Lessons From a Small Business Owner

by on February 7th, 2015
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Small business owners all have an answer to the question, “what would you do differently if you could start over?” This is true because being a small business owner requires an analytic mindset, a problem solving attitude and enough honesty to admit mistakes and make changes.

I own a small, independent coffee shop in Quartz Hill, Calif., and I certainly have an answer (or a few answers, really) to the question of what I will do differently when starting another small business.

The coffee shop has had success in two-plus years of business and things keep getting better. That success, along with the numerous challenges along the way, has offered several lessons about running a small business.


When you look around at start-up advice, certain pieces of wisdom consistently appear. Make your business plan, your physical layout plans, and your plans for expenses as detailed as possible. That’s good advice.

Plan for your start-up and build-out to take twice as long as you estimate it should take. Plan to need twice as much money as you estimate should be required then go out and gather all that money, via loan or earnings, and have it in hand before you begin to build your business. As much as this may sound like overkill, it too is good advice.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that you don’t want to be in a situation where you are close to running out of money before opening the doors of your business for the first time. When you are rushed to the starting line, you may not be prepared for the significant work of the actual race when it comes.


Long before my partner and I opened our little coffee shop, we were determined to develop a simple and understandable business identity. We wanted people to know who we were, what we were, and what we stood for without complications or confusion.

Since we’ve been in business, we have tried to keep that initial identity central. When we consider new products to offer and what events to host and how to advertise ourselves, we go back to the question of who we are and how we want to be understood.

There will be plenty of room to experiment within the constraints of a simple business identity, so choosing to stay focused and understandable is not a huge compromise. You can play while maintaining an identity that new customers will understand right away.

In our coffee shop, we have tried to find a balance between attempts to offer a wide variety of drinks and food (including some surprises) without expanding our menu to biblical proportions. I’ve seen small businesses go too far to try to please everyone: coffee shops selling gumbo and fried chicken; independent movie theaters selling soap and craft items in the lobby gift shop. Maybe that kind of fusion works sometimes, but it can really confuse people who are looking to just get some coffee or who only came to see a movie.


When it comes to starting and running a small business, there is no shortage of advice. This is especially true if your business is public, as in the case of a restaurant, a coffee shop or a bike shop. If things are going well for you, there are new customers coming in all the time and one out of every 10 of them will tell you what you need to do to improve your business.

Despite the good intentions of the public, successful small businesses are not run by committee but are run by dedicated ownership. The general public doesn’t necessarily know what you can and can’t do in your place of business according to local rules and regulations.

In our coffee shop, the suggestion has come up again and again that we make sandwiches to sell. That’s a good idea and it makes sense in the context of our business. But the Health Department of Los Angeles County requires additional sinks and hardware for any facility chopping vegetables. Storing meat is yet another Heath Department issue.

Though sandwiches make sense from an outsider’s perspective, the task is not as easy as it seems. Clearly then, there is some advice that should not (and cannot) be taken.

Oppositely, there is some advice that you can’t ignore. A person starting a business may be passionate, may even be an expert in his or her field, but that doesn’t mean that a small business owner knows exactly what the customer really wants.

Our plan was to avoid blended drinks. Don’t ask me why, but we just wanted to go another route with our small business. After a year of hearing requests for blended drinks, we decided that we were only hurting ourselves by holding out and we decided that this was a compromise that we should make.

We’ve been blending ever since and, though the decision has led to some of the problems that had kept us away from blending in the first place, it has made our customers happy and so we are happy with this particular decision to compromise.

More from this Contributor:
The 99 Cents Only Store & the Real Reason You Love It

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