By Maja Svensson, Fashion Entrepreneur & Founder, ELSA AND ME
I've got an important anniversary coming up. In January, I will have officially been running my own business for three consecutive years. I've been working full-time on my company, ELSA AND ME, since leaving my corporate gig for good in December 2011. Last year at this time -- my second year in business and the beginning of this year -- was most likely the toughest time since launch and it taught me a lot, not only about running a business, but also about myself. Before I embark on another year, and the next phase of growing my business, I wanted to take some time to share some things that I think would be invaluable for anyone in the middle of launching a company, about to start a business or even just thinking of striking out on their own.
So, here are a few of the lessons I have learned about entrepreneurship through running a fashion business in New York.
Lesson 1: Anyone Can Be an Entrepreneur
You don't have to look a certain way, dress in a particular style or have a special skillset to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship at its core is about knowing (1) who you are, (2) what you are good at and (3) what keeps you motivated. Although having a little bit of a nerve for risk-taking is a good thing, you can work your way to owning a business through the help of others that have the skill-sets and personality traits you don't. That's the wonderful thing about entrepreneurship. You can make a business that works for you, with the extra benefit of also being able to create a work culture that you enjoy! All this without going to business school.
Lesson 2: Persistence, Passion, and Patience
Although anyone can be an entrepreneur, there are essential attributes often used to describe entrepreneurs who become successful. Studies show those who are persistent and don't give up are more likely to succeed than those who quit (naturally). This doesn't mean you blindly continue doing something that isn't working, but that you learn from your mistakes, make the necessary corrections and continue. Successful entrepreneurs haven't always been successful; everyone goes through dreadful times, and in the end success is ALWAYS a measure on how well you dealt with failure.
To be persistent, you need passion, meaning that you actually have to enjoy what you are doing. Passion is what keeps you motivated, and makes sure that you don't quit when everyone else would throw in the towel. It's not always clear in the beginning what might turn into a passion. I started a clothing business and I have always been passionate about women's issues, and I ended up with a women's clothing business that had my clients' say the dress they ordered made them feel powerful at work. That feedback is what kept me going; an opportunity to combine my hidden talent for clothing design with my passion for women in business.
With passion, persistence and lastly patience, I believe anyone can last the first 10 years it takes to become an "overnight success." Through media we are fed stories of success, and it can sometimes be portrayed as if it just happened. Nothing ever happens overnight, which is why patience is key. All companies out there carry a lot of hard work under their belt, it does not matter how glamorous it looks in the New York Times. Success takes a lot of failures, ups and downs, and is all about the journey rather than the end goal. So make it enjoyable.
Lesson 3: You Don't Need a Great Idea to Get Started
To get started, you don't need a great idea. Many would-be entrepreneurs get stuck in the phase of trying to find a unique product or service that don't already exist. The thing is that innovation more often happens after you've gotten your first clients, not before you've launched. In my opinion, a business is 1% the idea and 99% the execution; the way you are doing something, and that you're actually able to deliver the product you created. Start with finding a product or service that you like and that you use, and make it (or how it's made) better. Ideas and innovation aren't always about starting something new, but about changing the way something old is done.
Lesson 4: You Don't Need to Write a Business Plan Right Away
First off, a reminder on that this is in relation to the start-up phase. A strategy, or better researched action plan of some sort, does need to happen at a certain stage, but please don't let this planning happen before you've even put your product/service on the market. Without any customers, and their feedback you won't know anything about how your product/service will be perceived, therefore, stop the planning and start the execution as soon as possible. There is no such thing as a perfect product, plan or time to launch; get your business out there so that you can get going. There is nothing worse than to put time into writing a business plan and then never end up actually launching a business.
Lesson 5: You Do Need to Know Your Finances and Set Financial Goals
I learned this the hard way. As much as going with the flow is important in the first phase of launching a business, you do need to be up-to-date from the beginning on what it costs to produce your product, the price that you should therefore charge your customers and eventually what costs there are to running your business (rent, labor, bookkeeping, subscriptions, marketing material, etc), and make sure to find an easy way to keep track. If this is not your thing, find something (or someone) that can do it for you.
Knowing your numbers will not only be crucial for your business to grow, it will also make you more attractive to lenders, investors and your future self. Make it a priority to set financials goals on where you want to be this year, and/or next, and know the amount of salary you would optimally like to take out for yourself, if not this year, in the near future. For some of you, this comes naturally, but make sure you work towards a financial goal, as high as you'd like, in order for you to know what's required of your business to get there.