In the beginning, my friend, Ramona, and I wanted to buy jigsaw puzzles for the summer literacy program at our church. We went to the toy store together, walking up separate aisles to see what we could find. We saw puzzles featuring cartoon characters, but not puzzles that build character and cultural awareness. We got to the end of the aisle, amazed at how little there was to choose from. “We ought to make puzzles,” Ramona and I said at almost the same time. A light went on. Village Works Enterprises was born. We learned a lot over the years, but if we had it to do all over again, here are five things we would have done differently:
1 - Don’t spend. Invest.
When you are starting out, unless money is not an issue for you, you are going to try to do everything by bootstrap methods – do-it-yourself website; printing your own materials; guerilla marketing; etc. Often this is a necessity and we certainly learned our own strengths doing things this way. But we also learned our weaknesses and the things we plain hate to do. Our time is better invested doing the things we love and the things we do well, not necessarily one in the same. The fact is you are going to spend money eventually. It may be a slow, steady stream of cash because the idea of putting down a couple of thousand on a website gives you the shakes. But consider the time it will take you to, for instance, build that site yourself and maintain it. There may be a learning curve you have to overcome before you can even get to the nitty-gritty of the thing. Think of what you can do yourself, what you want to do, and the time you have available. Will this project be worth your time? Can you delegate any of it? Before you spend that first dime or your time, make a plan with as much details as possible, then get help. A virtual assistant, bookkeeper, lawyer - it’s worth the money getting the expertise of people who already do what you need exclusively.
And while you are getting that help, our experience is that the more established, the better. That's not to say that we discourage working with solopreneurs. Instead, you want to be sure that whomever you choose to go with is someone who can deliver. You have enough on your plate without having to micromanage the people who are supposed to be the experts.
2 - Get Help.
Bottom line – don’t go it alone. In our case, we started this business with two people as well as friends and family who had the professional skills we needed to get going. Technically we were not alone. I could go on and on about the benefits of having a business partner, despite what conventional “wisdom” tells you, but that’s another article. Instead, by not going it alone, I mean work with people and businesses that can help you grow. Some businesses are not necessarily competition. Maybe they offer something your business does not, but your target markets are the same. Try to synergize. You may be able to delegate some things to your new “partner;” learn some new tricks from the bigger dog; or team up with someone your size and double your efforts.
Other help worth seeking is that of a counselor – business, marketing, PR, or otherwise. These are the people who can be impartial and help you grow, a sometimes tricky hurdle to overcome when you are emotionally and otherwise invested in your “baby.” Being part of a business coaching group has been very motivational for me and it has helped me to focus. It can be easy to get distracted by the myriad of things a business owner must do. Just like investing in help “in” your business, it’s worth investing in help “on” your business.
3 – Leave home.
Our experience has proven that our target market was not many of the people in our immediate purview. Before we gained that experience, however, we wanted to test things in our own “back yard.” We wanted to see what our community thought of our product and its price. They loved the greeting card puzzle we had developed. Most had never seen one before or not one like ours in a really long time. Most also balked at the price. Even after explaining what went into the product, price was still a problem for them. This was not our target market. We moved on.
Your own back yard may be the best place for you. Then again, maybe not. Don’t be easily swayed, however. Look at the competition to see what they are charging. Are you pricing yourself out of the market or could it be you are simply not in front of the right people? Know your value. Don’t give your product or service away. The people you THINK are your market may not be and you may waste time trying to appeal to the wrong people. If you aren’t sure who your target market is, consider who IS responding to you. Do they have anything in common? Is this going to be enough for you to be profitable?
You may need to leave the comforts of home literally and figuratively in order to find your place in the business world.
4 – Keep an eye on the customers.
From the very first customer, you want to think big. Start with great customer service whether you are fully operational or not. Think about the experience you want them to have that will have them telling others about you in a good way. If you don’t, they may be telling others about you in a bad way before you really get going. Create a system that will allow you to always give the same level of service no matter how many clients you have, no matter who is serving the client. We failed to have a system from the very beginning so we often found ourselves being reactive to every request that came in, essentially re-creating the wheel every time. We have since developed a customer contact system. A spreadsheet tracks all these and on it we track names, addresses, emails, phone numbers, project information and whatever else we can think of. Eventually we’ll even add birthdays! I can’t say we’ve worked out all the kinks because this is still a work in progress for us, but we no longer feel so scattered when someone requests info.
5 – Get confident.
Believe it or not, it was an older, white, retired man – could not be more our opposite - who had more confidence in us in the beginning than we had in ourselves. Ramona and I were both first-time mothers and didn’t even realize we had to get our mothering ways in check. We had to step up our professionalism, he said, and by the way, we had an excellent product to boot! Now, this is not to say that motherhood and professionalism cannot coexist. But sometimes, a mother may be a little too flexible about some things, too understanding, too accommodating.
Back to price, Ramona and I struggled for a long time with the pricing of our product. We knew we had something fun and unique. It was charging with confidence that tripped us up. We were being as fair as we could yet that little nagging voice, “There has to be a better way to produce our product,” pushed us until we found a hidden gem literally in our own neighborhood. (Sometimes, your back yard IS the place to find what you need.) Now, we have two hidden gems that allow us to produce a quality product at a fair price for everyone, and Ramona and I can tell you that with confidence.
Do what you need to do in order to be confident in your product or service. That is, is the product the best it can be? Are you proud of all aspects of it? If one aspect is bugging you, it will show, so fix it.
I often wonder where we would be right now if we had known then what we know now. Actually, some of these things we did know – as I’m sure you do too – but we chose not to do it at that time. Nonetheless, our experiences did shape us and our company, and we are ready to heed our own advice and take our business to another level. See you there!