Who would be foolish enough to give up on being their own boss and running their own highly lucrative small business? With much humility, I admit that I am that person. I spent three-and-a-half years as the owner/operator of a small dry-cleaning store that I had inherited – with much enthusiasm – in mid-2017 from my in-laws, after my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer (I had spent a career as a business journalist to that point). After making several personal mistakes that led to mental and physical burnout, I decided to sell the store in a lease-to-own contract in early 2021 and took a small paycheck with a 9-to-5 job.
This may not exactly be an encouraging essay for small business owners, but for the sake of your physical and mental health, it may be valuable to share with you the mistakes I made in running my small business so that you can succeed where I failed.
There are numerous questions I failed to ask myself when I took on running a small business. Instead of really examining what I was getting into inheriting this small business, I dreamt of being my own boss, setting my own hours and being able to keep the fruits of my labor, instead of having a corporation decide my salary. Even though running a dry-cleaning business wasn’t what I was trained to do, it sounded far more appealing than working a 9-to-5 job.
Six months into it, however, reality had slapped me in the face: I felt overwhelmed by 12-to-15-hour days, rude customers, having to manage employees, constant haggling with suppliers and not spending much time with my family, among other things. Despite the bad rap that being a full-time employee is getting now during the Great Resignation, I realized where I had failed: I didn’t really evaluate the benefits of a 9-to-5 job.
It’s Not Just About Money
I now work full-time for a very good company doing something that is in line with my professional experience and that I enjoy. I get to work remotely and report to very good supervisors (and I’m not saying that just to score brownie points with my company). I’m far less stressed and get to spend time with my family.
While what I’m earning now is considerably less, I get a steady paycheck that’s enough to help pay the bills and put food on the table, plus benefits. While I care about how my company is doing, my responsibility isn’t to look after the company in its entirety – just to do the job I was hired to do.
My advice: For what it’s worth, if you feel completely stressed out as a small business owner like I did, take the time to evaluate why you became a small business owner and re-evaluate the benefits of a full-time job. Don’t just look at the money, consider the lifestyle of a small business owner and seriously ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
Don’t Always Say Yes to Customers
Like most owners of service-related small businesses, I found out that customers are like children: they
want everything right now. Customers would come into my store and tell me that they needed their clothes cleaned and pressed that day or by tomorrow because they had a wedding or some other event that they were attending very soon. Like many small business owners, I never said no out of fear of losing business. This led to 12-to-15-hour days (sometimes 18 hours) in which I had to stay in the store late at night to clean and press clothes that had to be ready the next day. These long hours led to health issues, a lack of sleep, no relaxation time and time away from my family.
My advice: Of course, this is easier said than done, but don’t be afraid to tell customers no. If fulfilling a customer order or request will lead to you being overloaded, it’s perfectly okay to politely let the customer know that you are unable to meet the deadline that he or she is imposing and give them options as to when you can meet their expectations. If you’re afraid of losing business, look at it this way: this is a good problem to have because it means you’re getting too much business.
Don’t be Afraid to Outsource
One of the early lessons I learned was that I couldn’t do everything on my own. Running my business was difficult enough. Early on, tasks such as marketing, accounting and payroll, website maintenance and social media posting sucked up much of my day, forcing me to work well into the night to get work done.
My advice: While being a small business owner will force you to learn new skills, you’re probably like me and don’t have the bandwidth to do everything yourself. While it may be an additional expense, you should allow the experts to take up tasks, such as marketing and accounting. that you may not have the time or expertise to take care of yourself.
I Suck at Bookkeeping
Full disclosure: I could barely balance my personal checkbook, let alone manage the finances of an entire business. I made a lot of mistakes in this area – in the first year I paid some business expenses through my personal accounts and vice versa, resulting in me paying way more in taxes than I should have. I lost track of receipts and got behind on recording business expenses. I also made the mistake in the first year of paying myself through an “owner’s draw” (I took a percentage of the business’ net operating income as my salary), rather than putting myself on the payroll. This caused some major headaches for me at tax time.
My Advice: Hiring a reputable accountant is an added expense, but I found it was worth every penny for things such as payroll and sorting out end-of-year taxes. Determine what salary is right for you and put yourself on the payroll, as that will avoid major headaches at tax time. Also, set up a firm system to record your business expenses on a spreadsheet and stick to it, rather than just saving your receipts in a shoebox like I did. You will thank yourself at the end of the year.
Carve Out Family Time
Did you know that when families eat dinner together, it can help improve your children’s academic performances and reduce their chance of teen pregnancy, substance abuse and depression? Your children’s lives are further improved when you spend time with them. My biggest regret as a small business owner was not spending enough time with my son, who was five years old when I started running the dry-cleaning business. I would get home and he’d already be asleep, and I’d have to eat cold dinners alone.
My Advice: No matter what, carve out time during the day to spend with your family, even if it’s just making sure you have dinner with your family.
Take Some YOU Time
Being a small business owner took a heavy toll on both my physical and mental health. Because of the
long hours, I gained weight because I was eating fast food way too often. I took up smoking cigarettes once again – a habit that I had quit years earlier and swore that I’d never do again (I since quit once again now that I’m no longer running a business). My blood pressure was up. The little time I spent with my family, I was often exhausted and agitated because of the work schedule and the fact that there were always things I constantly worried about.
My advice: Nothing is more important than good health. Studies have shown that a brisk, 30-minute walk and engaging in short mediation exercises every day will do wonders for your health. Research has also shown that a 20-minute nap in the middle of the day can actually make you more productive. Replace potato chips with fruit as a snack. Eating a healthy sandwich instead of a Big Mac will also maintain your health.
Don’t Allow Crazy People to Bother You
Like any public-facing business, I encountered my share of unstable people, and I always made the mistake of letting them bother me. A man once walked into my store with a “Skinheads of America” tattoo on his chest and threw down sweatshirts on the counter that had swastikas and ugly racist slurs on them. I ended up getting into a shouting match with him before kicking him out of my store and calling the police.
One lady who didn’t like the price I had charged for her dry cleaning (even though I wrote the price down on her ticket when she dropped off her clothes) dialed 911 to report a robbery in progress when I asked her for payment.
My advice: Don’t get me wrong, 99.5% of my customers were very nice people. However, I should have adopted a more zen-like attitude in dealing with the crazy ones. Don’t allow these people to get under your skin.
Don’t Let Your Business to Consume You
The main message of the American Dream is to have a strong work ethic and that hard work will get you ahead in life. These assertions are certainly true, and there is no better way to live the American Dream by starting our own business and working hard to make it successful. After all, my in-laws immigrated to this country in 1982 with $100 in their pockets, worked hard to create a dry-cleaning business, and were able to put two kids through college and live in a nice house in the suburbs.
I learned firsthand, however, that the flip side to the American Dream is that your business can consume you as a person, and if you allow it to , can lead you to an early grave. If you run your own business, instead of letting it run you, it is possible to carve out time for yourself and your family, while focusing on your health.