My Advice on Starting a Small Business
Now that it’s been 5 years in business, more people are regularly asking me, “How did you start your business?” “Was it easy?” “Did you have to give up a lot in order to take this leap?” “How did you know what to do?” “Was the timing right?” “Were you scared?” “How did you know how to build a business?”
My response typically goes something like this: No, it was not an easy decision, I had no idea what I was doing, I was scared shitless, the timing was horrible, and I’m still learning and growing each day in how to build my business. Everyday, I and my business are a work in progress.
Starting my business was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make because it forced me to have to face some of my deep fears and insecurities. It required me to look in the mirror and see what things I held onto to define myself, to understand the world, and it required that I make some very big choices. I had a comfortable, well-paying job that allowed me security and financial freedom, something that starting a business would not afford, at least not immediately. I had a paved position and I had a boss that provided me direction and guidance in my role. I had paid vacation, I had retirement, I had health insurance. Simply put, there was an outline and clear trajectory of my career path. And I found that security to be very comfortable because it was predictable, reliable, easy to see and understand, and most importantly, it was known. It was established, and I knew what to expect.
So why did I want to leave the path of comfort? Why did I trade in and trade up for a career path in jewelry? Because deep down, my soul was dying.. My creativity was dried up, and I was a corpse of a human at times,traveling 240 days a year internationally. I had zero work/life balance. It took me having a crying-in-the-streets of Denmark moment at Christmas to realize that something had to change. It took me pure and complete exhaustion at following my head’s direction in order for me to even realize that my heart’s guide was even a thing. So, I decided to let it all fall. I decided to leave consulting. I decided that I would rather give up a life of security, financial predictability, and all that was comfortable and predictable in order to have more career fulfillment, more creativity, more passion, more clear understanding of a company mission, and more control of my happiness.
In 2013, my leap into Abby Sparks Designs(it later evolved to Abby Sparks Jewelry for the sake of clarifying that I design jewelry and not, in fact, home decor) was not easy. Only a year prior I had graduated with a masters degree and a substantial amount of debt. In 2013, I had taken another consulting position with a new firm and had only been there a few months before deciding that I needed to quit consulting once and for all. I had been doing consulting at the same time as taking on only a few jewelry clients at a time. However, the balance between the two started really taking a toll on me and at one point, I went months on end sleeping only 2-3 hours per night in order to work both jobs. At this point of exhaustion, and nearly crazed from sleep deprivation, my father pulled me aside and asked me a very impactful question. He said “Hun, I have watched you run yourself into the ground for the last six months and I can no longer hold my tongue on this. You need to decide the life and future you want, right now, before you end up collapsing from exhaustion. You can’t do two things to your best ability, and since knowing you, you have never once accepted second as best. So decide what you can give up. One has to go- is it consulting or is it jewelry?” And what he said next floored me since my dad is not the ‘feely’ type AT all. “Which one is your heart not willing to let go of?”
It was difficult for me to answer what I wanted because my mind was in the way, but by asking me what I was not willing to let go of….yeah, that I knew. I knew that day that I was going to quit consulting immediately. I knew that not because I wanted to give up consulting and the security it offered (because I didn’t. I wanted the safety and security of a known career path). But only when we are asked to give up that thing do we truly know our hearts desire for that thing… And so in knowing that I was absolutely not willing and not OK with giving up my jewelry dream did I realize my path, and did I realize what I truly wanted and needed.
And how did I reconcile the disparate path between what my heart wanted (jewelry) and what my head was clinging onto (consulting)? I decided. I DECIDED. I just decided what i would allow and surrender to in order to follow my path. In order for me to take a leap and be ok with the life of risk and complete lack of security and comfort, I had to become OK with the unknown, OK with a path of mystery and unknown, OK with TBD. I had to look in the mirror and accept the worst case scenarios, for everything. Selling my home?up ok with it. Draining my savings?Yep ok with it. Floundering in the unknown of learning to be a business owner? Yep ok with it. Paying school loans off in 30 years not 10? YOK with it. And here’s what really drove home my “yup, OK with it’s: my father the sage said, “You have had an immense amount of apparent ‘success’ from doing something you don’t love. Just imagine the success you’ll have doing what you DO love.” And so the way that I was able to take my big leap is because I was willing to give it all up in order to build it back, all based on believing in myself and following my heart whispers. Really, it was then that I learned one of my biggest lessons- that you have to make your faith higher than your fear.
And so, with this, I’d like to share my biggest lessons learned since starting my business in the hopes that perhaps it will inspire you to take your own big leap.
- Make your faith higher than your fear. Only when you leap will the net appear. It’s universal law, not mine. You have to be OK with wandering into the dark abyss, the total unknown. Because that’s where the dream life is. If you let fear be the decision-maker, he’ll require that you give up dreaming. And someday you might wake up with big life regrets, to include a false sense of being “safe” in one or more aspects of life.
- If you let the “shoulds” run your life, you’ll soon run out of life. This is your life, not your mom’s. If you find yourself following someone else’s version of life, you’re likely in your head about what you think you “should” or “should not” do on your path. If you are currently on or have been on the “shoulds” path for some time on career or other, you’re going to feel weighed down, tired, uninspired, almost robotic at some point. Following a path of your heart will become imminent, and you don’t want to run out of life time by the time the imminence arrives. This is your life, so do it your way. There are no rules, and move away from those that tell you that their way is best. They don’t know the powerful You that is inside.
- You don’t need a perfect business plan, you just need YOUR plan. I have a fancy grad degree, MBA, and I know how to write a business plan, but you don’t always need that. Don’t let what you don’t know keep you from your path. Learn what you need, every day. And ASK for help guidance from those around you when you hit an impasse.
- Be unyielding with your plan. When you decide you want to do something, make it non-negotiable. You’re going to hit roadblock after roadblock. It’s normal! Also, many people, family and friends included, will want you to yield to their plan for you. And they’ll say it’s because they care about you and love you. They’re not wrong. But only you know your plan, and that’s the plan you have to stay on, regardless of others’ approval or permission.
- Follow your heart. It’s the navigational guide to your soul’s deeper path. If you can do this, and if you can be present, then you’ll find your bliss along the path of building a business no matter what life throws your way. Some things the heart is very loud about, but more often than not, we follow our head and not our heart in the name of “shoulds” and fears. Be quiet and learn to meditate (listen!) because sometimes the heart is only faintly whispering on the really big things.
- There is no good time. Did I mention that I got pregnant exactly one year after starting my business? And I had no partner. I suddenly became the hustling pregnant single lady. From day 1 I was a single mom, and to date, still am. There is NO good time, people!
- Life will always test you. Never go back, dig in more. The minute I found out that I was pregnant and partnerless, every cell in my body panicked. I desperately felt the need for security and a more “safe”, dependable, and reliable career path. It’s almost as if life really, really, really wanted to test my resolve for my plan. It took literally every fiber of my being and faith (see #1) to stay my course. And when you have no security and a baby on the way or a toddler to raise on your own, boy do you know how to dig in. Work hard, work smart, and have faith.
- It’s never easy. To expect “easy” is your problem. All the good, juicy, magical, worth-a-damn things in life are REALLY hard. Building a business is top of the list. It’s not easy when you start and it’s not easy five years in. To expect “easy” at any point is just silly. Change your expectations and then it can be fun because you aren’t attached to wanting the experience to be something that it’s not, and that it never will be. Surrender and lean in.
- You must have a team. If you want to grow your business, more heads are always better than one, so you must hire people. And I mean, full-timers. You need people that have skin in the game. And you need to have skin in the game. It was easy for me to not pay myself, but shit got real when I started hiring people. And you’ll never have the money you want to feel comfortable hiring people. It will always be a stretch if you are self-funded, so lose your expectation of hiring being comfortable, financially or otherwise.
- You must make risk a good friend. You have got to be OK with discomfort and risk if you’re going to have your own business. Because there is no path, there is no “right” way; there is only what you decide is your way, what you create. You are your everything, and you’re the one that is responsible and accountable for it all. Owning a business means that EVERY SINGLE DAY you take financial, operational, reputational, relational, you name it, it happens, really BIG leaps every day. So befriend risk. Try to enjoy walking the plank every day because that’s what you signed up for. Decide to enjoy the ride.
And this last one is a bonus, as it is not my own. It comes from a mentor/friend/alum/client of mine. In my first year of business, he told me that you have to have 3 things in order to be truly successful in your ’thing’ being a career:
- You must be really good at it.
- You must love what you do.
- You must make money.
You must have all three to really have your ‘thing’ be a viable option.
You can be really good at something and love what you do, but if you don’t make money, then you’ll be hard pressed because you gotta eat and have a roof over your head. 1 and 2 without 3 is better left to hobbies.
You can love what you do and make great money, but if you’re not really good at it, eventually people won’t come to you because they’ll go to the person that is better at your “thing” than you are.
You can be really good at something and make great money, but in time, if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll keep seeking the next big thing. Your heart and soul will require it because you won’t feel fulfilled.
Do not dream half a dream. Do not believe in half truths. Do not accept half a solution. Because you have to be all in if you want the whole dream. It’s been a glorious, hard AF last 5 years, and I cannot wait to see what the next 5 have in store. Bless the big leaps.