When you start a company, you’re constantly questioning if you’re doing anything right. Every part of the process is brand new, and it feels like an endless cycle of going with your gut and hoping you’re heading in the right direction.
Now, nearly five years after I started my business, I have a little hindsight to figure out if I made the right choices. I’ll go into my biggest founder mistakes in a few weeks (and whew, there are some doozies), but for today, I’m excited to talk about a few things I did right at the beginning of my journey—even if I didn’t know it at the time.
1. I Stayed (Startup) Lean
For those who don’t know the story of how I started gr8nola, I spent many years making my special granola recipe during my annual post-Super Bowl cleanse before getting the idea to sell it at a local farmer’s market.
Prepping for my “launch” at the market, I didn’t have money to invest in fancy equipment nor hire any professional help for R&D, marketing or design, so I did everything myself as cheaply as possible. At the time, being a one-woman show (or half-woman, technically, given I still had a full-time job!) was a pain, but now I’m grateful I started my business with the fewest resources possible to first prove that my product was sellable before I invested all of my time, money and energy into what I was doing. Keeping my operation as small as possible also made it easy to change course if I needed to, and that ensured that I was always making the best decisions for my company as quickly as I could.
2. I Invested in My Brand
It’s hard to measure whether a new logo or shiny packaging really moves the needle because it can feel so subjective. In my case, however, making sure my business had an identity that people could notice and remember has been critical to my success.
It became so much easier to make decisions after I invested time in knowing what gr8nola stands for as a brand, and now, because I’ve spent almost half a decade building my business, I immediately know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the look and feel of everything gr8nola. No identity crisis here!
3. I Waited to Go Full-Time
This is probably one of the more controversial decisions on this list. For some people, taking the plunge and quitting their jobs early on is critical to their success as founders; they need that push to really take their businesses to the next level.
But for me, it was the opposite: Having a full-time job on top of building gr8nola on the side helped me stay patient as I figured out how to grow my business. Personally, if I’d jumped into gr8nola full-time before I created a steady channel supplying tech companies with product, I know I would’ve hit a dead end and called it quits.
If you’re afraid that you’re not taking your business “seriously enough” because you’re not working on it full-time, don’t be! As the old saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. Go at whatever pace is best for you and your company.
4. I Focused on Execution
When you decide to start a business, it’s so easy to sit there and over-strategize without ever actually doing anything. The problem with sitting in what I like to call the “visionary” stage for so long is that you never actually make progress. If you don’t go out and put your ideas to the test, you aren’t able to learn and move forward quickly.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’m a doer to the max, and that ability to take action really helped me when starting my business. I didn’t see my setbacks as failures; they were just pivots I had to make to keep my business afloat. Having a general plan is a good thing, but just make sure you aren’t plotting step 25 when you haven’t even started step one.
5. I Didn’t Go Directly to Retail
If you’re selling a physical product, I get the desire to want to go into retail, like grocery stores. It’s glitzy and glamorous to see the thing you’ve built on shelves. On the flip side, it’s expensive, competitive and error-prone. In the world of food entrepreneurship, that means dealing with pitching to grocery chains, handling issues like chargebacks and slotting fees, and needing to find a way to stand out amongst the 20 million other granola brands on the same shelf.
Instead, I’ve avoided that mess altogether by selling gr8nola B2B (to tech companies like Google, Twitter and Dropbox) and exclusively online, which gave me the opportunity to grow my business without these extra headaches. Sure, I’m not seeing gr8nola on the shelves right now, but I’m also not spending hours on the phone with grocery chains, brokers and buyers worrying about how to “sell-through” my product.
If I had to give one piece of advice based on the things that went right with starting gr8nola, it would be to go for it—but keep things small and nimble, and don’t over-invest in the beginning (except when it comes to brand!). You have plenty of time for all of the big milestones, like going full-time or getting your product on shelves. But take time to get to figure out your business first; you won’t regret it.
My fellow entrepreneurs, what’s one smart thing you did when starting your business? Let me know!