10 Things to Keep in Mind When Starting Your Own Business
Girl Scout alum Sonam Sondhi opened her own bakery, ChocaL8Kiss in Manalapan, New Jersey, at the unheard-of age of 21—which means she’s a veteran small-business owner at just 32.
“I have had a lot of ups and downs, but I didn’t give up,” she says, looking back on her experience. “I got married and had a baby and learned how to train people and how to manage people. Along the way, we’ve become a name and a brand that people trust.”
Sonam’s customers tend to stick with her.
“We do weddings and then baby showers and first birthdays… We stay with [our customers] all the way through [their] lives.”
Recently Sonam—who was a Brownie—was introduced to a national audience when she won in the first episode of the Food Network’s baking competition Girl Scout Cookie Championship, a series that airs its final episode tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST.
“Girl Scouts teaches girls to be independent and think on their own,” she says, “and winning the show was a dream come true … exhausting, but a dream come true. After I won, I was so excited to hug the Brownies on the set!”
For many, “hanging a shingle” like Sonam did more than a decade ago would be a dream come true. Read on for Sonam’s advice for entrepreneurial-minded people who want to follow in her footsteps.
1. Get familiar with the business cycle.
“For us, there’s a busy season and a slow season—I think that’s the case with most industries,” Sonam explains. “It’s really important to save during busy season so that you’re prepared when it’s slow. This way, you can take some time off and rest and relax … and prepare for the next busy season. That’s really important.”
2. Continue investing in your business.
You’re always going to have to reinvest in the business—in equipment, in marketing. So it’s important that you not think of all of the profits from your business as ‘your money,” she says. “I wish I knew when I started out how much money would go into remodeling!”
3. Set a shining example.
“Like in parenting, it’s important to lead by example. You set the tone with how you greet customers and how you answer the phone.”
4. Don’t expect your employees to always share your devotion.
“When it comes to employees and training, remember that although your business may be your entire world, your staff may not feel the same degree of commitment. Be sure to give employees the time and space they need to recharge and maintain their own lives. You may want everyone to be a rock star at their job, but it’s important to respect that people have their own dreams and aspirations.”
5. Be specific about what you’re providing.
“Be very clear in your contracts and explanations of your services as to what you’re providing,” Sonam advises. “Do everything in your power to make sure that customers understand what they’re paying for.”
At her bakery, Sonam insists customers come in for advance tastings, and she sketches out cakes so that her customers know exactly what they’ll be getting.
6. Ask customers for feedback.
“Request feedback before they feel the need to express themselves elsewhere [else],” laughs Sonam, adding, “One bad review will never leave you. I have one single-star review on Yelp from 2012 and even though I have 75 five-star reviews … I’ll never be a five-star business because of that one unhappy customer.”
Avoiding negative reviews isn’t the only reason to nurture your relationships with customers through to the end of a project.
“The best advertising is word of mouth, so take the time to be really good to your customers!”
7. Be open to change—for the sake of growth.
“Criticism is important; you need to be able to hear it. If you really care about your product and you want to grow, it’s important to follow up and find solutions.”
With her business, Sonam practices what she preaches.
“We hear people’s feedback and we do make changes. We’re constantly reevaluating and reinventing ourselves,” she says. “I was originally supposed to be a chocolate and coffee shop. But it turned out there was a Dunkin’ Donuts right next store, and chocolate isn’t a sustainable year-round business. What was making money was custom cakes, but that’s just a weekend business. So Monday through Friday we started doing protein shakes and health food—and that’s the combination that works.”
8. Make judicious choices.
“Work smart as much as you work hard. Ask yourself ‘is this the most cost-effective answer?’”
Sonam also notes that some projects are worth turning down because they’re unlikely to be profitable for your business.
“You have to constantly reevaluate what is worth it financially, emotionally, and physically,” she says.
9. Practice self-care.
“Never ever put your health and well-being behind everything else. It takes so long to recover from burnout; it’s much easier to take care of yourself instead.”
10. Stay positive and committed.
“The most important thing is to stay positive—every problem has a solution, [even if] you may not be able to afford it in the moment. I can’t tell you how many employees come in here and say they want to open a bakery. But it’s hard; you’re the CPA, you’re HR, and you’re constantly taking a risk. Running a business means being aware of problems and finding solutions—because there is a solution to every problem. The moral of the story is: don’t give up.”