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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

So You Want to Start a Small Business

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Since 2012, Sarah Huck and her husband, Allon Azulai, have operated Kos Kaffe—a high-ceilinged café filled with antique fixtures, delicious aromas, and natural light—on a bustling corner in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

As their website explains, “Kos Kaffe (kōs kä fé) conveys the pleasure of one’s daily cup in multiple languages.” Along with roasting and serving top-quality coffee, they also offer a menu showcasing seasonal, local food. Allon is the coffee expert, and Sarah’s responsible for the unforgettable flavor combinations, born from an extensive culinary education, two cookbooks, and more than a decade testing recipes for New York Times food writer Melissa Clark.

But Sarah’s not only a creative chef, she's also a savvy business person. In 2017, Sarah was awarded the Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership Fellowship from the James Beard Foundation. Between her education at Babson Business School and her time in the trenches as an entrepreneur, she's learned an incredible amount about starting—and running—a successful business. Here are her most valuable lessons.

1. Create Multiple Revenue Streams

Starting up a small business can be financially tumultuous, especially if you don’t have a large cash reserve or deep-pocketed investors. This is especially true of brick-and-mortar establishments—a bad month or two can be enough to sink you. At the outset, strategize alternative avenues for your business to make money, suggests Sarah. This foresight can be a lifesaver during sluggish early periods or later downturns.

For her, this has meant incorporating delivery services, catering options, and wholesale coffee bean sales into her offerings. “Through our Squarespace shopping platform, I’ve increased our bottom line easily and efficiently. Its all-in-one services and tools enable us to present ourselves as professionally as larger competitors to a discerning online marketplace.”

Through the online shop, she sells coffee beans, house-made granola, gift cards, and branded merchandise, along with her own cookbooks. “In working toward increased loyalty and even more consistent online sales, we’ve recently started using the new Squarespace subscription service to promote our single-origin coffees.”

And to maximize product views, she says, it pays to optimize SEO-targeting features and invest in captivating photography. Sarah also likes to promote products through her social media channels, linking back to the shopping page so customers can easily click through to purchase.

2. Adopt New Technologies

Small businesses are bombarded daily by tech companies urging owners to try their new app or service. It can be tempting to click delete on all that mail, but stay open-minded: It can be a boon to your business, says Sarah.

Last year, one of those pitches led Sarah to roll her customers over to a digital rewards program that integrates with Kos Kaffe’s POS system. “I now have much greater insight into customers’ purchasing habits, which helps me make better sales decisions,” she says. “It also gives me a streamlined way to show customer appreciation, which keeps them coming back.”

Multiple companies can offer similar or overlapping services, so Sarah recommends doing your research and honing in on your needs so you don’t find yourself switching services midstream.

3. Take Manageable Risks

In order to grow, any company must take risks. But for a small business, any risk—financial or otherwise—can have immediate impact. “I constantly think of risk-taking in these terms: How much am I willing to lose in time, money, or labor to pursue a particular goal?” Sarah says. “If you know that you’re okay with a temporary setback or curveball, growth won’t be so painful.”

As her business grows, it becomes more and more challenging to divide her time equally between managing the business and working in the kitchen. “Last year, I finally took the plunge and hired an additional cook, even though it stretched our payroll expenses,” says Sarah. “She is passionate, skilled, and able to execute my ideas while making meaningful contributions to the creative process. While making a positive difference in our overall production value, the collaboration also allows me to focus on other areas of business growth.”

4. Connect Directly and Consistently

When you’re a new business, gaining the trust of potential customers is key to building success. Your audience needs to feel seen and heard, so make it a priority to be accessible. If you’re an online business, this might mean responding to emails promptly and personally, or maintaining a blog or weekly newsletter through your website.

Brick-and-mortar owners should also focus on building relationships with in-store visitors. “I spend a good part of every day pouring coffee, clearing tables, catching up with regulars, or making friends with new customers,” says Sarah. “I want them to know me and that my business is much more than just a livelihood. It’s also an exchange of feeling and community. Don't ever outsource the people part of your business,” she adds. “As an owner, that’s your privilege and your priority.”

5. Maintain a Triple Bottom Line

If you’re starting a small business, it’s likely rooted in passion. Once you’re up and running, you want your core values and their positive ripple effects to keep resonating. By establishing a triple bottom line (TBL), you can create systems for staying accountable and measuring your strides.

Dedication to your TBL—which means running a profitable business that’s also socially and environmentally responsible—inevitably extends to your product sourcing, employment practices, and community involvement. “Customers will sense when a business isn’t making good on expressed values, the same way you can walk into a room and feel chaos or calm. It’s an essential undercurrent of care," says Sarah.

For her, sourcing with integrity is key. That means weekly trips to the farmer’s market, roasting sustainable coffee beans, and buying retail items from other local makers. When times are tough, a bottom-line business model might feel like a quick fix, but a TBL offers better long-term gains. Sarah’s full café tables prove her commitment to quality and respect for the local community.

Opening a small business can be a challenge, but it’s also a great adventure. So, start your business off on the right foot with this advice, and you’ll be ahead of the game.