The 7 things I’ve learned from starting my own business

Just over a year ago, I somewhat naively and spontaneously launched my own business. Here’s what I’ve learned….

Without much planning, forethought or fanfare, I opened my online boutique TAE in July last year, and oh-my-goodness, it’s been a ride. Never having had any retail experience has meant that it’s been a huge learning curve with some amazing highs and also some frustrating lows. I am hardly the first person who has ever thought about launching a small shop, and so I thought it might be useful for anyone looking to do the same, if I shared a little of my story so far…

  1. Working on your own is tough

I’ve worked on my own as a freelance journalist and copywriter at my desk in my house for over 8 years now, and yet this is different. As a writer, my job was to write a piece, file it, wait for edits and then job done. As a one-woman retail operation I wear many more hats from sourcing and buying merchandise, marketing the shop, social media for the shop, photographing products, running the tech side of things, customer service, packing and sending out orders, keeping on top of stationery/equipment, forward-planning for the next season, stock taking, graphic design and – by far, my least favourite job – book keeping. It’s a hell of a lot to do, and because I’m the only one doing it, it can feel like a lot of pressure. The buck literally stops here. As a writer, if for some reason I can’t make my deadline (which has never happened btw!) then the stress would hit my Editor’s fan – they would have to find something else to fill that page. With TAE, if I drop the pieces, I also have to pick them up. Having now run the business for a year, I have SO much more respect for every small business owner out there. Not that I didn’t respect them before, I just had no idea how hard it is to keep all the balls in the air. If you ever buy from a small business (and please do!) then please know that blood, sweat and tears go into it – small businesses are borne from someone’s idea and passion, they are an amazing thing.

2. Get help

Saying that, I don’t do everything myself. My accounts need special attention and so I’m working with an accountant, who is also something of a business mentor. I’m not in a position yet to employ someone, but if I got to the stage when I was so overwhelmed with packing orders that it would be better for me to get someone in to help, I would do. Think about where it would be better for you to outsource – photography, packing orders, admin are obvious places to start – so you can be free’d up to do what you’re best at.

3. Start Small

I started and am still small. I don’t order a lot of stock, sometimes I don’t order enough, but at the beginning, you really don’t know if you’ll be able to sell it. Others may disagree, but I’d always advise taking baby steps and building good foundations.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others

This lesson applies to everything in life, but certainly to retail. Don’t compare yourself to other businesses, who are bigger and seemingly doing better than you. You don’t know their story. Maybe they’ve been going for 5 years, whereas you’ve been going for 5 months? Maybe they have ‘sold out’ of all of their stock, but maybe they only had two things in stock to start with? So don’t compare, but do learn. Small businesses don’t have to compete, even if they sell similar stuff. Support each other and learn from each other, and you will grow.

5. Don’t Panic

This has been one of my biggest lessons – don’t panic if you’re going through a quiet period. Some months have been busier than others, some weeks have been positively painful for me, but it will be ok.  Some times of the year will be busier (Christmas) than others (August), so bear that in mind. And if your normally busy times are quiet, then start thinking why and work out what you can do different next time.

6. The Customer is always right – unless they’re wrong

One of the nicest things I’ve discovered over the last year is how many lovely, supportive people there are. My customers are amazing, almost universally so, and I adore it when people love their purchases. But, they don’t always love their purchases, and that’s fine, too. What I would say is you’ve got to stand your guns when it comes to your return policy. If your return policy says items can’t be returned once worn, then they can’t be returned. If you state that earrings can’t be returned for hygiene reasons (a standard retail policy), then they can’t be returned. Don’t let someone make you feel bad for standing your ground.

7. Get to know your customer.

Work out what your customer comes to you for and stick with it. TAE is primarily a fashion and accessories store, it’s what my customers come to me for. I made the mistake last year of buying in some expensive designer cushions and lampshades for the shop because I loved them. I still do love them, but they haven’t sold. It’s not because they’re not gorgeous, but because people aren’t coming to me to buy cushions or lampshades, they want fashion. In a similar vein, don’t expect to sell thick parkas (however beautiful and however cheap) in the middle of summer or gorgeous sandals in the middle of winter (unless you are a beachwear shop) as it’s probably not what your customer is looking for.

And, finally…..

  • Don’t be scared of putting a dream into reality. Work hard and you can do it
  • Start small. Don’t invest a lot of cash.
  • If you’re thinking about selling online, whether it’s your own designs or others that you buy in, then consider launching your own website. I use Shopify and it’s great.
  • Embrace social media, it really is the best form of marketing.
  • Put your own stamp on whatever you do.
  • Support and shout out others. Lucinda from TLM Edit has been a big supporter of mine. She also runs a fantastic online business, worth checking out and a blog The London Mummy.
  • Read, talk and read. Small business forums (such as on shopify) can be really useful. Other business owners are great to talk to. Ask your customers what they want. Just keep learning.

I hope this has been of some use!

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