It’s been seven years since I started my business and twenty years since I started working as a professional designer. Even though I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I never could have imagined the lessons I would learn from the experience. From the very beginning, I had a clear vision of my brand and I created a body of work that coincided with the brand message. I was equipped with networking skills and a personable demeanor; I practiced humility and spoke about my accomplishments with confidence. For many years, I studied the industry, knew all of the key players, identified a target market, secured manufacturers and was eager to bring my collections to market. We debuted at a trade show in Miami and instantly received media attention in top design magazines: Interior Design, Hospitality Design and New York Magazine, to name a few. After the first tradeshow, I attended every design event imaginable and introduced myself to as many designers as possible. Even though the economy was down, I figured that I would work hard and my efforts would eventually pay off. My company successfully completed many national and international projects: Chatsworth Luxury Residences, the Baystone Hotel in Mauritius, Saks Fifth Avenue and many more. And with all of these successful projects, I learned so many valuable lessons about life and business. Now I’d like to share five lessons with you in hopes of inspiring you on your own entrepreneurial journey.
- Partner with visionaries.
Most people don’t know this, but when I started my business I brought on a partner to focus on sales and marketing. We were friends and had worked together at a previous company. However, our partnership didn’t last long because we had different visions for the business—in fact, we ultimately needed an arbitrator to settle our differences. And once the business dissolved, so did our friendship. The lesson here is to be careful about the people you bring into your business, especially if you are thinking about joining forces with friends. If you are considering a partner, make sure you are clear about their role, financial contribution and the day-to-day operations. Consult with an attorney to finalize your partnership agreement and have an exit strategy in place in case the partnership doesn’t work out. My ex-business partner and I didn’t have a formal agreement drafted by an attorney, but a pre-printed agreement from Staples. This is something I would never do again. And if you are a designer and your name is also the name of the company, make sure that you own the rights to your name—I made sure of this for my business. The bottom line is that people change and you cannot control anyone’s actions but your own. So from the beginning, make sure to protect yourself and your business before you start a partnership. Similarly, make sure not to take any shortcuts.
Lesson: Only partner with people who share your vision, and definitely invest in protecting yourself.
- Don’t be an island. Create a team so you can grow!
Even though I started my business as a solo entrepreneur, and eventually brought on a partner who didn’t last long, I soon realized that I still needed to have a team in order to grow my business. I handled a lot of the day-to-day operations, plus all of the creative stuff, marketing, production and sales; it was a lot for one person to manage. Even though I knew I couldn’t afford to hire someone full-time, I created a list of the team members I needed (including job descriptions) so that once I was ready to hire other people, I would know exactly who I was looking for. In the meantime, I hired people on a project-to-project basis. If I were to do it all over again, I would have made the sacrifice to hire an assistant for the day-to-day operations of my business.
Lesson: Be prepared to hire a team to help grow your business. Managing everything on your own is way too much for one person to handle.
- Know your numbers.
When I first started my business, I really didn’t have any special software to manage my books—and I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. The idea of using accounting software such as QuickBooks always intimidated me. The real issue was that I didn’t want to see how much I was spending, and I preferred to simply collect the money I was making in order to pay my bills. Two years into my business, I finally invested in QuickBooks. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to use! It has totally changed the way I handle my finances. Investing in the software not only made managing orders and creating invoices easier than ever, but it also simplified the bookkeeping process for my accountant. Now I review my books on a regular basis, and the information helps me analyze which products are performing better than others. That way I can make informed decisions on how to grow.
Lesson: Invest in accounting software such as QuickBooks or Fresh Books in order to manage your books.
- Stay true to your brand.
From the beginning, my collections have always celebrated the people, places and experiences of our global community. My designs are pictorial, graphic, colorful and are not the standard choice for carpets, wallpaper and tiles. Before I started my business, I understood that my design aesthetic would not appeal to everyone, but I didn’t care because my purpose was to create work that would inspire others, and I wanted to stay true to my soul. One time I created a collection that was much more trendy, and the designs were colorless, minimalistic and not in sync with my brand mission. Guess what? I didn’t sell any of those designs, and later, I got rid of the entire collection.
Lesson: Be yourself and stay true to your brand mission and purpose.
- Be flexible and pay attention to your market.
When I started my business, I had the idea of creating a lifestyle brand to inspire people to be worldly and live boldly. Hence, I expanded my collections to include wallpaper, tiles and other accessories. I continued to focus on the “high-end interior design” market. However, as I expanded into new product categories, I realized I was targeting a market that didn’t coincide with my own lifestyle and social media fans. Once I made the connection, I decided to make a shift. We created an ecommerce website featuring products to suit the price point of online shoppers. Now anyone can go online and shop our collections.
Lesson: Have multiple target markets and create products to suit each one.
There are, of course, many more lessons I’ve learned and continue to learn. Whether you are in the beginning stages of your company or a seasoned entrepreneur, these lessons can apply to any point in your journey. I hope that they will inspire you. Of course, the lessons continue to appear, but that’s simply a part of life. And with every lesson, do what you can to learn quickly so that you don’t have to experience it again. Happy creating!
*This is a guest post by Malene Barnett.*