10 Things I have learned in 10 years in business
As my life goal is to help people start and scale regenerative businesses which change the world (for the better), I thought I would share ten lessons I’ve learned, so you can avoid making my mistakes.
10 things I have learnt in 10 years in business
I officially have a ten-year-old.
The last ten years have both flown by, yet at times seemed to drag on at the same time. It’s not often I take time to look back and take stock of how we’ve grown and the milestones we’ve achieved, but a tenth birthday is definitely the occasion to do so!
You see a lot of glamour, excitement and the highest of highs on social media, when in reality, entrepreneurship and building a company (particularly one trying to change things), is enormously challenging. But with those challenges you learn an awful lot. And as my life goal is to help people start and scale regenerative businesses which change the world (for the better), I thought I would share ten lessons I’ve learned, so you can avoid making my mistakes.
- Stick to your guns about the things that really matter
When I was a baby CEO I found it very stressful to hold my corner in discussions and at times I said yes to things that really I shouldn’t have. I learned this one fairly early on, over something that probably seems trivial. I very clearly remember having a discussion with an advisor once about how the business name should be pronounced differently, incorrectly as ETH-eek, not the correct French pronunciation of Et-eek, because that’s how most people pronounced it the first time and it would make it easier. But you should never compromise on the right thing to do, just because it’s easier. People ask me very frequently how Ethique has managed to grow so fast, without compromising on our values. That’s due to my absolute lack of compromise (verging on being unreasonable) on the values that are important to me, and to Ethique. Many times I have been told to drop the charitable program, or compromise on the supply chain because it would make life easier. If I hadn’t learned when to bend, and when not to, Ethique would have lost its way years ago. If something is important to you, to the brand, don’t compromise. Even if it’s incredibly stressful for you to fight for it. You will only regret it.
- Celebrate ever win, even the little ones. And, especially the ones that are other peoples.
Another thing people ask me, is how amazing it must feel to see all Ethique has achieved. It doesn’t, because I almost never think about it, and that is a shame. As I mentioned, entrepreneurship is exhausting, and if you don’t celebrate the wins and the milestones, you will burn out. So I am making more of an effort to really think about the things that go well, at least as much as I stress about the things that didn’t. It’s easier to celebrate other people’s wins, so if that is a way to make you feel more comfortable in the beginning (as often we don’t feel comfy celebrating ourselves), focus on those.
- Just keep swimming, even if it feels like the tide is turning against you.
Building a brand is a marathon not a sprint. To quote my first business partner Bryan, who said this many times, “you would wake up on top of the world and go to bed in the deepest low”. (I’m paraphrasing a smidge.) Problems will crop up all at once, or one after the other almost immediately after you’ve solved the previous. Sometimes it’s like that, so just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Persistence, grit, determination – they are what makes an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur. Sometimes you just have to be stubborn and bloody-minded enough to make something happen through sheer force of will.
- Surprisingly, competition is good. It keeps you on your toes and they will help educate your market for you.
If you’ve been in a supermarket lately, you’ve probably noticed there are a few more bars around then there was even a year ago. We view this as a positive, as not only do the big brands with celebrity ambassadors and multi-million dollar budgets bring awareness to a niche product, it also inspires us to do better. Keep an eye on competitors, but don’t let them distract you.
- Your team is everything, without a team who you treat with respect and kindness, you have nothing.
Simple, yet seemingly ignored by many business owners. Your company, your idea is absolutely worthless without people beside you helping you build it. Pay a living wage (at a minimum), treat them like people, not numbers, be flexible, and kind (and yes, there of course boundaries here). If your team is happy, they will look after your customers. I wandered through Aotearoa’s first Costco yesterday and the one thing that struck me was how genuinely happy and helpful the (many) team members were. I overheard one of them telling a customer how well they were looked after by the company (which I’ll be honest, surprised me), and thought how much that came through in the service they provided.
- Be picky with the opportunities you choose, because sometimes they will actually take you away from the goal you set for yourself
You will get bombarded with helpful suggestions (or perhaps unhelpful ones), opportunities from everyone from retailers to offshore distributors, offers to put your products in ‘red carpet bags’ and everything in between. Be very careful what you say yes to. I am very much like the dog in Up, and get distracted by new things all the time. But I learned to my detriment that saying yes to everything very quickly gets you taken off track and the business will immediately lose traction. Laser focus on your goals is really important, which is why I love a basic plan on a page. If something comes up which aligns with goals you have written down, fabulous. If it takes you off track, be careful.
- Think long term but act quickly, short term thinking is what gets businesses into hot water.
Short term thinking is probably my biggest bug bear. It manifests in many ways; a silly promotion to get short term revenue. A quick signature on a contract without reading it. Saying yes to something without considering the longer-term ramifications. Frankly, it is also what has caused many business collapses and many of the social and environmental problems we face today. Act quickly on long term strategies. Don’t just do something for the good of this quarter, as you often end up paying for it.
- Customer service is paramount, go above and beyond and make your customers very happy. It will pay you back in spades.
People I don’t know message me on social media platforms to tell me how amazing the Ethique Miracle Workers are. If you’ve ever emailed or spoken to one of them on the phone – you know that they are absolutely fabulous. But great customer service seems bafflingly rare. An accountant once told me we could save a percentage point or two by tweaking our customer service policies to something less generous. I could understand why he said it, because in black and white, being so does look like a liability. But the payback in customer sentiment is immeasurable. This is something I am unreasonable about. I purchased something that was faulty from a big brand beauty store the other day, and their email process in response was drawn out, painful and in the end I had to specifically request they uphold their own policies. Makes me think twice about shopping there ever again – though it may have looked like a better option to someone considering only the financials.
- You may not find finance interesting, but it’s so important that you know your numbers and understand them.
To say I hated maths class is an understatement. In fact I think I really only started paying attention to basic arithmetic in my science degree because it started to have real world applications and thus made more sense to me. Finance was therefore lumped in the same boat – it was numbers, I was bad at numbers, therefore why bother trying to understand them. Now, I love numbers. Okay, perhaps a slight overstatement. But I love the stories numbers tell me. You need to understand numbers so you know how your company is performing, but the reason I consider it so critical is so you can refute erroneous conclusions that other people reading those same numbers may come to. Like the point I mentioned above about customer service, not everything can be properly measured on a profit & loss sheet, and often finance only people make bad decisions based off that. If you know your numbers, you can understand how your business is doing, and make proper decisions without having to rely on external experts and accountants, who simply may not understand something to the breadth you do.
- Don’t underestimate the power of PR and press. Without it, Ethique would definitely not be where we are today.
There is more to marketing than paid media (or performance marketing as it’s also known). Brand awareness mechanisms are vastly more important, yet much more expensive and time consuming than acquiring a consumer with an ad on meta. It’s also harder to measure the return on investment (ROI), so a lot of companies just pour money into their paid strategies, without properly measuring the return. Then, what happens when you turn it off? Your sales drop. Press and proper PR is invaluable, long-term and builds your brand, not just sales. Ethique got mountains off press in the early years and still does today, through virtue of having an unusual product and such a purpose driven brand. Without PR we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today. But I still see people question the value of PR in the time of social media and advertising. That’s an enormous mistake.
I could probably go on ad nauseum on the things I have learned from people much clever than me in the last ten years – in fact I do. But these are probably my top ten favourite lessons. I hope they are helpful.
Happy birthday Ethique, and everyone who has ever had something to do with the company. We wouldn’t be anywhere without your time and support and I will always be grateful.