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It was Aristotle that gave us one of the earliest - and most succinct - descriptions of learning through experience. “For the things we have to learn before we can do them,” he wrote, “we learn by doing them”.
The forums are replete with businesses - at different stages - getting to grips with the difficulties and riddles of commerce. Inevitably, when they turn to their fellow UKBFers for help, it comes in the form of someone who tussled with a similar dilemma and pulled through.
Experience is an incredible teacher. It’s in that spirit that we asked some business owners to look back over their careers and answer one question:
“What’s the one thing I wish I knew when I started?”
Marc Wileman, Sublime Science
Successful Dragon’s Den contestant ‘Mad’ Marc Wileman’s business turns science into a party trick. Sublime Science’s aim is to make science fun for kids.
Given the scientific bent of Wileman’s business, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his one thing has strong echoes of the scientific method. “My one thing would be ‘Test Assumptions’,” says Wileman. “So much so I gave a TEDx talk about this called ‘Testing > Talent’
“Pretty much everyone has an option on everything but the only way you can really know for sure is to test. So many assumptions are completely wrong and one of the most reliable routes to success is to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.”
MyFairWorld, UKBF user
MyFairWorld’s lesson is a familiar one to many UKBF users: the personal cost of doing business.
A long time Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) member and retailer, they realise now that “you can get into a lot of trouble by trusting people on the grounds that they are friends or longtime acquaintances”.
“I went into retail by buying a retail shop & delivery business from the people who had been my own suppliers of a certain type of products,” writes MyFairWorld. “They wanted to retire and I didn't want the shop/delivery service to close. I regarded the owners as people with strong ethics and to be absolutely trusted and it was a big mistake.”
Because of the close relationship, MyFairWorld admits they didn’t do enough due diligence. “To give just one example I bought as part of the business a computerised system for invoicing and stock control. I knew it had been designed by the son of the business owners but wasn't concerned about it, from a customer's point of view it had always seemed to work fine and they'd agreed to spend some time in helping me learn the system.”
“It turned out the system had no instructions or only the most basic, when the owners got stuck they phoned their son and the son had not undertaken to provide long term support to the buyer of the business.”
“The owners did not intend to cheat me but they did most thoroughly and this issue caused tremendous problems and great expense (dump old system, get new one) in the first few weeks after buying the business.”
The saddest part, says MyFairWorld, is that it’s clear the previous owners didn’t intend to act unethically. But, they write, “I learned the hard way that it isn't just whether people are basically honest or dishonest but whether they have the imagination to see how something will work out for someone else”.
JapanCool, UKBF member
Tying in neatly with the troubles faced by MyFairWorld, JapanCool has learned to follow a simple maxim: “Never trust others to treat you fairly for your contribution to the business or to ‘do the right thing’.”
For them, experience has taught a simple formula: “Lay down your requirements and get commitments in writing,” JapanCool writes. “Their opinion on what is fair will almost certainly be different from yours.”
Linda Ward, Busters Dog Walking Services
According to Linda Ward, Busters almost started by accident. Happily, she has grown herself a wonderful business, living a dog lover’s dream in Brentwood, Essex.
Serendipity aside, Ward does wish she had been a little more prepared for success. “I wish I had known how 'big' I was going to grow (relatively speaking),” says Ward, an FSB member. “I would have planned for growth from the start.
“I just wanted a job that paid my bills and would suit my son and one of my dogs, and ended up creating 7 jobs (counting mine) almost by accident.”
DavidWH, SSP Sign and Print
The British comedian Danny Wallace famously spent an entire year saying ‘yes’ to any offer that crossed his path. It made for good comedy as Wallace ended up in an array of strange situations.
But for UKBF member DavidHw being a yes man is a sure fire way to run into business difficulties. “How to say ‘NO’,” he writes. “It seems wrong as a new business to say no to work, but sometimes it's a necessity.”
Has his willingness to say no ever led to awkwardness, though? “I've ended up in more sticky situations by not saying no, and going along with the customers demands, tight deadlines, continuing to offer credit, than by saying no.”
Gary Kind, developer, author and marketer
It’s a simple one for Gary Kind: “Market first. Product second”.
An experienced marketer, Kind prescribes moulding an idea to fit a preexisting market opportunity. “Find the demand for something first and then create a product around it, not the other way around,” he says.
How about yourself: “What’s the one thing I wish I knew when I started?” Comment below or add to the thread in the forum.
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