Just a few days ago (I don’t remember where I saw it) someone had posted the question “What would you tell your younger self?” I’m sure it was meant to inspire some deep thoughts, self-reflection and (possibly) to think about the mistakes that have been made in your personal life. But that wasn’t where my thoughts went. I’ve been a business owner for over half my life and I naturally went to the business side of “life lessons”.
I was 21 when I started my Advertising Specialties distributorship. Yes, way back then my industry was identified as Ad Specialties. When I think back to starting my own business at that age I often say I was too young to know better, but truth be told, I was just as determined, independent and unwilling to be told I “couldn’t” do something at that age as I am now.
While there have been a lot of ups and downs, stumbling blocks and hard lessons over the years, there have been substantially more triumphs, successes and opportunities to grow. Here are a few things I’ve learned through the years:
- Be assertive, but professional. The first industry trade show I ever attended was in 1992 in Dallas. I was young, female, blonde, southern (my Momma tried to raise me to be nice. It didn’t stick). The industry as a whole was old and male. I could walk into a booth and not one single supplier would acknowledge me. Other distributors would walk right in front of me. Suppliers would literally look over my head and speak to the old guy behind me. I was furious. I wanted to give someone a piece of my mind. But literally giving one old guy out of a sea of 1000’s a “stern talking to” would have been futile. So I took a second and regrouped. The next booth I walked into was a supplier I had used frequently. I had a specific question and approached the rep and asked it. He mostly answered it and started to walk away. I “mostly” said nicely, “I wasn’t done. I have a couple more questions before you move on.” The shocked look on his face at being called out almost made me giggle. But the fact that he then paid attention to me and answered all my questions gave me the confidence to get through the rest of the show by not standing in the shadows, not waiting for someone to notice me and offer assistance. I walked into every booth after that and wasn’t hesitant to ask all the questions I wanted. It wasn’t always easy and I certainly had a lot of old men ignore me- at that show and for a few more years. I was still just as frustrated, but the lesson I learned is that just waiting for someone to notice you isn’t enough. I was there for the same reason all those old men were. And there was no reason I wasn’t going to expect the same attention and respect.
- Prove yourself. I know, it sounds totally contradictory after the last statement. As a business owner, you have to know your product, the limitations, options- all of it. If you want to stay in business with an excellent reputation leave everything you can about your products and prove that you know what you are doing. Don’t over promise- know what your client needs, what they want to achieve, what their goal it, how they are going to use the product or service, then recommend the best option. Not the one that is going to make you the most money, not the one you need to move from inventory. The one that will be BEST for the client. And if you aren’t sure, ask questions- to the manufacturer, to others in your industry. Learn everything you can so you can better help your clients. Prove to them that you are the best resource for their needs.
- Keep Learning. Attend trade shows in your industry, take classes (a wide variety, not just on how to sell or motivational talks), talk to your clients after they have used your product to learn how it worked for them. Join a mastermind group or a business round table. Have conversations with people. There are so many opportunities to continue to learn. Take advantage of every one that you can- make the time. My theory is that even if you only gain one or two nuggets of knowledge out of each session or conversation that is useful to you or your business, it is well worth the time.
- Clients are NOT always right. Man, this is a hard one. It is hard to take a stand when you really want the business. While you should always listen to a client’s complaint with an open mind, you don’t always have to agree with them. My much younger self had a client call me yelling about his order. And I mean yelling. It was my first experience with that type of reaction and I was pretty shocked. I managed to keep calm. Thankfully I had documented the entire process and had faxed (yes, it was a long time ago) all the details to him the week before. I pointed this out to him and he was still angry. I told him I would be in his office in 2 days with his order (exactly on schedule). When I showed up I was polite but distant. He asked if I was mad at him. I replied that yes, I was. I politely told him that I assume he had been having a bad day, but that if he ever talked to me like that again that he would need to go elsewhere, that I wasn’t going to tolerate it. He was shocked for a second that I had stood up to him, but we had the best working relationship after that. He became one of my favorite clients. Knowing when to listen and when to take a stand takes a lot of discipline. No one wants to be wrong. Don’t take a clients anger or issues personally. Step back and see if their complaint is legitimate- if you were in their shoes would you be upset? If it is, acknowledge it and make the situation right. If it isn’t, it is ok to take a stand- just remember to keep it professional and keep your anger in control.
- Trust Your Gut. Learning to differentiate between what you want and what your gut is telling you can be really difficult. I’ve never regretted a decision I made when I went with my gut feeling. Maybe things would have worked out, the deal would have been good, the order wasn’t bogus, but I didn’t have to lose sleep, money or be stressed out when it went bad.
- Make friends in your industry- even with your competitors. Yeah, this might occasionally bite you, but in my mind there is enough business to go around. While I wouldn’t share all my business secrets or hand over a client list, they deal with the same issues and challenges you do every day. Commiserate with them, swap ideas, share lunch once in a while, make a point to meet up at conventions. I’ve gained two books of business by making “friends with the enemy”. We are all in this together. But also see #5, because this isn’t a blanket statement for everyone you meet.
- Work to live, don’t live to work. I love what I do. Really love it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And starting out in business, I focused on work all the time. When business was slow or I was having a slump it seemed like I had to focus on it even more. There were (seemingly) years where all I did was work, eat and sleep. No matter how much I love what I do, that is too much. I could easily get up in the morning and go straight to work. Thankfully my dogs don’t allow that. They get me out of the house for a nice long walk every morning. Make sure you set time aside for yourself, family, friends, hobbies, and whatever you enjoy. Even if it is only an hour a day when you are busy or one night a week. Remember that the world will not stop because you waited an hour to respond to an email. Make time. Take time. Enjoy work AND life.
- Do the worst thing first. You know that task you really need to do, but dread more than anything in the world? The one you are losing sleep over, the one that you can’t get out of your mind? Just do it. Make it your first task of the day and get it over with. I spent so many days procrastinating until I heard this suggestion (probably in an education session) and it clicked with me. Whatever it is, you are probably either making it worse by putting it off or the reality of dealing with it is going to be much easier than what you have in your head.
- You are going to screw up. Frequently. Big, small, it happens. You are the only person that expects you to be perfect. Own your own mistakes. Admitting your mistakes to yourself and others can help you grow. Don’t pretend you are perfect and certainly don’t blame your mistakes on someone else- that will bite you in the ass in more ways than you can imagine.
- Adapt & Reinvent. I can’t even begin to list all the changes in my business structures over the years. When I start thinking about it, it is truly staggering. I’ve had highs and lows. I’ve won great accounts and I’ve lost great accounts. But I’ve always been open to change. At no point have I ever thought “that’s the way I’ve always done it so I’m going to keep doing it that way.” Hell no. Show me something better, easier, more productive, forward thinking and I’m all over it. Be curious, try new things and be open to change.
What would you tell your younger self?