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Purveyors of The Mustard

How (not) to run a small business

Posted on by zach

Good times. The last year plus has been quite the ride. James and I spent the better part of last year at farmers markets selling our mustards (and sandwiches, pickles, and a few other odds and ends), in addition to catering a number of events around San Diego. We definitely learned a lot and made some fantastic friends, and as we are about to enter into our next phase of business -wholesale – we have (hopefully) learned from some of the mistakes we made last year.

Mistake #1: When starting a business (especially your first business), try to do FOUR things, not just ONE really well.

We were essentially operating 4 separate businesses, plus working other jobs. By trying to do more than one thing, we spread ourselves very thin and, as a result (other than stressing ourselves out), were not able to fully establish any one part of our business in a financial sense. Some parts of SoNo made a little money here and there, and others definitely took it hard. Now don’t get me wrong, everything we did was FUN, but not necessarily financially viable. (This is why, when you’re disappointed that a business has discontinued your favorite flavor of something or phased out a particular aspect you really loved, the business owner shrugs his or her shoulders and says “I’m sorry, but we just weren’t making any money from it.” And no matter how FANTASTIC you think that thing is, we all have to pay the rent.) So we stopped the farmers markets and catering and secret underground dinners (I feel safe mentioning those because no one is really reading this) and are focusing all our efforts on our mustard business (while still working other jobs, of course).

Mistake #2: When things aren’t working, don’t change them.

Emotional attachment is hard to break. This is as much true in business as it is in relationships (at least when it’s your business). We worked a number of farmers markets at a loss before we finally decided that working for -$5/hr just wasn’t smart. Sometimes it took us over a month to decide to stop. Now, to give our high hopes some credit, there might have been a week or two when we made it into the black (~$1-$2/hr), but as you might be thinking, “Really? REALLY?!” Really.

Mistake #3: If things are not working, work harder.

Not only would we keep working at something that wasn’t going the way we wanted, but we would also often work harder at it. I can’t speak for James, but I got to the point that if I were not working 90+ hours in a week, I felt I was letting the business down. (Crazy talk – I know!) And then one day in December I had a moment – the closest thing I have ever had to an epiphany – when I thought, “What if only work 60 hours this week? What if I only work 40? Will the business suffer?” And my answer was a clear No. We were spinning our wheels so much that pushing harder was not getting us anywhere. In fact, it was more productive to pull back and look at the mess we had made and figure a way out.

We’ve made plenty more mistakes, but three feels like a good number at which to stop. (I gotta keep this on the up and up)

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4 Responses to How (not) to run a small business

  1. Pingback: Emotional Investment – Good or bad? | Sono Trading Company

  2. Excellent post. These are mistakes that you have to make in order to learn from them. Reminds me a lot of this post:

    http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/2008/08/27/7-ways-ive-almost-killed-freshbooks/

  3. Jess says:

    Well said my boys.. to #3, I learned this weekend that an average reader who takes a speed reading class will increase words per minute from 130 to 190. An above average reader who takes a speed reading class will improve from 250 to 2700 words per minute. The lesson: Improve the things you’re good at and outsource or drop the things that aren’t your strongest suits. I believe in this!!! Keep chipping away, you’ll sort it out!!

  4. Mary Palmer says:

    I love you guys and had you not made the mistake of the markets, our paths might not have crossed. I miss seeing you more often but look forward to your success in the new direction. Let me know how I can help!

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