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Lesson in Business

5 surprising things I learned from starting a side business.

By Holly Pennington, PT, DPT

Whether it is making plans to open a private practice while maintaining another full-time job or starting a new company while owning and operating a clinic, starting a side business poses unfamiliar challenges. My recent experience with launching a side business taught me surprising things about entrepreneurship and myself. If you are contemplating a startup or working on one now, take a few minutes to consider how these five things apply to you.

  • Paying attention to what I avoid is one of the most productive things I can do. It took me years to realize that I avoid things that I do not already know how to do. My mind turns the work into a monster that convinces me that I will not be able to figure it out, it will take hours, or I will screw something up. While starting my side business, this most often happened with website design. While online platforms and writing code are not easy, they are not impossible either. I would put website work off for days, allowing it to grow more and more beastly in my mind. When I finally made myself tackle the tasks, I usually figured them out in much less time than expected. After going through this process repeatedly, I realized that all of the things on my startup to-do list that I was avoiding had something in common: They were things that I did not know much about. Sometimes, simply being aware of something about ourselves can change it. And this has been the case: I still feel intimidated by new things, but I know they will not be as difficult or as time consuming as my dooming mind wants me to believe. Knowing this helps me to prioritize them instead of avoid them.

“When it becomes more difficult to suffer than to change, you will change.” –author Robert Anthony

  • Working sporadically does not work for me. Startup work is different than clinic/corporate work. First, you do not get paid; second, you do not have a regular schedule; and third, it is usually juggled among other priorities that feel more pressing. Squeezing the work in during a rushed lunch break or poolside at my daughter’s swimming lessons did not work for me. I had to drop the ball a few times to figure this out. I thought I could phone-check my startup email on-the-go as I kept up with the rest of my life, but after I nearly missed an ad deadline and misread an important detail in a conference exhibitor registration, I started asking myself why I was making so many mistakes. I realized it was because I was rarely giving the work undivided attention. Due to other priorities, I would sometimes go for a few days in a row without working on the new business at all. Emails got buried and overlooked, and I lost sight of deadlines. When I committed a block of time to do my startup work every day, I felt more connected to it and made fewer mistakes. Because of my schedule, when I do the work varies, but taking the step of dedicating daily time to my new business has saved me.
  • Identifying the types of work that energize me and those that drain me increases my productivity. Startups require the full breadth of work, from tedious internet research and legal document review to creative marketing strategizing. After researching tax rules for the state of Florida, I feel drained. However, I will not be able to sleep for hours after creating a marketing plan because of my racing mind. A startup needs both kinds of work, but understanding what kind of work gives me energy and what takes it away helps me know what to do when. After lying wide awake in bed with a head exploding with ideas too many times, I learned that it is best for me to do creative work earlier in the day and detailed work later in the afternoon or evening.
  • An outsider’s perspective is essential. Creating a business is deeply personal and passionate work. If I did not wholeheartedly believe in it, I would not endure the financial, emotional, and scheduling stress that it demands. However, the flipside of entrepreneurial passion is that it is easy to get too close to the new products or services being created. After testing our product and refining its design over a two-year period, my business partners and I thought we knew it from every angle. We had solid selling points outlined that would alleviate the “pain points” of our customers. However, when we invited a few trusted friends outside of the business to review our selling points, we discovered a new one. Over time, we had grown too close to our product to see one of its best features.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” —author Anais Nin

  • Excellence is worth delay. Despite warnings from other entrepreneurs, I would have never guessed that it would take as long as it did for our business to launch. We had a plan, we worked together well, and we had investment money. It seemed straightforward. Although, unexpected manufacturing delays, design overhauls, and the seemingly endless list of decisions that needed to be made took time. It was a side business for all of us, and our resources were limited. While we wanted to launch our product months before we actually did, we prioritized getting things right over getting them done quickly. Because we were willing to wait, our business is better. It was frustrating at times, but pursuing excellence is worth delaying timelines.

If you are an entrepreneur or thinking about becoming one, save yourself from learning the hard way: Pay attention to what you tend to avoid, identify whether or not you are able to pull off work on the go, determine what kind of work energizes you and schedule it accordingly, consider the value of seeking an outsider’s perspective, and remember that excellence takes time.

Holly Pennington, PT, DPT, has worked in physical therapy private practice, management, and administration in the Seattle area for 13 years. She is a graduate of Evidence in Motion’s Executive Program in Private Practice Management, partner of EcoPro Products, and a freelance writer. She can be reached at holly@ecoproproductsllc.com.