Lessons I learned from my failed first business

5 lessons learned from my failed first business

You can bet there was a lot of procrastinating going while I was writing this post. After all, it’s not easy to admit that something you worked on has failed, and it’s especially hard when that something was a dream you’d poured your heart and soul into for over 4 years.

But while this particular dream didn’t work out, I learnt so many important lessons from the experience that I just had to share some of them with you too!

I’m going to preface this by saying that it’s a long post and I am in no way a small business expert (obviously, since my first one went bottoms up). But I’m hoping my stories will help you avoid making the same mistakes if you ever happen to start a business… and they might be interesting for anyone who wants to know a little about my life before Make and Tell. 😉

LESSON #1 – JUST MAKE A START

Like many small business owners, it all started with a passion that I wanted to turn into a full-time career. My hobby was paper-crafting, so I registered a business name and began the dream of running a bespoke paperie studio.

Well, sort of. Not really. If I’m honest, I began nothing for a long time, and only eventually got my butt into gear well over a year after I’d first paid my registration fees.

Why the hold up? I was too scared to take that first step. So much so that I always had an excuse at the ready for not getting started; I didn’t have time due to my day job, I didn’t know enough about small business, I didn’t have a proper website, I didn’t have a logo, I didn’t have any clients… the list goes on.

And while those are real barriers, I spent way too much time using them as a crutch when I could have been doing other things like researching my target market, creating a portfolio (even if it was only samples instead of client work), establishing a social media presence, building a community through a blog and networking with like-minded entrepreneurs.

All of those tasks would have helped pave the way for a steady stream of business later down the track, but instead I set myself back a year by spinning my wheels.

LESSON #2 – TRUST YOUR GUT

Gah, this one came round to bite me in the butt SO many times. Running a fledgling business, I was always worried about the amount of work coming through the door, so I’d sign up for crazy jobs to build my portfolio and bank balance. I’d take on clients that I knew were going to be difficult down the track, book work that didn’t at all match my design aesthetic and agree to deadlines that were completely unreasonable without charging a rush fee. I was doing this even after 3 years in business!

And sure, there’s a time and place to take on work that isn’t your cup of tea (we have to earn our keep after all), but it was often the case that I’d have a bad gut feeling about a project and I’d brush that feeling aside, mainly because I didn’t trust my own judgement. And without fail, I’d regret that decision down the track when the hours I’d invested and the tears I’d shed (ha, dramatic much?) didn’t in any way match the returns I received.

Since shutting up shop and starting this blog, I’ve learnt to pay close attention to that inner voice and to this day it’s never lead me astray.

5 lessons learned from my failed first business

LESSON #3 – VALUE YOUR WORTH

Okay if I was bad at Lesson #2, then I was an absolute stinker at Lesson #3. And truth be told, this is one that I still struggle with today.

As a self-taught designer, I’ve always had trouble charging appropriately for my work. Thoughts that run through my head when I’m quoting on a project run along the lines of ‘you don’t have an art degree, you haven’t learnt the theory, you’re not talented enough to fulfil the brief, you’re not as skilled as a trained designer’ yada yada yada.

The result of all that negative thinking? I undercharge. A lot.

Would you believe I used to design an entire bespoke wedding suite, from the save the dates all the way through to the thank-you cards (often 7 to 10 pieces of work) for as little as $150? As a point of reference, the designers I work with in my day job are billed out at more than that per hour.

I burnt out terribly because of this – I ended up taking on way more work than I should have to make ends meet because I was getting so little profit from each project. Although I still have issues around charging what I’m worth, I’m way better now than I was back then. Whew.

LESSON #4 – USE WHAT’S AVAILABLE

When I first set up my business (back in 2009), there was a wealth of tools available to make life as easy as possible for people just like me. All the regulars that I’m sure you’re familiar with were out in force – Etsy and Big Cartel were thriving marketplaces for selling designer/handmade wares; WordPress put affordable blog-type sites within easy reach of small biz owners and iPhones made it super simple to take and edit your own photos.

Did I use any of these amazing tools for the day-to-day running of my business? Ha, not a chance.

Why use the incredible free tools at hand when you can spend over $5K on an e-commerce website, $1K + on professional photos of your work and another $900 on business coaching? Let’s not forget the super expensive printer I bought, all the stationery I had printed and the hundred other things I thought it was smart to spend my money on at the time!

Seriously guys, I can’t even. While there are some things that are well worth investing in for a small business, it pays to be clever about where you spend your dollars because hey, money is finite. Looking back, there is SO much I paid for that I could have done without or done cheaper and smarter. I quite literally paid a very high price to learn this valuable lesson.

LESSON #5 – ASK FOR HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT

I’m going to state straight up that I am a proud person. I don’t like to let others know when I’m struggling, I hate asking for help and I’m afraid of other people negatively judging the decisions I’ve made in both my life and my work. But being a lone island in a confusing sea of business processes (I’m so poetic) is largely what went wrong in all the scenarios above don’t you think?

Pretty much all the lessons I learnt could have been avoided if I’d asked for advice from the very beginning. If I’d let someone I trusted take a look at what I was doing (or not doing) and they’d gone ‘awww hell no’, things may have worked out very differently.

Now I’m not saying that someone should go all ‘Big Brother’ on your business and watch your every move. But having a mentor or just a point of reference for when you’re uncertain (as we often are in small business!) can make all the difference.

AND IN THE END?

In the end, I took too long to learn some of the lessons above (especially #2 and #3) and it resulted in me burning out, losing enthusiasm for what had once been a passion and I eventually shut up shop.

But don’t leave yet! This isn’t a doom and gloom story – I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be here writing for you and sharing my hand crafted projects if it hadn’t been for my failed small business. Through that experience, I got to hone my design skills, I learnt lots of lessons that have been invaluable for setting up this blog, and I came to the realisation that DIY is what I loved doing best. I like to think of it as my training wheels; which I guess means I’m on a big-girl bike now… heaven help us all! 😉

xx Steph

ps. I’d love to hear about your experiences in small business and the lessons you’ve learnt along the way – leave me a note in the comments below!

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    • Hi Aida, I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling with some of the same things as I have in the past (and let’s be honest, I still struggle with them now too!) – it’s never fun to go through those kinds of stresses. Your Etsy store is beautiful and I hope you find a balance that works for you going forward – from what I can see, your’e killing it. xx

  • Wow, how honest…. thank you for sharing… and this couldn’t be more timely for me. Running your own business is hard…. but stepping away when its something you have put all your efforts into, and admitting that its just not going anywhere, or where you hoped it would is even tougher. I would love to chat further xx

    • Hi Kate, I’m so glad this post resonated with you – well, glad in the sense that it was timely, but sorry that you’re going through some of the same trials as I did. Running a business is seriously hard work and it can be deceptive in a way because outside observers only see the pretty photos and positive updates, and they think that everything’s going swimmingly when it’s often anything but! Your textiles are truly beautiful and I hope that, despite the stresses, things are on the up for your business… send me an email anytime if you’d like to chat further! xoxo

  • This was a great post. Even though this was probably difficult to write, thank you so much for doing it. Too often it seems like everyone else in the creativesphere is doing/has always had everything go 100% according to plan, so I admire your courage in writing this. Your positivity is inspiring, and I’m glad your path has led you towards blogging!

    • Aww Jeska, thank you! I know what you mean about feeling like everyone else has it all figured out – I feel like that all the time, especially when all you see on instagram are beautiful photos of seemingly perfect lives. But I’ve been fortunate to get to know a few fellow creatives on a more personal level and I’ve realised we all go through the same struggles; despite outside appearances it seems nobody’s life goes 100% according to plan!

  • I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for being so honest and candid! Running a small business is hard, so often you hear the stories about how people started something and then all of a sudden they’re a success and opening up shops and collaborating with some famous designer. That’s great if that happens but more than often it doesn’t. I had lofty ideals more than 12 months ago when I started my business, even writing a goal saying I would need to quit my day job within 12 months. While it was good to have that as a goal it’s not realistic given the pressures of everyday life, maintaining relationships and friendships, lack of funds/resources/skills etc etc. But I enjoy every minute of it, even the failures because that’s where you grow from.

    • Hi Karen, I really appreciate you being so honest about your own goals! What you outlined is something I struggle with ALLLL the time – balancing the blog with full time work, making sure I still bring money in and maintaining friendships and family relationships is SO hard. Something always has to give because there are still only 24 hours in the day and I need to sleep sometimes! But you’re right, even though I feel a lot of pressure and there are so many failures, I enjoy every minute of it (well almost every minute haha). I’m so glad you’re getting joy from your business despite the struggles; your textiles are beautiful and I can’t wait to see what you create next. xoxo

    • I’m so glad to hear this post helped with the decisions you’re making at the moment. It’s really hard when your’e studying to know if your degree is still going to be your passion in 2, 5 or 10 years down the track. If it helps at all, I didn’t know either – I did a psychology degree but it turns out design was what I should have done all along! I think that process of discovery was all part of the journey though and I know I wouldn’t be here blogging today without having gone down that winding road. I wish you all the best with your graduation!

  • I could have written this post!
    I’m at the stage where I have lost enthusiasm. I take on work for less than it’s worth, I say ‘yes’ first, then ask questions later which often leads me into trouble, and I plod along uninspired, not wanting to stray from ‘pretty wedding stationery’ into the ‘world of numerous greeting card businesses” because I feel like my work isn’t good enough. I’m self-taught, feel that my eye for design isn’t as good as someone with a degree, and why would anyone want to buy my stuff anyway?
    *sigh*

    • Hi Evie, I’m so sorry to hear you’re feeling down about your creative biz at the moment! I go through periods like that every now and then, but then I remind myself that being self-taught isn’t a handicap. In fact, one of the most brilliant creative minds I know is self-taught… he graduated with a philosophy degree and worked his way into the design world one step at a time before he became the Design Director at the place he works now. And he’s brilliant!

      I find that the best way to break out of a slump is to work on something that I really enjoy. Even if it’s totally not related to my blog or biz, it brings back that creative energy and inspires me to keep going. I really hope you find the energy to keep creating – your Etsy store is lovely! xoxo