10 Things You Should Know Before Starting a Maker Business

I recently came across a post entitled 10 Things You Should Know Before Opening a Cafe on ladyironchef.com. I was surprised to see how many similarities there were between running a cafe and running a maker business, as I’ve always thought of service businesses and product businesses as completely different animals. Feeling inspired, I adapted her ten lessons to create my own take on 10 things to know before starting a maker business. *Note: I switched around the order of her points but kept the titles the same.

#1 The Owner Has to Be Hands On
Sure, this means all the grunt work that goes along with running a small business, like calling the post office to track down shipments, taking out the trash and sweeping the floor, schlepping box after box up and down stairs, in and out of cars, fixing the printer, fixing the network, answering angry customer calls/emails, etc.

Beyond the grunt work though, you have to be intimately aware of how each aspect of your business functions, and how it all works together, because you’re responsible for all of it, even if you don’t know how to do it. This includes everything from managing your supply chain to putting together human resource policies. If anything goes awry, all eyes turn to you, so you better know what’s going on.

#2 A Mountain of Paperwork and Admin Stuff
As someone said to me early on, if you want to spend your days designing things, get a job as a designer and don’t start a design business. I started my business because I wanted to design the products that I wanted to exist in the world. That’s still the case, I just don’t have much time to actually spend designing them, because I’m too busy managing my supply chain, sorting our human resource policies and fixing things to do it. Excel is open on my computer at all times, which I never thought would be the case in a million years.

Can’t you just hire someone else to do the things you don’t want to do? Sure, but keep reading…

#3 It is difficult – or almost mission impossible – to hire good staff
First, having staff costs money. A lot of money. Generally speaking, it’s best to have enough money for 4-6 months of payroll socked away to make sure you can pay people when your sales slow down. (Full confession: I don’t have this but sincerely wish I did. Skip down to #10 to see why). Revenue for a product company can come in waves, so you’ll want to be able to ride out those quieter periods and not lay people off.

Second, you have to know what the job generally requires before you pay someone to do it. It’s tempting to just hire someone to “take care of social media”, for example, but without know what exactly that entails, it’s too hard to align your expectations and to know how to measure her performance. So doing every job yourself, at least initially, is important.

Lastly, hiring is both art and science and is totally harder than it looks. My two employees at Po Campo are pretty excellent, but I’ve had some mis-hires too, and that’s rough.

#4 Motivating Your Staff
As the business owner and founder, you’re pretty devoted to making your venture succeed no matter what. Nobody else that works for you shares that devotion. Generally speaking, people like to do their job, do it well, and then go home. That’s why they work for someone else. That means that that inexplicable force that keeps pushing you ahead no matter what happens does not exist for the people who work for you, or, at least, not anywhere near as much as you feel it. You have to constantly be motivating them to try harder, push harder, see the bigger picture. You have to do that on top of managing suppliers and the mountain of paperwork and everything else.

#5 You Have to do a lot of Research about What You Want to Sell
One of my favorite parts of ladyironchef’s list was commenting on how there is a common misconception about opening a cafe that you mostly have to focus on the design and interior and then you’re good to go. I think we designers make a similar mistake about assuming that with a good product and good branding you’re good to go. Not true. Everything from your operations to your customer service policy has to be at the same level as your product and your branding or you are quickly discredited.

#6 Dealing with Suppliers will be your Worst Nightmare
This one really hit home for me. Suppliers suck! At least cut-and-sew suppliers do. Who would’ve thought it would be so hard to manufacture things, especially when you have a growing business and money to pay for everything. Po Campo has done more than 25 production runs and seriously something goes wrong each time. Bags aren’t made correctly, materials are substituted unknowingly, shipments come late, and it’s all like “tough luck”. (Before you tell me to switch to domestic production, please note that I have experienced just as many headaches with our US production partners as our overseas production partners). Most makers I know have similar experiences, but if you’ve had success with small production runs, I’d love to know about it. I’m always asking myself, “Is it seriously this hard for everyone to make things???”.

#7 Dealing with difficult customers
There are two types of people that you’ll have to deal with on a daily basis when running your business: vendors (suppliers) and customers. Customers are obviously key to your business’ success, but some of them can make your life so miserable! I’ve been screamed at, insulted and just plain treated rudely and unnecessarily harshly. Developing a thick skin without becoming too reptilian is a serious balancing act.

#8 You have to be at the cafe every day
Okay, this may be one area where it is a little different not being in a service business or not having a storefront. We have a pretty flexible work environment at Po Campo, in that I don’t have to be at the studio every day for it to keep humming along. That said, if there is a problem, I always have to be available. That means no complete vacation, ever. Have I worked on Po Campo each of the last 2,008 days? Yes. Have I taken “vacations”? Yes, absolutely. Since starting Po Campo, I’ve traveled several times to Asia, South America and Europe, all masquerading as vacation. And I checked my email and dealt with issues every day.

#9 You won’t have much time for yourself
You know that constant ticker tape on the bottom of CNN’s screen? That’s what goes on in your mind when you have your own business. Some of it is to-dos, some of it is business goals, some of it is managerial duties, some of it is turning a conversation with a difficult customer supplier over and over in your head. I get a glaze in my eyes that people call the “Po Campo face”. Once you go off on your own, commit to meditating at least 10 minutes a day to be able to operate like a half decent human.

#10 You’ll be constantly worrying
Obviously much of those ticker tape thoughts are worries. I’m going to use this last point to describe another omnipresent concern: death. Before starting my own business, I had no idea how close to death most small businesses are at all times. One extended street closure and that little shop that depends on foot traffic is dead. One big power outage and that online store runs out of cash and is dead. One faulty production run and that small maker business loses its most trusted customers and is dead. Sure, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it also makes you realize your own mortality, and how close you are to oblivion at all times. And that makes you worry.

 

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