10 Things I Learned On The Job as a First-Time Entrepreneur
I love that phrase "You don't know what you don't know." As a first-time entrepreneur, everything was one big pool of unknowns when I first started out. While I thought my retail management background had me well-prepared, I quickly realized nothing could have fully prepared me for this journey. I wish I had known all this starting out. I'm hoping sharing this experience will help another first-time entreprenur stumble less in their journey.
I had first started out dabbling in an online gift shop I had with my sister while I was working full-time as a retail manager. Things always moved slower than I hoped and I had trouble finding time to dedicate to the business. We ended up abandoning that idea but it was the catalyst for starting Valia Honolulu. I had wanted to own a women's clothing boutique since middle school and you could say every job I had after that dream started was to get myself ready for entrepreneurship.
I've been in business for two and half years now. It's been an awesome journey that I would not trade for the world. I genuinely love what I do and I would love to do this forever. Entrepreneurship is not a smooth ride. It takes a ton of hard work, sacrifices, persistence, patience and passion to start and build a business.
In this blog, I wanted to share what I've encountered while learning on the job, because well, that's really the only way you can learn. These are my personal experiences and advices for those wanted to start a business or who are just starting out. I would say I'm still in the beginning phases of growing my baby so the advice I'm offering should be taken from that perspective. You may have run into the same issues and I hope that you can find some solace in knowing you are not alone in those feelings.
1) Bookkeeping / P&L reports
OH MY GAWD. The biggest headache for the first two years. It's definitely something I improve on constantly but I still cringe when I get emails from my accountant at tax time and avoid them like the plague until I am mentally prepared to open them. Boy, did I eff up the first couple times tax season came around and I spent days going back and looking at transactions and fixing them. Not to mention, Quickbooks should change their name to something that doesn't sound deceivingly simple.
I know a lot of businesses think about accounting and bookkeeping differently. I've talked to some business owners who say they do their own and pray for the best, some who say that they pass the mess on to their accountants and let them sort it out. Tax stuff scares me so I prefer to have an accountant helping me out to prevent mistakes. It's basically the only thing I pay someone to do for me in my business.
I don't like to pass on a mess because I like to keep a pulse on my business' health to make sure I am making wise financial decisions. Personally, I track it all. Like I mentioned, I use Quickbooks and I've come up with a system of weekly and monthly checklists. I consider this a vital aspect of my business even though it is time consuming. I can see.... How are things going? How am I really doing? You could have a record month in sales but your expenses were also record high, so you lost money. At the end of the day, you are a business and you have to be able to pay the bills and stay in business and make money! Like most small businesses, you do what you do because you love it. You're not in business to get rich. But the only way to do what you love forever is by making money.
There are a few things I look at frequently and I like that Quickbooks has these handy on their home page. P&L reports (Profit and Loss), my expenses and last 12 months sales trend. If you input data into your Quickbooks accurately, you'll get a very good indication of your business and be able to get a good read on how things are going.
(photo: IG @manoa1 / model: Anna Davide)
2) Be fearless - Think less, do more
I cannot tell you how much time I wasted in year one questioning myself. I would come up with an idea and then think through it for so long. I'd convince myself that it was stupid or get scared and drop it. Or even worse, I'd tell myself the business wasn't there yet and it wasn't good enough yet. Fear and doubt in myself was my worst enemy.
I slowly started to build my confidence. I told myself to start thinking big and stop doubting myself. I told myself to just go for it and see what happens. I told myself if something doesn't work out, just try harder. I told myself it's okay to fail and it wouldn't be the end of the world.
In a recent conversation with my boyfriend, we were talking about how my stress levels seemed to be more manageable. I told him that I think the stress was reduced because I was thinking less and just doing more. I spent less time worrying about what people would think about this post, or what if no one signs up for this workshop...etc. Instead, I now have multiple things happening on a given week that I just no longer have time to worry, I only have time to just do it. It's so freeing!
(opening Bethel Street - Photo: Brie Thalmann)
3) Get all your legal ducks in a row
There are a lot of legalities involved in businesses. Starting the business, making sure your products are compliant if you make your own products, trademarking your brand, etc. Sometimes you don't even know you have to do something until you hit a roadblock.
I ran into a trademarking issue during my first year in business. Opening up a Cease and Desist letter can send any business owner into a state of panic! I spent weeks scrambling to change things. Luckily, it all worked out and the business came out of the situation in a better place. I really believe everything happens for a reason.
I think with legal matters, that phrase "you don't know what you don't know" really comes into play a lot! I could not find one single resource out there that provided me with a solid, comprehensive checklist of what I needed to do. What forms do you fill out to start your business? What do I have to pay taxes on? How do I trademark my name? What kinds of permits do need?
(name change to Valia)
4) There's no formula for success. Change is constant.
For a while I thought, if I just figured out the right formula, business would just continue to grow. I think there's a lot of BS out there that convinces you of this. Mostly because they are trying to sell their own products...a marketing class that'll unlock the endless potentials of Facebook ads, or mastering Pinterest to drive sales, or a million other things that prey on the business owner during their "down" and desperate times. While I'm sure there is some value to these things, but there is no right formula.
I remember a point in year one where things were going really well. I had lunch with a friend who had been a business owner for years already. I was telling him that I think I can relax a bit because things are starting to take off. His advice: Don't ever think you can relax. I was taken aback for a little bit and thought, well that sucks! But, he was right. Once I sat back and relaxed for a bit, business started to slow again and I started to scramble to understand what I did wrong.
After a little while, I got comfortable with this idea. Business is ever-changing. You have to keep learning and evolving. You have to stay active and on top of changes. This is probably now the reason that I have to schedule in sleep once a month into my planner. But, I see the difference in my business and it makes me happy.
(photo: IG @manoa1 / model: Anna Davide)
5) Where to invest marketing money
This wasn't a challenging question when I started out. I had no experience in marketing. I worked in retail management and was more focused on managing people, sales and operations. I thought it would be easy to learn. I was wrong. Marketing is tough.
Marketing is probably your most important investment but also where you can leak money fast. I've heard of some people shelling out money and hiring PR companies in the beginning to help launch their business. Personally, I did not. I wrote my own Press Releases. I tried my best at social media marketing. I invested a little here and there in social media ads, print ads and influencer marketing.
At the end of the day, I decided to try and keep my marketing budget as low as possible. Instead, I put my own time into marketing and was happier that way because I have complete control. There are a lot of low cost ways to go about your marketing strategy but they all take time so be ready to make time your biggest marketing expense.
I think with marketing, it works out differently for every business. It's really about what you can afford, how fast you want to grow and your comfort level in not seeing direct results. A lot of times, you won't be able to see a direct return on investment and are left guessing on where your customers came from.
(Valia Honolulu Brand Ambassador Chayanne Amoguis)
6) Stick to your gut
Know your brand, what you stand for and what you want in your business. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. In the beginning, I asked for a lot of opinions and also got some unsolicited opinions (you'll learn as a business owner, you will get a lot of it). While, I learned a lot from some feedback, some things just totally threw me off base. It pushed me in directions that left me confused or unsatisfied with the result.
I had to learn to weed through feedback and trust my gut feelings. Everyone else doesn't see the whole picture, only you. You've got to trust yourself. Even when I purchase items for the shop, I initially selected pieces with a specific demographic in mind (not me) and tried to guess at what they would like. I quickly learned that guessing is not what works for me. Now, every item I purchase for the shop is something I love and would personally wear (which also makes it hard not to want things!) and I feel my customer can sense my excitement and love for what I sell.
(Model and Shop Girl Megan Dela Cruz in Hawaii brand Yireh)
Network is a really scary word, especially for introverts like me. I never really liked networking events. When I go to an event and the organizer says lets go around the circle blah blah blah, I immediately think I should have stayed home. I'm much better on a one-on-one level than group settings, even in my personal life. I don't like to compete for conversation, feel like I'm being interrogated and I like to speak when I have something to say.
So, I usually do things my way and get to know other business owners on a more personal, one-on-one level. It doesn't matter how you meet people as long as you do, especially like-minded people. You learn so much and build valuable relationships. I'm so lucky that most business owners I've met have been super kind and open to working together. Maybe it's just all that Aloha spirit here!
Instagram is another amazing way to meet like-minded business owners! It's surprising how many brands and business owners I have met on the platform and formed genuine relationships with. Honestly, I haven't met some in person but I've still had some amazing collaborations with them!
(Photo: Landen Masuda / Model: Stylist Gabi Pangelinan / Location: Pai Honolulu)
8) Don't be so humble all the time
In the beginning, I was a little embarrassed to share my company. Maybe I felt like a small fish in a big pond. Maybe I felt the judgement of you quit your day job to what?! Or maybe it's the way I'm raised but I cannot shamelessly self-promote. It's just not natural for me. If someone told me my dress was cute, I would just smile and say thanks instead of "OH YEAH! It's from my shop! Here's my business card!"
But I think you have to do a little self-promotion, whether you like it or not. As a business owner, especially now in a world where social media is so big, you are your brand. I had never taken a selfie prior to starting my business and I started off writing nothing personal about myself. But social media has evolved. If you really sit and think about it, Instagram has changed the world we live in. I recently heard that there's talk of removing Narcissism from the spectrum of behavioral abnormalities (don't quote me...I'm not science-y so I probably didn't say that right) but if that's true, I definitely think selfies on Instagram have attributed something to that shift.
9) Build a strong support system
A HUGE key to success is your support system. This one threw me for a huge loop when I first started! I did not anticipate the emotional journey of the business. I was so focused on the business side of the business!
There will inevitably be ups and downs. Emotionally, this can be draining. Having a support system to keep you positive during those down times is so key. Also, having encouraging people around you helps you to unlock your potential and prevent you from holding yourself back.
Your support system can be your partner, family, friends, like-minded business owners, etc. You'll need to hear that emphatic "YOU GOT THIS!" from your believers to help you through tough times and remind you that you can do it.
(My sister Marisa Heung on set with me at a KITV Yelp Segment)
10) Think like you're big.
I used to think...when I get there, I'll do this or I'll work with these people..but I'm not there yet. After about a year, I told myself to get over it. I decided it's time to think bigger (but on my budget). This way of thinking really limited the business growth and stunting my ideas. I was letting myself take the easy way out because I was scared to put myself out there.
Once I finally got over it, I just started to go after projects that made me happy and made me feel satisfied with the way I accomplished them. I think it really helped me to unlock my brain and let the ideas really flow! This is how our workshops, events and collaborations started out!
The collaborations I started doing with other companies were eye-opening! Whether it was a giveaway contest, a photoshoot collaboration or a product collaboration, I think they worked so well because they are based off of genuine relationships and it showed. Collaborating is still one of my favorite things to do.
(Ashley Rose Collaboration - modeled by Terri and Riley Kaino)