3 Things I’ve Learned From Running a Small Business in the Last 4 Years

In college, I had this dream of putting up my own business. I didn’t have an idea of what kind of business I was going to start, but the image in my head involved corner offices on the top floor of a building. My business would give me flexibility, allowing me to set my own schedule and travel.

I only saw the glamour. Was I completely wrong.

I did get to fulfill some details of my dreams, somehow. I do have a corner shop and I do work on the top floor of the building, even if it’s only a two-storey building. I do have flexibility; and while I don’t travel for work, I am more than happy to only be traveling these days for pleasure. I don’t know, however, how my 18-year-old self would react if she knew that the business I started is a small neighborhood business center. She shouldn’t complain, however. That business pays the bills!

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve been fortunate with my business so far, and I’m working on keeping it that way in the next few years. I’ve still a lot to learn, but these 3 things top my list of best lessons learned … so far.


It’s very difficult to find good people.

I asked a mentor once what was the most challenging element of running the Philippine operations of a multinational. In my head, I was expecting him to say either government regulation or distribution channels. To my surprise, he said, “It’s very difficult to find good people.

He explained it by telling me his experience as a young operations manager. One of his plant workers got into an accident while working the floor. The accident could’ve been prevented had the worker followed rules. He had to rush the worker to the hospital. Sadly, the seriousness of the accident prevented the worker from working in the plant again. He had to let the worker go and had the difficult job of explaining this to the worker’s crying wife.

It is extremely difficult to fire people. Firing somebody affects not only the organization, but also the person’s family. But my mentor knew he had a job to do. The worker disobeyed rules. In doing so, he put his co-workers at risk. My mentor had to look after the well-being of his organization, which included the well-being of the entire staff, and in effect, their own families, too.

He said you need to work with people you trust–those you can trust not to steal, lie or cheat. These are people you can trust to look after the well-being of the organization. There are a lot of smart people out there, but they don’t always have the right attitude. There’s a reason why people hire for attitude, and train for skill–something that I keep in mind each time I contemplate about hiring or working with somebody.

Years later, I would experience first hand exactly what he meant. I had to fire my first employee–and she wasn’t going to be the last. It’s always difficult. I don’t think it gets easy.

It’s a challenge finding a suitable replacement. Many times, it baffles me that despite 12.1M unemployed in the country today, I am still hard pressed to find staff to replace somebody who leaves. I’ve met applicants who’ve had the right skill, but sadly didn’t have the right motivation or attitude.


Customers value great service and transparency above cheap pricing.

Corporate experience has taught me that it doesn’t always pay to compete through pricing. I’ve learned first hand why this is true, even for the mass market. While it sometimes pays to be the cheapest, there are many out there who would gladly pay a premium to get dependable and consistent service.

Some of my customers willingly travel to my shop, despite having a competitor nearer them, just to have something printed and photocopied. There are also cheaper alternatives, but they choose to be loyal to me. I suppose they just like my staff better. I’m lucky to have found staff who go beyond what is asked (although sometimes to their detriment, because their generosity can get abused by unreasonable customers).

Customers value honesty. There are occasions when we can’t fulfill a customer’s request, or when it will take some time to accomplish. We have taught our staff to be honest to the customer. Ultimately, it’s about managing our customers’ expectations.


Something will always go wrong…

… and some days, Murphy’s Law rules the day. I’ve had machines break down, a staff unexpectedly quit (or let go), and even been stolen from (quite a few times, too). I’ve had to make unplanned expenses, too. Some days, they happen all at the same time. This is why it pays to be prudent–with your decisions, with your money, with all of your resources.

Being in business is always being at risk. So you plan as best you could, but manage your expectations. There is no point in worrying; there is no point in sweating stuff. It’s how it is in business. It’s how it is in life.


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