11 Pieces of Advice for Your First Year in Business

Hindsight is 20/20. Here's why 11 entrepreneurs started their own small businesses, and what they’d tell themselves in their first year in business if they could.

first year in business

On average, 22% of small businesses in the U.S. fail within their first year of operation. So, if you’re determined to see your new business succeed, a solid business plan isn’t enough. You’ll need a strong business model, a target market, and the determination to go after new opportunities.

Of course, some of the best advice comes from people who’ve already been there. That’s why we asked 11 successful business owners to share their sob stories, successes, and tips for fellow entrepreneurs and new small business owners.

Over the next few months, we’ll check in with them on essential topics like landing your first client, creating a marketing plan, setting financial goals, increasing incoming revenue, and more.

1. Shorten Your Learning Curve by Working with a Mentor

A freelance writer with 7 years of experience, Feli Oliveros (Oliveros Marketing Services) creates content for B2B software companies. Her areas of expertise include business finance, human resources, and digital marketing.

Why Feli Got Started

“I’ve always known that writing would be a part of my career somehow. But after being overworked at my first full-time job and getting fired four months after starting, I wanted to do things my way from that point on.

“Luckily, my short stint at that company taught me some things about how a business should (and shouldn’t) be run, so I used them as a basis for building my new venture and learned everything else on my own. I’m grateful for that experience now because I love the flexibility and freedom that freelancing offers. Plus, the satisfaction from seeing how far you’ve come from your first client is like no other.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“Looking back on everything, I wish I had a mentor to guide me through starting a new business. The way my first full-time job crashed and burned around me was very demoralizing, to tell the truth. I loved learning how to create a business plan and operate a business, but part of me was terrified of taking action and failing again. Because of the pressure I put on myself and having to learn everything from scratch, it took a long time to get into the right mindset and make my business sustainable. Having someone to learn from would’ve saved me a lot of stress and heartache.”

2. Be Open to Unexpected Business Opportunities

Communications consultant and writer Paul Russell (Bretenic Limited) is a solo entrepreneur specializing in corporate communications and marketing. He has extensive experience working in human resources (internal communications) and financial services (external communications).

Why Paul Got Started

“I was a lawyer from ages 28 to 32. When I was 33, I quit my job, and my wife and I backpacked around the world for a year. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. When we came back to Toronto, I’d had a taste of freedom plus the confidence of knowing I could overcome a lot of obstacles. That’s when I started freelancing.

“Running your own business gives you the absolute freedom to make your own decisions, and I love the direct relationship of doing good work and getting paid for it. Other than commission sales work, working for yourself is the only way to get that.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“Probably to ‘get out there’ and show your face at events because most of my work has come from happen-chance. I met an older cousin by fluke at a holiday party, and he listened to what I was doing and then said he knew someone at a firm who he thought could use my help. That ‘by chance’ conversation turned into about $1.5 million in income for me over the course of my career so far.

“Also, a photographer friend gave me Working Alone: Words of Wisdom for the Self-Employed by Murray Felsher, and that book changed my life. It’s old (1994), but it’s a total pep talk about the value of your work and to make sure you charge for it. I highly recommend it for new entrepreneurs.”

3. Use Your Day Job as a Launch Pad for Your Business

Jennifer Matthews (Matthews Communications) is a writer, editor, and communications strategist with a wide breadth of experience with internal communications (like training materials, conference scripts, and change communications) as well as external communications (like magazines, annual reports, and executive speeches).

Why Jennifer Got Started

“The penny dropped for me when I saw what my corporate communications team was paying a freelance writer we’d hired for a particular project. Not long afterward, an opportunity to freelance came my way, and I began doing magazine writing and editing after-hours. I have loved being my own boss and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

A key highlight for me? The variety of projects I’ve been able to work on and the truly interesting clients I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with. Not so great? The challenge of managing workflow and cash flow. It can be either feast or famine in this business, and I’ve been fortunate to have a partner with a steady paycheck and benefits to help even things out!”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“When I first graduated from university and started job hunting, one of my strategies was to open the Yellow Pages (oh, how networking has changed!) and cold-call freelance writers and editors. Several were more than willing to speak with me, and several told me to start freelancing right away. I wasn’t comfortable doing that, and I’m glad I didn’t.

“Working on a corporate communications team for a few years gave me an inside perspective on the people who would eventually become some of my freelance clients. I had a much better understanding of the politics and culture they have to deal with – and that makes me a better supplier for them. Plus, it gave me a steady source of income and benefits to fall back on while I got my freelance business (slowly) off the ground.”

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4. Include Your Priorities in Your Business Planning

Rodolphe Dutel is the founder and CEO of Remotive, an online job board for remote roles in the tech industry. He oversees the company’s strategy, growth, team management, and finances.

Why Rodolphe Got Started

“Back in 2014, I was working remotely for an American startup. Friends kept asking me how to find a remote job, so I created a weekly newsletter to help out. It took off on media outlets and ProductHunt, and thousands of people signed up within a few months. It led me to create a website and a job board on remotive.com, our current business.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“I’d say you need to think hard about your priorities. Remind yourself WHY you’re launching your business and, as a consequence, HOW you’d like to do things. For instance, if you prioritize either freedom, growth, or profit, you can go in three different directions. In any case, you’ll have to chat with prospects and customers as much as possible to find out what type of help or services they are looking for. The answer might surprise you!”

5. Build a Support System

As an image and style consultant, Suzanne Colmer has spent the last 10 years helping people shop smarter and teaching them how to love the clothes in their closet.

Why Suzanne Got Started

“For the freedom to undertake big bold dreams and make them real. I love the blank canvas of entrepreneurship. I am not a paint-by-numbers type of gal.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“You are not an island! Surround yourself with entrepreneurs that inspire and push you. There is nothing more valuable than a group of people that you can bounce ideas off of. And look at your numbers. Every day. I underestimated how important bookkeeping truly was/is.”

6. Don’t Force Yourself to Specialize Too Soon

Andrew and Jess Campbell run Fresh Air Media, an agency specializing in the agriculture and food industry. Andrew’s focus is on training and skill development in communications, while Jess does project management and freelance writing.

Why Andrew and Jess Got Started

“A lot of it had to do with passion and flexibility together. The passion comes down to focusing on doing the things we have liked about past jobs and working hard to build a business around those things. We also have a dairy and grain farm that doesn’t always go well with a traditional 9-5 job, so we wanted something that included the ability to get work done on our time (like evenings or weekends). Being able to do that and build a business around the things we really look forward to doing is exciting.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“Don’t get too niche too fast. There were things I really wanted to do, but those jobs weren’t flying in. I should have taken a few other opportunities early on, but learned pretty quickly that other jobs like part-time contracts or longer-term projects that don’t fit what you really want to be doing are just a stepping stone to get you where you need to be (including cash-flow positive!).”

7. Learn to Go with the Flow

Stacey Stein provides copywriting and content marketing services to clients in a wide range of industries. She’s also a freelance journalist, with her work published in some of the country’s top newspapers and magazines.

Why Stacey Got Started

“I’ve always wanted to experience the satisfaction of creating something from the ground up and being my own boss. I also enjoy the flexibility of creating my own schedule. As a bonus, I get to do the work I love!”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“There will be ebbs and flows to the business cycle, and that’s okay! Actually, I still need to remind myself to heed this advice even though I’m more than 5 years in!”

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8. Align Your Decisions with Your Business Vision

David Janovic is the founder and CEO of RJ Living, a designer furniture and home decor brand based in Australia.

Why David Got Started

“I created the business to offer unique designer furniture without an inflated price tag.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“The advice I’d give to new businesses is to always move forward with a solid vision in mind. Only move forward with new ideas if they’re fully aligned with your business goals. It’s a good way to stay on track and not fall victim to shiny object syndrome, where you chase things that look like great opportunities but only end up causing setbacks in the long run. When you ensure that everything you do is aligned with one solid goal, you’ll be able to build the business quicker and keep positive momentum going.”

9. Take Things One Day at a Time

Nihan Colak Erol is the founder and COO of Wingie, a tech company helping people save time and money on their travel plans.

Why Nihan Got Started

“Our company was created to help travelers find the most cost-effective and efficient flight routes, without having to spend time sifting through multiple discount sites.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“The piece of advice I’d give to new small businesses is to take things one day at a time. It’s easy to always think ten steps ahead rather than focusing on what you need to be doing right now to achieve what you want in the future. Reminding yourself that the present sets you up for a bright future is so important during the first year.”

10. Cultivate Your Reputation Carefully

Tim Dolan is a digital strategy consultant and the owner of Kickframe. Kickframe helps organizations become better digital marketers by serving as their specialized digital strategy and training partner.

Why Tim Got Started

“I love having greater control over who I work with, what I work on, and how I approach helping clients. Working independently allows me to have more freedom over these things, particularly how I allocate my time, that working in a larger agency or consultancy would not offer.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“The two most important factors for your success are your reputation and your network. If people don’t know you or want to work with you, everything else is a waste of time. I wish I appreciated the importance of networking earlier in my career – the majority of my clients come from word-of-mouth, and the more mouths, the better.”

11. Believe in Yourself

Joshua Speers is the founder and creative director of Speers Creative, an award-winning design and advertising studio that specializes in graphic design, web design, branding, and consulting.

Why Joshua Got Started

“I started my own business because I wanted to make a bigger difference in the way we experience the world, and working for another company wouldn’t allow me to do that. I’m still in the game because I’m building my dream and helping other businesses succeed along the way.”

Advice for Your First Year of Business

“Have more faith in your choices and your ability to succeed as a business owner.”

Ultimately, the Success of Your New Business is Up to You

As a small business owner, your first year in business plays a huge role in its success—but it’s not always the make-or-break factor. Use your community and customer feedback as a sounding board for your ideas and your judgment and hard work to build a business you can be proud of. We’ll be here with you every step of the way.

Heather Hudson

Written by Heather Hudson, Freelance Contributor

Posted on July 23, 2018