I Failed but Here’s What I Learned
First tries don’t always make you successful, but they give you lots of practice for the second take. Back in 2016, I left my job as a bank teller to branch off and build my own business. After giving 5 years of my life to the company, I decided it was too monotonous and boring, and didn’t challenge me at all. I was ready for something new and exciting. Behind the scenes, I had been building a course I’d eventually use when opening my music studio to teach kids guitar and ukulele lessons. One afternoon while it was slow at the bank, I scribbled on the back of a receipt how many lessons I’d have to teach to make up my current income. Since I made roughly $25,000 a year, it would be a relatively easy income to supplement…
Or so I thought.
I had never built anything before. I knew nothing about marketing, gaining new traction, building a website, or creating a successful business that thrives. I was an amateur with big intentions, but I believed in myself. If I had the opportunity to break out and build something, I knew I could get it right eventually.
Luckily for me, that mindset kept me going when no one was busting down my door begging me to give their kids guitar lessons. But I wouldn’t take back all the valuable lessons I learned while diving into unfamiliar territory.
My wife and I ran through the logistics of taking a pay cut, before giving me the green light to put in my notice. The only rule…if we couldn’t pay our bills or feed our kids, I would need to find a part-time job to make up the difference. She would stay working her 9–5 for a maximum of ten years to give me the best opportunity at chasing my wild dreams. I felt liberated and full of life.
Here’s what I learned along the way after planning, but eventually failing at my first business venture.
First — Go for it
There is never going to be a perfect time to get started. Too often I hear people waiting around for fear of failure and lack of time. They make excuses, like not enough money, not enough time, and not sure where or how to get started, but that’s just it…all these things are only excuses. You either want to do this thing or you don’t, but waiting around won’t fix the real issue…you’re afraid of failing and looking embarrassed. It’s easier to hide behind the dream than it is to execute the game plan. There’s a really great speech from Theodore Roosevelt that sums up how to handle the critic and get on with your big-ass dreams.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Second — Don’t Get Stuck In Design
Everyone wants to spend the first month working on their logo, print materials, website, and social media account. You know why? Because it’s a great way to avoid the real work of ACTUALLY building your business. These things are nice, but they don’t make or break your business in the beginning. No one cares about your logo as much as you do. They want clear and concise information on your product or service, and an easy way to contact you to learn more, sign up, or make a purchase. Don’t get caught in the never-ending cycle of avoiding what you really need to do to grow your business. You’ll waste valuable time that could have been spent finding new clients or growing your relationship with current clients.
Third — Work for Free
What? You are building a business, and I’m asking you to work for free? Absolutely. I finalized my 8-week beginner guitar course by testing it out and working out the kinks on a free class for my friends’ kids. I did the same thing again when I opened a video production company by offering free videos to local businesses to build my portfolio. I gained a long time paying client from it and also had a whole portfolio of work to display for paying customers.
Don’t get caught in the idea that you’re too good to work for free in the beginning. You might need the practice or experience to build up your reputation in the community. Take advantage of this opportunity! You would rather have mess-ups and kinks worked out on a customer who knows they are getting a product for free than one who expects top-notch quality work and doesn’t get it. This isn’t a death sentence, you don’t have to work for free forever.
Fourth — Get Creative with Your Marketing
I was on a budget, and marketing my new business was the hardest part. I had to build an entire reputation and let people know my new studio existed. While word of mouth works well in a smaller community, you need your first few sign-ups to get the ball rolling! I made fliers and then split my family up at the baseball fields to put them on the window of every car in the parking lot. We’d do the same thing at Wal-Mart. I posted all over the classifieds on Facebook multiple times leading up to a new class. I made a massive banner that I got printed and hung along my fence that said “Guitar Lessons for Kids”. People still call me to this day and mention that banner.
But I had to get creative with how to market the business because I didn’t have much of a marketing budget to run ads and gain traction. Sometimes it felt embarrassing or uncomfortable to put fliers on the window of every car in the parking lot, but it helped people learn about my music studio, and that’s exactly what I needed it to do.
Fifth — Pivot
Sometimes things will work, and sometimes they won’t. Don’t get stuck on an idea for so long that you bring the whole business down with it. It’s important to test and make changes along the way. I’d start a new class, and if it wasn’t working after a specific period of time, I would close it down. If it was sucking time and resources for too long without any or little return on investment, then it was time to make a change or get rid of it. At one point, I offered an open studio on Fridays, but after a month of only a handful of kids showing up, I had to let it go. It was hard to admit defeat.
Now that I’m more experienced in marketing and growth, I know that part of my business just wasn’t marketed correctly. I didn’t give it long enough to get off the ground. A month is not enough time for a whole community to get to know and love something. If I had to do it again, I would get more creative with my marketing on this aspect of my business and let it ride longer.
Sixth — Burnout is real
The excitement and fulfillment you had in the beginning? It won’t always feel that way, and that’s okay. Some days it will feel just like work, reminding you of the job you once left behind. Strap your boots on tight for the moments when it begins to feel like you made a mistake because that moment will come. You will question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You will want to throw in a towel. You will remember how nice it was to leave work without having to answer emails at 10 pm. And it will suck when you have to work Saturday while your family goes on vacation without you. Your new business will ask a lot of you, so be prepared.
Seventh — Take A Vacation
The first thing people think about a business owner is that they’re rich, and the second is that they can take a vacation whenever. Both assumptions are not necessarily true, especially for a brand new business owner. We’re giving 18 hour days 7 days a week and struggling with managing a new business venture. But taking a vacation is IMPORTANT. Trust me. And don’t work while you are away. I know it will be hard to step away, but your mental health will need it to come back fresh so you can keep trekking along.
Eighth — You Don’t Need Every Program or Subscription
There are so many subscription-based programs that offer to simplify your workflow and make life a little easier. Only get what you ABSOLUTELY need, and don’t be afraid to shop around. You might be surprised at what you can find out there. If your business isn’t making money yet, you don’t have the resources to commit to all these different subscriptions. $25 a month doesn’t seem like much, but when you multiply that by 6, you have a pretty big monthly commitment for no reoccurring income.
Use free options for a while, there are tons of them out there.
Ninth — Set Up Systems
Do not skimp on this. Set up systems and get your business out of your head immediately. You may not have the resources to expand and hire right now, but eventually, you will. You don’t want to wait until you’re already so swamped and in over your head before you try to train a new employee off scattered tasks and to-do lists to lighten your load. It sets them up for failure, and it sets your business up for failure. Create your SOPs so when it’s time to scale your business, you’re already ahead of the game. And remember, systems are meant to change over time as you dial in your workflow, so don’t forget to update them as you go.
Tenth — Increase Your Prices
Don’t be afraid to raise your prices after a while. If you are in business for five years, you should not be charging the same thing you did when first opening your doors. I was so afraid to raise my prices in both this business and my current business, but ultimately the only person who suffered from this was me. I was bitter because I wasn’t making enough money, but refused to raise prices to the current market. Eventually, this forced me to close my doors with a bruised ego and resentment.
Don’t be me — raise your fuckin’ prices! Don’t be afraid to value your time and work. And the truth is, I once had a potential client not want to work with me because he assumed I was too amateurish because my prices were so much lower than other quotes he received for the same project. I don’t know about you, but if I can make an additional $1,000 on a project and someone thinks I’m a professional for the same exact work, then count me in.
Failing at my first business was a hard pill to swallow. It beat me up and bruised my ego, and was hard to move on from, but it also taught me so much and prepared me for my next venture. Without my first business and its failures, I would not have been successful in the next chapter of my life. Sometimes you need things to go wrong, so the next thing can go right.