A journalist recently asked me a great question:
What five business lessons have you learned through experience that you would share with your 21-year-old self, if you could?
Wow – makes you stop and think!
I wasn’t too much past 21 when I opened my first business 42 years ago. It was a Greenwich Village-style coffee house on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, a gathering spot with an open stage for musicians and poets. My employees were the hippies, living communally or on the beach, who were willing to work for a meal and a clothes-shopping trip at the thrift store. Giving them jobs, I thought, was a meaningful contribution to society. But beyond that, my biggest goal was simply to keep my head above water.
Since then, I’ve had many varied work experiences, including launching EMSI Public Relations, which turns 23 this year – a milestone I never would have reached without a lot of valuable lessons along the way.
While these were supposed to be five “business lessons,” I realized they apply whether you’re an entrepreneur, an author or, in some instances, anyone at all. So I thought it worthwhile to share with you.
Here they are in order of importance:
- Cherish your customers. In terms of caring and service, deliver more than you promise to your clients (or readers). If they’re unhappy, try to do what it takes to make them happy. Be attentive to their needs. Truly care about their welfare! Not only will you be more successful – with customers who keep coming back and who recommend your business or books to others – you’ll be more personally gratified. Likewise, cherish your employees, if you have them. If you’re counting on employees to help your business succeed, treat them like the valuable team members they are.
- Dream big – and set big goals. This is critical. As a 21-year-old, I didn’t have the self-confidence to dream big. But I’ve learned that with courage and perseverance, you can push through any obstacle to achieve your goals. Set the bar high! Be ready and willing to apply the same resourcefulness and hustle to constructive endeavors as you do to your recreational pursuits.
- Don’t spend more than you make. This is the most fundamental principle for successfully managing your business and your life. Failing to properly manage money is how most individuals, families and corporations (not to mention our government) get into trouble. About nine years ago, my company was on the verge of bankruptcy. I had to take a hard look at the bottom line and boil down the budget to the most basic elements: How much was I bringing in, and how much was I spending? I cut expenses, including my own pay, laid off employees, and worked hard to deliver on outstanding services while bringing in new customers. It took about two years, but getting strict with my budget saved my business.
- The most valuable employees are those who are willing.You can teach almost anyone certain skills, if they’re willing to learn, but it’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to turn an unwilling, defiant employee into a team player. If they’re not willing and able, they will drag down your company, so you will have to be willing to cut loose employees, if necessary. That can be hard – especially if they’re family members or close friends.
- Make sure you follow the letter of the law. It doesn’t matter whether the law is a major one or a “technicality,” violate it and it can kill your business. Be careful when you establish your business to ensure every aspect complies with the laws, from municipal codes to zoning regulations to federal protections for employees.
I do wish I could tie a string to two cans and toss one across the decades for young Marsha to put up to her ear. It would have spared a lot of painful lessons.
But, come to think of it, she was always a bit headstrong. I’m not sure she would have listened.
Do you have lessons you’d share with your 21-year-old self? Answering that question was a valuable exercise for me, and I highly recommend you take a moment and consider your own answers. I promise, you’re never too old to benefit from them!
All grown up (almost),