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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

What I Learned Starting a Business at 19

At 19, most of us are in the midst of a college career, going out for dollar drafts on Wednesday when we have an exam Thursday, Facebooking instead of listening to that accounting lecture on debits and credits, staying up until the crack of dawn trying to finish that 15-page paper that’s due at 8 AM. And I was no different—except I was doing all that and then some.

A few months before I began my junior year at Miami University, my friend Sarah and I decided we were going to start our own business: a tanning service for fellow undergrads. Sure, why not? It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, it was hard, and I’m not here to tell you it wasn’t. But it was worth it. I learned—a lot—and I’m proud to say that two years later, Tan with Kare (TwK) by Katie & Sarah not only started in the middle of an economic crisis, but thrived in spite of it. Here are few of the invaluable lessons I learned:

1. Lose your fear of being wrong

I wish I could tell you that I got where I am today because I wasn’t scared to fail. But the truth is, I was. I was terrified. But I took the risk anyway because I realized that the absolute worst thing that could happen would be to have my venture fail. And yes, that would be painful, but what would I really lose? Money? Money isn’t everything—and honestly, it would be money well spent, because you'll learn more from the experience of giving it a shot than any textbook can ever teach.

2. Not everyone will take you seriously

Don’t take it to heart if a professor scoffs at your idea or a potential partner doesn’t return your calls. Use their doubts as motivation and prove them wrong! When we were looking for a room to rent, I can’t tell you how many times Sarah and I were ignored by a certain business owner in Oxford. So we tanned people out of our shower until someone else finally decided to give us a chance. And you know what? The guy that wouldn’t call us back? Now he calls all the time asking how to get a hold of us.


3. Surround yourself with people who believe in you

When I started out, I had a business partner who was also a friend, supportive family who offered me advice, and great friends who were willing to act as free advertising and spread the word every chance they had. You need support as an entrepreneur—not just to get the word out, but also to keep you moving forward when things are tough. Without these people, Sarah and I could never have done it.


4. Network, Network, Network

Be outgoing, be kind, and be professional with every single person you meet. The older gentleman sitting next to you on the plane to your spring break destination? He might have experience or insight to share, or be able to introduce you to a valuable contact in your arena. You’d be surprised how many people out there want to help you; they’re just waiting for you to ask.


5. Find a mentor

The best decision I made was reaching out to my first entrepreneurship teacher, Mark Lacker, who became a valuable advisor to Sarah and I as we were getting started. Again: people will help you, but they’re waiting for you to ask.

6. Be passionate about what you do

It is not all about money. Yes, money is a great perk that comes with owning your own business, and it certainly can be a reason to want to go into business on your own. But if that’s your only driver, don’t bother. If you make decisions based off squeezing another few dollars out of each week and each sale, you’ll lose sight of what’s best for you, your clients, and your company as a whole. On the other hand, if you truly love what you’re doing, the work won’t seem like a burden and your passion will shine through in your day-to-day life. People will notice that—and it can be a major point of differentiation in your business environment and how you’re viewed by customers, employees, and other business owners.


7. It's not always as glamorous as it seems

There were countless happy hours, day parties, and group dinners I had to forgo in order to keep TwK running. You have to be willing to put in the hard and sometimes even tedious work if you’re going to get your business off the ground.


8. Use technology to your advantage

From Google and all its accoutrements to simple programs like QuickBooks to social media icons like Facebook and Twitter: use them, use them all, and use them appropriately. Coming from a girl who started out using an appointment book and pencil to keep track of everything, these things exist for a reason! I started with the mentality “I want to keep everything as simple as possible,” but when it came down to it, Google Calendar was really a more simple solution than my day planner.


9. Keep a balance in your life

You’re a student? Good, don’t forget that. I don’t care how successful your business is currently; don’t let your grades slip. If you don’t become the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, you’ll want (and need) that degree to fall back on. It’s very easy to become very invested in what you are doing, and that isn’t a bad thing! But be careful not to get so preoccupied that you forget you have classes to attend, tests to study for, and friends to spend time with. Your college years go by faster than you ever imagine they will—so give yourself a break sometimes, and enjoy yourself.

Photo courtesy of Pete.