Dear Ceci Johnson, “The Big Dreamer,”
As you fantasize about what it would be like to start your own business and dream about what that path would possibly look like if you became your own boss, allow me to help shed some light on what that big unknown could be like for you. While everyone’s road is unique, here is a glimpse into what the world of entrepreneur could be like. I want to share with you the best business advice I’ve learned along the way that you can apply to your own experience on your road to success.
The first and most important step is don’t let the one thing that prevents most people from taking the leap get in your way: Fear. I’m a firm believer in the saying “you never know until you try.” And if you don’t try, how will you know? So let’s face your fears and get started!
First, you’re wondering what that road will look like, right? Will you even like it? Well, one of the major things I’ve learned is that success doesn’t happen overnight. I truly thought that if I launched a beautiful website, everyone would hire me and I’d be so successful. Well that didn’t entirely work. I quickly learned that’s only ONE piece of the big puzzle.
I thought success looked like a straight line that only went up. But in reality, success looks more like a roller coaster, complete with ups and downs and wild curves and swerves. You have to weather the ride and keep standing strong through it all, no matter what.
Starting your own business means a commitment to never giving up and pledging your life to a thing called dedication and persistence. You are going to get on a ride that will be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. It will be challenging, exciting, addicting, and tiring – but most of all rewarding. This incredible fulfillment will keep you getting out of bed each morning to keep on going. My husband once told me that starting a business is equivalent to pushing the heaviest boulder up a steep hill. I always remember this and I think when times get tough, I have to keep pushing and not let go. Otherwise, the boulder may roll backwards and crush me, taking with it all my hard work. Do not let that happen!
When you start down this road, never lose sight of your original vision – the dream that started it all. Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t let anything distract you. The more you grow, the more exposure you will get, be aware that more people will want something from you (often for free). Because of your nature, you may then want to help, but just remember, “Love doesn’t pay the bills”. Align your in-kind donations and charitable efforts with those opportunities that make sense for your brand and give you the most ROI (return on investment).
Always protect your brand and know that it’s OK to say no. Politely declining jobs that aren’t the right fit will be the best thing you could ever do for your business. Accept the fact early on that you can’t be everything to everyone. You are not a commodity.
If you want to build a luxury brand, don’t say yes to DIY clients, they will only be a time-suck and keep you from working towards your dreams and achieving your goals. Take a moment to ask yourself, will this really help my future goals? Is this worth my time? If you answer no, then politely decline and feel 100% confident in your decision because you’re working towards something bigger than that! Your laser-sharp focus will reap you bigger returns in the long run, trust me.
Always do your homework and understand your competitive landscape before you start, especially when it comes to pricing. Record how much time you really spend on your work. Put a fair price on your hourly rate from the beginning. Don’t be afraid to raise your prices because you are worth it. If you don’t think you are worth this, then how will your customers? Know your value and always stand behind it.
When times get tough (and they definitely will) remember to take a step back and utilize the power of the number 24:
“Your hardest day only lasts 24 hours.” – Charles D. Hoffman
Give it the old 24 hour rule.
Responding emotionally in business never gets you very far. So it is best to utilize the 24 hour rule. Take some time to think things through, settle down and get your facts straight. Taking care of the situation first thing in the morning versus the night before (when your upset customer is calling you screaming at 9pm), is more productive and equally effective. Remember not to take things personally whenever you can – especially when it comes to your business. Now, I don’t mean you shouldn’t have emotion or passion in your work, I’m saying that there will always be challenges (and challenging customers) and when you take them personally, you are letting your emotions get in the way. Just remember it’s not personal. It’s just business. Solve the problem with a rational mind not an emotional one and you’ll be on the right track.
Embrace that you will be working a ton of hours like never before. Being your own boss doesn’t mean a free ride to fancy lunches and days on the golf course while everyone else does all the work for you. It’s entirely up to you and your determination to accomplish the level of success you dream about. You have to be ok with giving up your social life in the beginning and know that you might have an occasional melt-down on Friday nights (or any night for that matter) when your business isn’t going the way you had thought it would. Instead of drinking cocktails with your friends like you used to, you may be stuck at your computer working on a deadline. Working late nights might become the norm and waking up at 3 a.m. when inspiration strikes may occur frequently (keep a note pad handy).
Know that this dedication will pay off in the long run. Even though you feel totally alone, as you are emotionally at your low and wondering to yourself, is this all worth it? Just comfort yourself and remember if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it. It’s a special group of individuals that have the entrepreneurial gene. And you are going to make the world a better place, one step at a time.
As your business grows, you will find yourself in great demand and your ability to multi-task and wear many hats may start to become very difficult to juggle and sustain at the speed you desire. Acknowledge that you are only one person and the demands you are putting on yourself are not right for one single person to handle. It’s either time to hire or scale back.
As you wonder, “should I hire an employee to help?” consider this golden advice, “when you hire a person, you hire a problem.” Everybody comes to the table with their own issues and requirements that you now have to deal with. You must dedicate extra time to work with them and manage them clearly. You can’t expect to hire someone and for them to automatically be perfect, require no training or management and just know exactly how your mind thinks. This takes a lot of time management and time away from what your original passion was. Setting clear expectations and planning ahead will be your saving grace. Be sure to take time to think and create mindful systems that work for all parties. This initial time you take to do this for your business will be the foundation for how you set yourself up for growth in the future.
Consistently listen, crave feedback and ask the best question in life – “Why?” I always say that curious minds are the smarter minds. Understanding why is everything in business. You will go far if you continually ask why.
Don’t be afraid of failure. I always am mindful of these helpful words of a good friend, Simon T. Bailey, “Failure isn’t final. It’s only feedback. And feedback is the breakfast of champions.” When you are open and listen to feedback and then apply that feedback to your business, you are continually improving. Once you think you are at the top and start to check out, you’re irrelevant. Someone new will pop up and steal the spotlight from you. You must never give up and keep on refining your company as you go. Continually evolve. Improve. Reinvent and innovate in all you do.
Keep your focus, drive and determination strong and it will bring you success. But above all, don’t let all this success get the best of you. Check your ego at the door. Be humble. Be kind. Be grateful. Be respectful. Never forget where you came from and those that helped you along the way. And most importantly never be too busy to say thank you.
Still dreaming big,
Ceci Johnson (10 years later)
P.S. My biggest mentor was my father, Charles D. Hoffman. Below is a cheat sheet of all his best quotes that I hope will inspire you along your way. Print it out and put it somewhere where you can be reminded of it daily. Hope his words of wisdom help you as they have me.
Ceci Johnson, Founder & Creative Director of Ceci New York
Ceci New York is a couture invitation studio that is considered the industry trendsetter and tastemaker, spanning not only the worlds of weddings but also events, corporate branding and other fine paper goods. At the helm is celebrated artist, designer and visual stylist Ceci Johnson who brings the ultimate in luxury branding to clients around the globe. In addition to her highly regarded design house, Ceci’s online lifestyle and fashion magazine, CeciStyle.com, has fast become one of the leading resources for the discerning bride. See more at cecinewyork.com.