A year ago, my family crawled into a hot air balloon gondola in the predawn darkness of Kenya’s Masai Mara. We slid into the gondola, which was resting sideways, strapped in, and waited for liftoff while lying on the ground. The whole start to the experience was rather clunky and nothing like I remembered in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.
Our pilot gradually propelled us right side up, and we hovered in place, then drifted skywards. We spent the next hour in a state of suspension and wonder as we drifted over the savanna and its inhabitants. As the light expanded around us, so did the views. I even forgot about missing my morning coffee.
Small Business Mechanics
The mechanics of getting a balloon up and away are rather similar to getting a small business to a more pleasant altitude. It takes a lot of fuel, mechanical skill, and favorable winds.
Stepping into anything new forces you into an intense learning environment. It’s not unlike immersing yourself in a new language with no mother tongue to fall back on. First, you comprehend nothing, then gradually recognize the occasional word. Next comes a sentence, followed by something approaching fluency and connection. Learning the small business vernacular is no different: Shipstation. Skus. Slack. Klaviyo. Fulfillment. Customer Experience.
Small Business 101
I soon discovered that denial and tenacity are mandatory ingredients when starting a small business. Along with a business loan. We are no longer drinking from a fire hose, but each day still delivers a surprise or two.
We turned three this month, and triumphs now increasingly balance our beginner’s mistakes—and this counts as success in itself. Small business entrepreneurship is not in my blood, but I credit my love of color, textiles, craft, and treasuring beauty at every turn to my mother. If she were here, she would quip: “If it’s not one thing it’s your mother.” How right you were, Jessica.
Three is the Charm
The number three is associated with harmony, with Pythagoras, with the correlation of mind, body, and spirit, with the triad, and with the trinity. It’s also a critical year for most small businesses. Conventional wisdom suggests that you should at least be breaking even by year three. But COVID has obliterated these guidelines for the time being. While COVID threw up a few hurdles, we embraced the pause and underwent a formal branding exercise, and examined our roses and thorns — what we did well and what we didn’t. And since I love lists, here are some observations on starting a business.
20 Observations About Starting a Small Business
- Invest in a good coffee machine and excellent beans.
- Check your ego at the door. Surround yourself with a great team with skill sets that you don’t possess. Managing a team takes ongoing commitment. And humility.
- With risk comes the inevitable 2 am “wake-up and fret” call.
- It’s a challenge to start and manage a small business later in life, just as most of your peers are slowing down or already retired. I waited for an empty nest to launch my dream, so now that puts me in my fifties. It’s fine that some friends may not understand why you still haven’t played pickleball or cannot make that cocktail hour, or are not yet embracing your inner nomad. Stay your course.
- Speaking of friends, do not forget the ones who cheerlead you and light the way. They are an important part of the small business engine.
- Be prepared to work all the time.
- Rearing a family gives you built-in management skills. For example, parenting skills helped me juggle cancer treatment, kids, and COVID in the first year of a new business.
- You have to be willing to take some heat.
- Gratitude, courtesy, grace, and manners are not quaint notions. They are key to good stewardship and to a healthy work environment. They are also critical to building a good clientele.
- Studio-supplied snacks and a weekly staff lunch are a must.
- Give credit. And then give some more.
- It takes time to understand what works and what doesn’t.
- We are more committed than ever to sustainable business practices, but that is a constant work in progress.
- I have a deep appreciation for what it takes to make a product leap from paper to product. I had no idea about the minutiae this entails. I will never look at a product the same way again.
- I now understand how important it is to support other small businesses at every opportunity.
- I have met, virtually and in person, hundreds of new people which keeps my world more dynamic.
- I am still baffled by the supply chain.
- Customer enthusiasm is better than chocolate.
- Dogs make for a better studio. Even when they are demanding another biscuit.
- Even an introvert like me can fall in love with being part of a team.
Ignorance is Bliss
Statistically, small businesses fail by year three, but I am choosing to ignore this. Ultimately I learned that moving and exploring is never a mistake, never a failure. It feels great to trounce my inner critics. For once.
Isa Catto ’87 is the founder and creative director of Isa Catto Studio, based in Woody Creek, Colorado. After thirty years as a fine artist, she expanded her studio practice and formed a small business to transform her art into thoughtfully designed products. Isa is social – follow her on Instagram, on LinkedIn, or sign up for her blog. And if you are near Aspen, drop by the studio. The original version of this article appears in her Isa’s Journal blog.