to your target audience and focus on learning, developing and optimizing those channels first,” says Lown.
Then, get organized and develop a schedule and process for consistently being present on that channel—whether it’s social media content, blog articles, paid search, or others. Lown says that once you have a handle on the first few channels, branch out to one more and repeat the process. As always, don’t bother with anything digital unless you plan to track your results.
Commit to search engine optimization (SEO)
Small businesses should focus on the three main areas of SEO:
- On-page SEO: Including keywords and phrases on your website that you think people will be searching for
- Off-page SEO: Getting other websites to link to yours which increases your popularity in Google’s eyes
- Local SEO: Having a complete Google My Business profile for local searches in Google and Google Maps
“As your business is growing, your Google presence should grow too,” says Avery Swartz, Founder and CEO, Camp Tech, and Tech Correspondent, CTV Your Morning. “SEO takes time, but it doesn’t have to be difficult, and it doesn’t have to cost anything.”
Grow your email list
While email marketing is often seen as old school, it still works …
“Email marketing doesn’t require a lot of tech know-how, and it’s one of the most cost-effective digital marketing methods you can invest in,” says Swartz. She suggests using MailChimp for email marketing because they have a free plan that’s great for small businesses. You can have up to 2,000 contacts on your list and not pay a cent to use their service.
Swartz also recommends building your email list by adding signup forms to your website, your social media, and even have a few in the offline world (e.g., as a signup sheet by the cash register in your store, or at trade shows or industry events). If you build your email list as your business grows, you’ll have fans who can follow you on your journey.
Hire or outsource for your gaps
Although most founders must manage every part of their business in the beginning, you’ll quickly learn that your time is best spent on areas where you are already strong.
You might be a technical founder, communications specialist, or a business grad.
“Spend your time there and hire for or outsource the other areas of your business to freelancers or specialized agencies,” says Hamed Abbassi, Founder and CEO at Plooto.
Most importantly, seek out help with your cash flow and financial management. “I recently read an article that stated: 82% of small businesses fail because of poor cash flow management, or a poor understanding of cash flow,” says Abbassi. Hire a bookkeeper who can keep you in the loop on where you stand in that regard on a regular basis.
Go digital with payments and cash flow
While you may need to hire a professional to manage your books and help you make payments on time, Abbassi recommends also going digital with your payments.
Did you know it can cost your business up to $26 every time you cut a paper check to a vendor? That includes the time and labor you spend on processing it, plus buying envelopes and stamps to mail it out.
“Consider using a digital payment and cash flow management platform and Quickbooks together to make and track payments, and get paid faster,” says Abbassi.
Avoid the perils of perfection
In most cases, your small business success is based on the one to four things that you can do better than your competitors (e.g., best personal customer service, or best local sales in your neighborhood).
“Yet, rather perfecting the one to four core items that are crucial to success, small business owners often try to perfect everything. They also want to be perfect themselves,” says Duke McKenzie, a serial entrepreneur, and current CEO and Co-Founder of Re6l.
By doing so, McKenzie says you’ll end up with a business that is run “perfectly” but runs right into what he calls the “perils of perfection.” If you find yourself in that situation now, it’s time to re-focus that energy back to your core principals. Only then can you build on your success.
Find a good business attorney and budget accordingly
You don’t know what legal issues you’ll face until you speak with an experienced business attorney. It should be one of your first priorities, as you’ll need to determine what contracts, trademarks, business profiles, and more, you’ll need as you set up your business.
It’s important to set a healthy budget for legal expenses, too.
“Legal fees could end up being a large upfront investment when you start your business. In my experience, these fees always end up being more than anticipated due to the constant back and forth, legal complexity and other factors,” says Eyal Lifshitz, the founder and CEO of Blue Vine in a recent article for Entrepreneur.
He recommends asking your attorney for an estimate on what you’ll need for your first year in business. Also, give yourself an added buffer based on that estimate. It’s better to have the money set aside and never use it than getting into trouble with no way to pay for legal support.
Remember to celebrate the small stuff
Finally, many of the entrepreneurs I asked for advice on starting a small business stressed the importance of celebrating even your most modest wins.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why you must stop and reflect on each and every milestone.
Also, be sure to involve your team in these crucial moments. Seeing how they’ve made an impact is an excellent motivator.
Advice on starting a small business: Quotes from the source
Whatever your goals or motivation happen to be, as you head out on this new path … be sure to reach out directly to the owners and leaders you trust. These experts should only be your starting point. Find mentors, coaches, or friends to help guide you.
Go directly the source as much as possible—the people who have walked in your shoes. And climbed the mountain you’re now facing.