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Startup junkie shares five tips for young entrepreneurs

Amber Goodenough is a serial entrepreneur and business coach with The OnRamp and FourFour Media web design. She gets her kicks from helping others make the leap from working a 9­-to-5 job to becoming successful business owners.

She and her co­founder/husband, Eric, are the original owners of Omaha’s Caffeine Dreams. The two have been location-independent for the past five years, traveling all over Europe while running businesses, but these days they’re back in Nebraska as owners of Commonwealth Studios, a recording studio south of the Old Market. 

We are excited to have Amber write about the five pieces of advice she wishes she would have known about being an entrepreneur.

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Last month marked the 14th anniversary of opening my first business. Back in 2000, I was 21 years old, a newlywed and ready to take on the world. So when my brand-new husband said, “Let’s open a coffee house!” I said, “Why the heck not?”

Of course I had no clue what that meant, or what direction it would take my life in. So instead of finishing up my undergrad degree, we decided to get into massive amounts of debt, remodel a 100-year-old building and attempt to make our mark in the Omaha coffee scene. In fact, we were so bold to announce that we were “Re-­evolving Omaha Coffee Couture.”

We were explorers. We had no map, no mentors, no such thing as social media or blogs to research. We were alone and completely oblivious to how hard it would be. But because we had never really failed at anything this big, we weren’t scared to try. And even though it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, it was an amazing experience that led to an exciting life as serial entrepreneurs.

These days when I speak with or teach young entrepreneurs, I’m careful not to burst their hopeful little bubbles, but at the same time give them the advice I wish I had been given.

1. Find out what to expect. If you are new to the entrepreneurship game, let’s be real, you have no idea what you are in for. Being a business owner is a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week hustle. Talk to someone with experience who can help prepare you for what your life will look like as an entrepreneur. And most importantly, design your business around the kind of life you want to have. Your business will take up most of your free time. If you want to make sure you have time for your passions or your family, make sure the type of business you want to open can support that.

2. Be ready to sacrifice and do whatever it takes. Opening a business is easy — the hard part is staying open. It’s very likely that you’ll have to keep your day job, or take on extra side jobs for a while before you are ready to go full-time in your new venture. Staying open is your No. 1 priority, so get creative and do whatever you can to keep the doors open.

3. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’ll work long hours, wear multiple hats, the business will be in a constant state of flux. If you are someone who fears change and is slow to adopt new ideas, being a business owner is not for you. A good business owner is determined, flexible and comfortable with risk. Make sure you can honestly say that about yourself before you jump into the deep end.

4. Be careful about whom you hire. When you first get started, your payroll will quickly grow to be one of your biggest expenses. Only hire additional people because you are growing so fast that you can’t afford not to (from 37 Signals, Hire Less and Hire Later).

Also, best friends don’t necessarily make the best business partners (or employees). Choose partners who have experience, wisdom and most importantly, fill a gap on your team. A business partnership is a lot like a marriage. You’d better make sure the other person really has your back when the crap hits the fan. Don’t be quick to offer partnerships, equity or full­-time employment to friends unless you are 100 percent confident they are a perfect fit for the position. Take it from me, the only thing worse than writing up your friends at work is firing them. (I’ve done both and it’s awful.)

5. Know your business backward and forward. Write a business plan, even if you never show it to anyone. You need to know where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. One of the quickest ways to fail at business is poor marketing strategy. You need to figure out who your target customer is and what they want. If you truly understand your customers’ pain, selling to them will be easy.

Get familiar with the numbers. What are your monthly operating costs and how much can you afford to pay yourself and your employees? How much does it cost to make one unit of your product, and how many units do you need to sell every month to stay afloat? Don’t be oblivious to how you are going to pay the bills and get out of debt. If you aren’t good with numbers, hire someone who is and pay attention.

My husband and I worked as a baristas for years before we opened Caffeine Dreams. We knew a lot about what it meant to work behind the counter, but were clueless about what it meant to be owners. We didn’t realize that many months we would go without a paycheck because we barely had enough in our checking account to cover payroll. We didn’t know about the sleepless nights before having to fire someone. And we certainly didn’t realize just how long it would take for us to get out of debt.

What we learned after several years was that we loved being entrepreneurs. We loved serving our customers, building a family of employees and being our own bosses. After a few years of running Caffeine Dreams, some successful and some not so much, we decided it was time to sell the business and try something new. And we’ve been opening businesses ever since. As serial entrepreneurs we’ve had our fair share of failures, even as recently as last year, but we still love it and wouldn’t change it for the world.

If you are dreaming about owning a business, I can’t stress enough how important it is to write a plan. Find out if your idea will make money before you get into debt. Being a business owner is extremely rewarding, but it’s not for the faint of heart. If you like stable, predictable outcomes maybe it’s not for you. If, however, you’re like me and you love a good roller­coaster, then get on the ride and buckle up.