Small Business Ownership: “It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride…”

          I officially opened up my small business on April 1st, 2011. The business name: “Guitarley’s Custom Guitar & Repair.” The paperwork and red tape was easily navigated and completed thanks to my local Small Business Development Center (http://www.lhup.edu/sbdc/), a wonderful resource. I was in and out of this office in about an hour with all necessary paper work, tax items and helpful reading material. I was officially a sole proprietor! It almost seemed too easy!
          My business model? I make and fix stringed instruments. My customer base? Relatively specific: people who have stringed instruments. I do a little retail here and there, order parts as needed, have select tools, and do the best work I can. I started out with as little overhead as possible, as advised by one of my instructors at Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery (http://www.roberto-venn.com/), where I was trained and certified in my craft. He suggested some basic power tools, hand tools and a little shop in a good location. “Just start out simple and let it grow naturally,” he said. Well, I lucked out by getting a great deal on a business district storefront and apartment all in one– it was custom made for me. It’s beautiful and convenient! I roll out of bed and walk into my shop! I can take breaks, or never take breaks! I have a 5 foot commute to work, the place is a tax write-off, I’m there to “guard the fort” and I’m always comfortable.
          I took advantage of my connections and relationships to get things started. People were excited for me and my new venture and were willing to help out and lend or return favors. It felt great to have all that support from friends, family and acquaintances. I had lots of local press to draw attention and the help of social media as well (https://www.facebook.com/guitarleys & https://twitter.com/#!/guitarleys). Almost all of the advertising I have done to date has been FREE, and it has worked! Thanks to Facebook and Twitter I have freely promoted myself and made customers and professional contacts locally, regionally and, even cooler, world wide! In business school, I always loved the concept of “buzz marketing” and that’s what I have mostly relied on. It’s very tangible and accountable– I do good work, customers tell others about their positive experience with my service and my customer base grows!
          Now, about that roller coaster ride…
          I have already had my first experiences with cyclical business trends. As a bartender I know that January and February are usually slower months, but as a guitar repair shop owner, I noticed a different trend. I remember tons of cool work coming into my shop in the beginning, I was slammed! It was so exciting. I felt so useful and needed. Long term success was in plain sight. Well, maybe that was a little premature. After finishing up a ton of work I would sit down and feel proud. Then it would hit me… I just finished all my work! That meant something different when I worked for someone else. In this case it meant there wasn’t any more work to do and get paid for! It was a pat on the back that turned into a sharp blow to the gut. I realized the responsibility and sensed the difference of being employed vs. self-employed.
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          Very little work came in for a few weeks after that. Just as I was really stressing over keeping up with bills and losing hope (also premature), a big job would come in! So I was back on top! Then a few more came in, and again, they were big jobs! So I paid the bills and then repeated that cycle for several months. When people asked me “What it was like?” or “How is the business going?” all I could say was “It’s kind of like a roller coaster ride.” The nervous anticipation as you climb, waiting for the next drop, the thrill and enjoyment of getting over the hump, the sudden twists and turns, up and down, up and down, fast and slow! It’s exciting and then a little stressful, a humbling experience that continues to keep me on my toes. I’ve been learning to put the money away for those “rainy days” in business. I also use those slow times to come up with other ways to make money: product extensions, new ventures, booking gigs, picking up a bar tending shift here and there, etc. I learned to not waste time and use free moments to invest and create busier days in the future. As a result, I have been experiencing longer busy times and slower down times.
          So, the graphs and charts show positive growth, and that’s fundamentally positive and successful. That’s the exact plan! Patience and positive thinking get me through. Inventiveness, during slow times, helps things to grow down the line. As a small business owner, and a person in general, you should never be bored. Boredom is just another word for lazy and unmotivated. Down time is when you get a chance to plan for the future, explore new ideas and take stock of your past-to-current practices and outcomes. You should always be learning and researching your business and/or trade to improve your product and offerings. Some of the best advice I received pertaining to that is, “You have to be the expert your customer expects you to be.”
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