12 Lessons Learned My First Year in Business

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Every day, I remind myself that it will work out. That things will come to fruition when the universe is ready, so long as my heart continues to desire it.

I launched the TI online shop in October 2015 just in time for the holidays. Initially, it was exhilarating to ride the wave of excitement of a newly launched business. The amount of support that poured in from my community gave me life. I was cruising. However, even with a business plan, I was hardly prepared for the work that would take place behind the doors of a one-man operation.

For me, the process of my work is just as important as the product. Therefore, I care deeply about sharing my experiences so that others may learn from my struggles and successes. Below, you will find a list of lessons I’d like to pass along from my first year in my business venture.

  1. Be disruptive. Differentiate. Do something that pushes the boundary. When I began repurposing traditional Lao women’s garments into modern men’s accessories, the Lao elders shrieked and critics proclaimed that I was disrespecting Lao culture. I acknowledged their concerns and engaged in conversations that signaled I was preserving, not destroying, Lao arts and culture by educating in a modern way. In short, haters will hate, but trust in your art and ability to create something unique. 
  2. Don’t quit your day job too soonNot all of us have an exorbitant savings or estate to fall back on. I sure didn’t. When I first launched TI I had little saved and was working on a temporary consulting project, so the pressure to finance my operation was overwhelming. I spent much of my income on research, product development, and other administrative items, while trying to budget for living expenses. My savings and consulting work soon came to an end. I was scrambling to fund TI projects and simultaneously take care of my living needs. So until you are in a position where you can work for yourself full-time and survive, keep that day job.
  3. Embody your brand and network. You are your brand. Breathe it. Live it. Believe it. If you wouldn’t buy or use your service or product, why would anyone else? Get the word out by getting yourself out. As the biggest ambassador of your brand, your job is to take every appropriate opportunity available to share your story, product/service, and reason to try. 
  4. Know your worth. I always hear, “TI, why are your ties so expensive? Don’t you save on labor because you make the ties yourself?” Here’s my response — Yes, I save on labor, but that doesn’t mean I work for free. Because I value my time, creative skills, and livelihood, I must create an economic landscape that leads to my overall well-being and sustainability. Determine the right market, consumer, and price, then stick to it. If you’re going to sell cheap, sell cheap, and vice versa. Once you’ve figured out a price structure that works well for you, stick in that realm as much as possible.
  5. Control expenses. Allocate your budget accordingly and be strict. I struggled to plan a budget, overspent, and ran a deficit in certain areas. You can certainly allow some cushion for unplanned expenses, but a well-thought out plan will provide you with structure and accountability. On top of that, keep your accounts separate by opening a business account. Reconciling your cash flow and filing taxes will be much easier.
  6. Maximize opportunities to save. For transactions offline, at events, or between friends, I accept cash or funds through money sharing apps like Venmo to save on fees. While fees may only be in single digit percentages, in abundance they add up. Additionally, use free resources. For a collection photo shoot, I posted an ad on Craigslist and found two photographers who were willing to work for free to build their portfolios. I saved at least $500! Lastly, an application I use daily is Everlance to input my business expenses and auto-track my mileage. At the end of a fiscal period, I can generate a report that summarizes my tax deductions which can lead to thousands in savings and tax refunds.
  7. Partner up.  Find the right people, businesses, and organizations to work with. It takes time and practice find partners that align with your vision. Most importantly, consider how you can bring value to the relationship, not just how you can benefit.
  8. Outsource your weaknesses. It’s true, we all have the same hours in a day as Kanye West, Bill Gates, and whoever your favorite celebrity is. However, what we don’t have is the same amount of resources, knowledge, and skills. Some of us are really good at one or two things, then mediocre at others. That’s okay. Someone out there in the world is excellent at what you may be lacking in, so outsource the task and free up time for you to focus on the areas you’re great at.
  9. Be social. Share stories and pictures. It’s imperative for brands to have a social presence. It not only helps increase brand access and visibility, but is one of the cheapest, most cost-effective, forms of marketing with trackable metrics and return on investment. Oh, and don’t forget actually to be social by engaging and interacting with your audience — comment, like, share, mention, live stream. Stories are great. Stories with pictures are even better. People tend to engage a piece of content when it has visual appeal. Presentation is everything. 
  10. Process vs. product. Everyone loves to hear a good story. To get the inside scoop. After reading Austin Kleon’s “Show Your Work,” I really took to sharing my process and story over the products themselves. Though my products are unique, I found that sharing the story behind each one made them even more special and desirable.
  11. Surround yourself with mentors and friend-tors. Find people who will support your goals, challenge you to grow, advocate for you, keep you accountable, and identify opportunities you didn’t see.
  12. Trust the universe. Embrace vulnerability and ambiguity. On several occasions I had no idea what was to come, what the next day looked like, or how I’d make enough money to pay bills. It was (and still is) difficult to stay motivated when I exerted so much energy into my business with little to show for it. However, the immediate return on investment was something money couldn’t buy. It was the freedom and flexibility to create art, be my own boss, and travel. Every day, I remind myself that it will work out. That things will come to fruition when the universe is ready, so long as my heart continues to desire it (If you haven’t read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, it will change your life).