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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

7 Life-Changing Lessons From Women Who Started Small Businesses

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Emily Schildt worked as a marketing consultant for several years, helping food and beverage companies launch new products. But she noticed that grocery stores came in two flavors: huge and overwhelming or specialty stores with a tiny selection. Neither were great for discovering new merchandise.

So Schildt created Pop Up Grocer, a temporary storefront that carries hundreds of new, healthy takes on chips, jerky, bars, pasta, ice cream, pizza, and cookie dough. She’s opened the store twice in New York City, once in Los Angeles, and she’ll open in Austin next before returning to New York.

“I knew about all these amazing products, but there wasn’t one central location where I could find all of them,” she says. “I decided I would help these small brands by bringing them all together.”

In the United States, women own more than 11.6 million businesses, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners, and they generate $1.7 trillion in sales. In fact, 39 percent of all privately held firms are women-owned.

But launching your own company isn’t easy. Starting a successful business takes a good idea, a firm commitment, and a lot of passion. Here are some strategies for success—from Schildt and other women who’ve done it themselves.

1. Start with a Plan

Schildt had started other businesses before, but she did a little more research this time around with Pop Up Grocer.

“I actually had a solid business model where I understood what my operating costs would be and what my revenue would be,” Schildt says. “A business plan is always a good idea.”

Emily Schildt, Pop Up Grocer
Emily Schildt, founder of Pop Up Grocer, suggests all entrepreneurs create a solid business plan before launching. (Photo: Aaron Bernstein)

There are a variety of resources on how to make your own business plan, like this one from the Small Business Administration. You can also get advice from a small business mentor like the ones at SCORE. But don’t get stuck on the planning stage forever. “That’s what overwhelms people and intimidates them and prevents them from getting started,” she says.

2. Focus on Your Product

At first, Emily Rountree, who founded mobile nail salon COLVON, thought her biggest priority should be getting her company’s name out into the world. She now realizes she should have spent less time attending events and networking and more time on refining her service offerings and then market testing them. “You get a lot of word of mouth, and you get natural, organic growth, because people are attracted to valuable products and services,” says Rountree, who operates in Los Angeles.

Emily Rountree, COLVON
Emily Rountree, founder of mobile salon COLVON, says business owners shouldn't be afraid to walk away from a bad deal. (Photo: Courtesy of COLVON)

Talking with clients helped Rountree develop services that fit their needs, and it landed her higher-paying and consistent customers. “Hype gets people in the door, but you have to have a valuable product or service to deliver,” she says. “I noticed that over time, I was getting actual leads from gigs we performed well at rather than the gigs that promised me exposure.”

3. Don’t Obsess Over Your Decisions

It can seem like every choice could be the make-or-break of your small venture. That can lead to decision paralysis—a lack of ability to decide anything at all.

“I don’t belabor any one decision,” Schildt says. “I just make it and deal with the fallout. It’s a lot easier to adjust and repair than it is to spend so much time trying to figure out if one way or the other is better.”

For instance, since Pop Up Grocer is a temporary storefront, Schildt decides how long to keep the doors open. For her first opening, she stayed open for 10 days, although the original plan was just two or three. “I had no retail experience, not a clue how to operate a point of sale system or manage inventory,” she says. “I just charged ahead.”

4. Adapt Quickly

“There are 100 little things that went wrong,” says Jill Kuehler, who founded whiskey and gin craft distillery Freeland Spirits in Portland, Oregon. “But all of those mistakes led me to figure out the next thing. It’s about being really nimble. And knowing that you’re 100% going to make a mistake. You’re going to make one every day. But how fast can you fix it and move on with it?” Focus on what your mistakes teach you, and not the misstep itself.

Jill Kuehler, Freeland Spirits
Jill Kuehler, center, founder of Freeland Spirits, says emotional (not just financial) support helped her business succeed. (Photo: John Metcalf)

5. Build a Support Network

“Support is such a key piece, particularly with women, who have so many more challenges,” Kuehler says. “In the beginning, people don’t take you seriously. You hear a lot of, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and I don’t think people say that to men much. Even the real estate agent was like, ‘Are you sure you don’t just want to open a little coffee shop?’”

Kuehler believes her team of people has been one of the keys to her success. “It’s important to have people who have your back and can be there when you have hard days, because there are a lot of them,” she says. “Even though it’s a total roller coaster, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”

6. Be Willing to Say “No”

When you’re a new business owner, your instinct might be to bend over backward to please customers. But you must understand your worth—and be willing to turn down clients or partners who aren’t a good fit.

“A company might say, ‘We want your nail truck, but we want to take off your branding and put on our branding, so it’ll be like it’s our nail truck. And we want you to do X manicures all day for three days, and this is our budget,’” Rountree says. “I had to say, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ Be careful not to overpromise because you’re eager to get a client.”

She adds, “We’ve had many amazing partnerships since then that fit perfectly with who we are as a company. Opportunities will come and go, so my advice is not to treat each one as if it’s the ‘only.’”

7. Let Passion Guide You

Cash shouldn’t be your main motivator. “A lot of people think their idea will be so successful that they will become rich,” Rountree says. “And the path almost never goes that way.”

Instead, she advises, start a business that interests you and will keep you going for the long haul.

“The thing that will keep you in it is loving and believing in your vision for the company,” Rountree says. “That will get you through a lot of tough times, times where you want to give up and maybe do something else. If you have that, you’re able to be consistent over time and grow your business into something that’s working and profitable and that you’re proud of.”