You’re Good at It

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“I could say: “Follow your heart,” but I never did that. I worked my ass off instead.

Your life is yours, and it’s going to suck sometimes and be great sometimes. It’s going to hurt so bad that you want to turn around and crawl into a hole. It’s going to be so high and wonderful that you will wonder how to keep it there (and you’ll fail at that).

You’ll make mistakes, but you won’t ever give up—not because someone gave you that advice, but because it’s way more fun that way. And you’re good at it.”

– Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Jeni’s Ice Cream, via Food and Wine

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BA 101 | #2 Finding an (Awesome) Business Partner

Another BA 101 lesson! I think Sundays are a good day for dubious education from college dropouts — don’t you?

Today’s post is a subject near and dear to my heart: Business Partners.

First of all, humblebrag: I have the best business partner in the world.

This is a combination of luck, hard work, and good communication… it’s like a good marriage. (I could extend that into a company = baby metaphor, but I won’t).

Also, like marriage, the “perfect” business partner is different for every person and every business. Even though what works for us might not work for everyone, I’ve learned a lot from being one half of a successful partnership.

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A good business partner… really believes in the company.

Right from the beginning, Erika has been the spirit and driving force of Wild Friends. As soon as we made a jar of peanut butter, there was no doubt in her mind that we had made something delicious and worthy of customer dollars. Her belief has always given me confidence that the company was worth pursuing… even when it was just a couple of mason jars.

This might seem like a small thing, but it’s really not! Nothing has been more important to the growth of this company than strong belief from both of us that the company is worth the dedication. There will be times when you are feeling disenfranchised with everything about your company… when everything just sucks. A good business partner will be there for you to lift your spirits and remind you why your business is worth working for.

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A good business partner… has an opposite skill set.

Looking back at that first day again, it was clear right from the start that Erika and I had very different skills. We made the peanut butter together — that was a total group effort. Then:

Erika told everyone she knew about our new company. She started posting on Facebook, interacting with all our friends, and getting excited about sending product to food bloggers.

I made a website, spent several hours on the phone with PayPal support, designed our labels, and started the hunt for a commercial kitchen.

There was very little discussion about this division of roles… it happened naturally as my logical side took over and Erika’s social butterfly self took flight.

In hindsight, we got lucky. This is an important conversation to have with any potential business partner: What roles do you see yourselves taking on immediately within the company? A year down the road? How about five years?

These are conversations Erika and I have constantly to make sure we’re never stepping on eachothers toes or leaving eachother out.

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A good business partner… knows that if it’s business, it’s also personal.

Can’t stress this enough: EVERYTHING IS PERSONAL. Everything. (Especially when you’re working with your best friend and your roommate… but we are probably in extra-special circumstances over here.)

It’s important to be able to have conversations that make you feel vulnerable, share struggles within or outside of the business that are causing you stress, discuss personal relationship woes, etc.

Really, your business partner is the only other person going through exactly what you are, living the exact same entrepreneurial life, fighting the same fight. Being able to support you personally as well as professionally is going to be really important during those frantic problem-solving nights.

Plus, you’re definitely going to be stuck on a long car ride and flights with your business partner… No iPhones or work laptops allowed. So you better have lots of things to talk about. (Also, similar taste in podcasts/music… but that’s another story).

BA 101 | Lesson #1: Starting Out

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I took BA 101 during my sophomore year of college (one of the two business courses I’ve taken).

The class was centered around an online program: we created a fake business, then we experimented with various metrics to see how the business succeeded in the market. Or at least that’s what we were supposed to be doing — I entered random numbers into the online system, worked on the Wild Friends website on my laptop during lectures and ended up scraping by a passing grade in the class (which speaks much more to my guessing skills than anything else). Whatever it was I was supposed to be doing in that class still remains a mystery to me.

Over the past couple years though, I’ve learned some basic things that I think of as my own personal “BA 101” — lessons that I either stumbled upon accidentally or learned the hard way. Here’s the first:

LESSON #1: Starting Out

I get asked all the time: “What would you tell someone who wants to start their own business, but doesn’t know what to do first?”

This is an easy one: Start now, start small. As small as your business idea allows. We made a dozen jars of peanut butter and brought them over to our friends. If the response had been lackluster, Wild Friends might have ended as soon as it began.

Not to say you should take the first bad feedback to mean your idea is a total failure. Rather, just begin gathering as much data and feedback as you can, on a small scale. This will help hone in on what about your product is amazing and what about your product might be unnecessary.

When we wanted to start making peanut butter, we just started making peanut butter — that afternoon, in our apartment. You can iron out details later (website, brand name, flavor offerings, etc). But the best way to test something out is just to start with what you have.

Recommended Reading: The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries

Eric talks about this concept at length, recommending start-ups aim to spend minimal time time on product development and maximum time on gathering feedback. I also love how Eric addresses the concerns lots of start-ups have with wanting to maintain secrecy about their product pre-launch: he essentially dares founders to email their ideas directly to companies they think would steal the idea, just to prove that an idea alone is rarely worth stealing. It’s all about the execution.

So, go ahead — start something small now. There’s nothing to lose.

Inspirational Lady Monday

Maybe it’s just because I have been so full of big questions and confusion lately, but I have been feeling in need of some inspiration.

I’ve talked before about how easy to feel like I’m way out of my league, like sometimes this running-a-business thing is just too hard. When I hear from other women leading the way with honesty and a great sense of humor — well, that makes me feel much better.

Introducing the first (of what I hope is many) Inspirational Lady Mondays!

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First off, the ladies of TheSkimm (which, if you don’t already subscribe to… you’re welcome).

The post I loved: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly via TheSkimm Blog

My favorite quote: “Being able to pitch our company to someone else forced us to rearticulate, redefine, and sharpen our vision for theSkimm. It turned us into better co-founders and co-CEOs. It brought us focus and tougher skin.”

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Second: Lisa Sedlar, former CEO of New Seasons Market (our first store shelves!) and recent founder of Green Zebra Grocery here in Portland!

The post I loved: 10 Things I’ve Learned as an Entrepreneur via OEN Blog

My favorite quote: “I’ve made some really big mistakes. I’m really happy to talk about my mistakes. I valued the business maybe not where I should have. I didn’t know much about raising money. I still don’t know a lot about raising money. I’m learning that. I’ve learned to take the advice of people who are smarter than me.”

The Courage to Have (and Ask) Questions

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“There are no stupid questions.”

We know this to be true. (At least, we’ve heard it enough to hope it’s true).

But what nobody talks about is: what does it mean if you don’t even know what question to ask?

Sometimes, in times of great conflict and confusion, I feel like a cartoon character: a great big question mark over my head. In this state of mind, I feel like sticking my head in the sand and throwing a little pity party.

When I’m in way over my head (as I now seem to be most of the time) things come up that are so perplexing that formulating a clarifying question (even a “stupid” one) seems hard.

A great example is an area of business that many entrepreneurs struggle with: Finance.

From the internal (bookkeeping and records) to the external (fundraising and pitching) there is a TON of new information to absorb. It is literally like another world, with another language — and I had no clue where to start.

Unlike making and selling the product (tangible, accessible — and fun), finances are not always intuitive and can often seem “not that important” in the scheme of a start-up. I remember saying things like, “Why stress out about tracking sales right now? We’re only selling a few thousand dollars worth of product a month — I can practically track it in my head!”

Once we felt the need to get our act together for tax time, I dutifully punched numbers into Quickbooks — then relied on our financial advisors and Accountant to process the information for me. When there wasn’t much feedback on our numbers, I was relieved — that meant our numbers were fine! No need to stress or investigate further…. Keep punching numbers.

The same on the legal end of things. After we formed our company and got a fat binder of documents from our lawyers, I didn’t think too deeply about what sort of company we were (Partnership, LLC, C-Corp… whatever!). I kept on sampling product at stores and doing all the “real” work on the front end.

Honestly, I thought that our accountants and lawyers would be like new Wild Friends team members — they would call out an alert if something wasn’t good, let me know if my numbers were wrong, tell me what to do and when to do it.

It turned out that’s not what accountants and lawyers are for — they are there to answer your questions, not question your methods or decisions.

I wasn’t asking enough questions.

I didn’t even know what questions to ask.

It took our company’s first outside fundraising round for me to look up and realize that I needed to really, actively, engage — to take responsibility for good bookkeeping, solid legal understanding, and excellent future projections.

After all, the future existence of our company depends on these things just as much as on a good product and growing sales. If we can’t prove our company’s worth to investors, we won’t get outside capital — and that’s when growth stops, even (especially) in the fastest-growing, most successful companies.

So, I had a fire lit under me! I really wanted to learn. But, I STILL didn’t have any real, specific questions — just that big question mark hanging over my head.

I started with basic self-education: I read this book, and this one (both highly recommended). I gained a greater understanding of finances and company formations! This was exciting.

Even better: With all this new information came TONS of new questions.

At first, this made me feel a little overwhelmed, but in hindsight, this is GREAT.

This is when advisors, accountants and lawyers really start to come in handy. They are fountains of information — once you know what to ask, the advice and information will come to you.

Usually this information will bring with it a whole new set of questions — but this is how learning happens.

Truth: it’s scary and hard to find and ask the right questions… but not nearly as scary and hard as it is to live with your head in the sand.