With both our photo business and the barber shop, I remember asking people who looked like they had made it, the ones that were living their dream, if they had any advice.
”It just takes time,” they said.
Ugh. Que my excitement and hope flatlining. NOBODY wanted to share ANYTHING. Not a single shred of advice. Can I blame them? Kinda, but kinda not. Now that I have small businesses, you literally pour every single bit of yourself into it. I’m totally not exaggerating. It takes so much blood, sweat, and tears, it’s like giving birth. BUT! Just like your kids, you want to protect that FIERCELY. Anything that comes knocking on your door that might pose a threat, you slam that door so fast and hard, I’m surprised a room full of people still have socks on.
One of my policies, as you all know though, is brutal honesty. So, I’m going to try my best to wrack my brain on what I think will help people to start up a business.
PLEASE! If you have direct questions, or want clarification on something, EMAIL ME. firstname.lastname@example.org I can’t help you build your business step by step, but I can do my best to give you answers I wish I had.
LIST OF START UP TIPS
First thing first, commit and suit up. I wish I had warning how hard this was going to be. Chris and I were both working other jobs when we decided to open the shop, but we weren’t able to pay the bills. We had to move back in with family and lick our wounds and decided we really didn’t have much to lose, so it was now or never. I’M NOT SAYING GO BALLS TO THE WALL AND QUIT EVERYTHING AND OPEN A BUSINESS. BUT! That’s the kind of commitment you need to open. If you’re not committed and treat it like a side gig, it’s going to stay a side gig. Give it everything you have if you’re serious about opening. And be honest with yourself. You’ll save a fuck ton of time and money if you decide you’re not actually serious about opening a business.
That being said, that kind of commitment sucks the life out of you. You’re going to feel like hell, you’re going to fight with the people you’re closest to over such stupid stuff and some super serious shit, you’re going to lose so much sleep, and you’re going to question if it’s even worth it. If anything is worth it. But, that’s where that commitment comes in. So you’re going to suit up and GET. IT. DONE. Because there is no other option.
I went to work at the library, I came home, made calls, made spreadsheets, designed logos, filed paperwork, ALL DAMN NIGHT. Chris and I almost came to blows over fonts for Christ’ sake. I think I designed over 100 logos before we found ‘the one.’ I cried. A LOT.
DON’T SETTLE. You’re going to be so fucking tired, your eyes will feel like they’re actually bleeding. But that’s not an excuse to cut corners. Craftsmanship is tricky. It takes the most effort, and seems like it’s never going to be worth shit in the short run, but it’ll be your most solid foundation down the road.
We could have bought super cheap stations for the barbershop. Those MDF board box ones. They would have worked for a while, they would have saved us money, they would have been shipped neatly and nicely to the shop ready to assemble. They would have looked like a million other hair cut stops and been a drop in a bucket, not a boulder in a stream. Instead we stopped by salvage yards every single week, scavenged yard sales and craigslist, and busted ass to make a 100 year old cabinet work. Years later though, that one piece of furniture has actually brought people in. People continue to ask if we would ever sell it, a resounding no.
We could have bought a gold(ish) vinyl sticker sign from a guy who printed 30+ vinyl stickers a day and it would have saved us a ton of money. But we (at first) swallowed the lump in our throat and splurged money we didn’t have on a hand painted, gold leaf sign and made a friend and business connection for life. It’s legit and it shows we care and we’re not willing to cut corners ANYWHERE.
Don’t just settle. Don’t spend the $40 on a friend of a friend who designed a website for so and so’s cousin. Pay the $350 to have an actual designer do what they were trained to do. Professional doesn’t look cheap.
If you CAN cut a corner without it looking like shit, by all means, go for it. BUT THESE INSTANCES ARE FEW AND FAR BETWEEN.
I’m not going to tell you how much our camera set up is actually worth, but I can tell you we had to take out a credit card and it was upwards of $10k. I could have gone MUCH cheaper, but the quality of your photos would have been shit, not that incredible detail and amazing light by one of my million expensive little sensors. You probably wouldn’t have asked me to take your cousins photos a couple months later and I would have been out a job.
Digital Presence, or you don’t exist. I know. You know people who don’t use it and they’re fine. You’re not them, you’re competing with them and you just found one of their weaknesses. YOU HAVE TO BE VISIBLE ONLINE. Facebook, Instagram, Google, Yelp, etc. Set it up first thing. Use it first thing. Some of our earliest posts are from before we even opened. We posted progress to build attention before we opened. We had a leg up before we opened our doors.
USE THEM. It is NOT enough to set it up and leave it. You have to dedicate time to post every day. There are so many apps that will help you with this, but to be honest, you just have to make it a priority and buckle down. Take a photo. Post it. Find those hashtags that are relevant to your business and use your area to your advantage #downtowngr #grandrapids #michigan #michiganbarbers #grandrapidsphotographer
Be you. Have a clear voice and keep it that way. You’d be amazed what works. I recently posted a photo of the ‘typo-tee’ basically saying “Yeah, we fucked up. But it’s still a rad shirt, so stop in and grab one,” and Chris came home saying people appreciated the candor and the attitude of the post. I stayed true to MY voice and it draws people in because I’m not an automated robot. Authenticity is so rare now, that when it is authentic, it stands out like a house fire. Use that to your advantage.
Start WAY early. Setting up our lease with the terms both us and our landlord wanted? Took FOREVER. (Thanks Todd for putting up with endless emails) Building stations? Took WAY longer than we anticipated. Every turn, you’re going to have something that is going to set you back. Your website designer could have a family member get sick, acts of God are REAL. Give yourself as much time as you can.
A lot of our stress came from not giving ourselves enough time. We got our state license the DAY BEFORE we were set to open. After we had posted everywhere and put out fliers with our open date. I was physically sick we wouldn’t get that license and we wouldn’t be able to open when we said we would and would have to do major damage control right off the bat.
When I had to go get a DBA (doing-business-as) license for the photo business, I was running in late August through the city, with a backpack on because I didn’t give myself enough time to fill out all the paperwork and plan for setbacks. Ya’ll, I ALMOST died from lack of breath and heat exhaustion and made myself super fricken stressed. And it could have all been avoided.
Being passionate about something isn’t enough. This is the hard one. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Being passionate is not enough. You could be the greatest writer in the world, but if you don’t write about relevant stuff and make your voice heard, you won’t make it. You can be a great microbrewer, but Grand Rapids is NOT your market. It’s already saturated and the chances of you pushing your way past the crowd are very slim. It’s not that it can’t be done, but the odds are slim. You have to decide if you REALLY think you could make it.
Lansing has a dwindling population and the barber market is saturated as it’s where the college is. Small towns wouldn’t accept Chris, looking the way he does and he wouldn’t be cutting the styles he wanted to. Grand Rapids made sense because we did our market research.
That’s what art school lacked for me. They taught you that you could be amazing at photo skills, you could know everything there is to know about dead artists and camera functions, but they didn’t teach you how to apply that in life and not be a great artist making subs for a living. You HAVE to have some business knowledge.
Learn. You can Google your ass off, like we did for a majority, or you can go to CC, like I did. Community colleges are SUCH an asset to small business owners, it’s amazing. I went into GRCC for business and marketing and the skills I learned there from the adjunct were invaluable. Jorge Sanchez, if I ever see you again, I have a long thank you speech prepared because almost all of my business secrets, came from your classes and talks about suit quality.
But seriously, use your resources. Community college, library, Google, anything and everything. I didn’t leave with a degree, but I left with the skills I needed to pay shit to live, which I feel is more important. I got the “get what you need from classes, not a degree” from a motorcycle movie, 6Over, where Max Schaaf from 4Q talked about taking a class on painting. Here’s an excerpt from another interview he did with Aaron Nardi:
Your shop is filled with tools for not just putting pieces together but actually modifying and fabricating as well. How did you learn to actually build or create bikes?
”In my late 20s, I took a lot of night school [classes], random stuff: Mechanics, welding, and auto body and paint. There was a teacher there that really treated me good, and made things easy to understand. Then I got a job at a wood shop, next to a metal fabrication shop, and met this dude Dave that took a lot of the mystery out of how things are made. He taught me a lot and wanted no glory for it. I owe him so much, and though we don’t work on things together anymore, I have so much respect for him. The more you pay people to do little things, the more you figure out how to do things yourself, and the more tools you end up with and it just goes from there.”
Bits of my business knowledge came from everywhere. I didn’t know throwing myself into the motorcycle world when i married Chris would be invaluable to my future business’ but it was. USE YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCES TO GIVE YOURSELF A LEG UP.
The worst anyone can say is ‘No’, and it’s just a word. The amount of opportunities we opened up (and would have missed if we hadn’t) by just ASKING is insane. It FAR outweighs the ‘no’s we have gotten. It’s part of our arsenal. We’re ‘calculated risk takers’.
And that’s that. The first part. I think the next part, I might skip around a little and do something different, like making changes to an established business, would that be alright?