10 Years In...Reflections and Learnings on Running a Small Business

I can't say I know it all, because  starting your own business is a never ending process of learning and improving. It has been a long learning curve folks..... but after ten years, I have a few solid take aways (and so much more discovery yet to do).

1.       Follow your Gut.

This is the number one thing that I have come to realize is key when starting and operating your business. There are a lot of analytics my husband likes to look at with the business (this goes right in line with what he does for a living) and it’s a huge asset to be able to look at actual numbers when tracking sales and trends. But when you are starting a business and you are in that shop day in and day out, you also build up a keen sense of what works, what doesn’t and what “feels right”. Following that gut instinct has always served me well, and that goes for what does not work as well as what does.

 

2.       Keep a consistent brand image / voice.

I think that lots of small businesses struggle here. We sure did for a while. You want to make sure you are treating your small business as a timeless, all star brand (even when it’s still tiny and it feels like no one knows you or cares). Using key elements in your logo, shop feel, packaging, advertising messages, social media posts etc... that all have the same feel of authenticity to your brand is what will give you staying power and recognition. We have had many (many) trials and errors while getting Meza established, but once we found our footing it was focusing on consistency that has been huge. We did a major website overhaul a few years ago (because there is so much available now to business owners that wasn’t available when we got stared!) that allows you to have control of your website design and aesthetic. Having that connection between the in-store vibe and our website vibe has really tied things together.

3.       It is great to have extensions of your original products but don’t veer too far off from your core.

There are lots of ways you can extend your brand beyond the main concept. Regardless of what other avenues or product extensions you are exploring, make sure they still tie into your core business. We sell wine and we sell experience. Additional products that we carry, like tee shirts and accessories all need to enhance the business of wine. They need to make sense with wine! It really is exciting to create your own assortment and to capture all the possibilities, but I really believe the key is to always be true to your core.

4.       Hire people who will always represent you as well as you would represent your own business

This one is tricky – customers love to see a familiar face when shopping small and often, they want to see your face. It is such a great compliment when they do, however, you can’t be there all the time. A lot of the running of the business is the behind the scenes work and you have to have ample time carved out for planning and strategy so that your business can continue to grow. Having a staff in place that provides that same level of authenticity, excitement, and care for your business and the customers is key. They will be your greatest assets. I get asked often why we have so many employees and the answer is because they all have careers and kids and lives and Meza is their “side hustle”. While it can make scheduling tricky, it’s a huge win for us. We have a staff of hard working, intelligent, caring people who have so much respect for what we do. They are our life line and when they are in the shop, and while you have to wear lots of hats when you own a business, that doesn’t mean you will be great at everything. So find people who are!  I suck at building spreadsheets; but luckily we have some pretty amazing people on our team that rock at them! Being able to tap into their individual skills has been so amazing and just enhances the business.

5.       Utilize every free marketing tool you can to connect with customers

When I got started in this game, it was still early in the arena of social media marketing for your business. Having outlets like Facebook and Instagram where I can connect with customers, engage in real time conversation and study the analytics behind ads almost instantly is incredible. How the hell did we do it before? While you want to put out continuous content, it takes some practice in figuring out what you want to post, what you want to pay for and how to be consistent. The most important thing about engaging with customers via social media, from what I have learned, is always be authentic. Be authentic in your words, in your photos and in how you respond to people. People are drawn to knowing the “real” behind the brand (myself included, I love stalking all my fav local business accounts!) and you have a great platform to be able to talk to customers in a very real way. While there is so much you can do that won’t cost you a dime, there are times when putting a dollar amount behind a post or ad on social media will reach more people and with the targeting and analytics you can really create content that will reach the right customer base.

6.       Create an experience.

There is no shortage of places to buy wine. Every grocery store now has an expanded wine section. Costco and Trader Joes are not hurting in that department either. Getting people to make that extra stop in their routine can be tricky; I am a mama and I know that a lot can come down to convenience.  How the customer “experiences” your shop will determine if they will come to you in the future or go for convenience of a big box retailer. Previously my career was in visual merchandising and that is something I have loved carrying over into the shop. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the shop aesthetic will draw in customers and engage them. We focus on ton on personalized services. We talk a lot about how we can create an environment where people just want to come back……and while you may not win over everyone when time or convenience is a concern, you will win over a lot of people who are brand loyal and who love what you offer.

7.       Community giving/involvement.

One of the best aspects of running our business is that it has put us in the position to be able to give back to our community and to important causes in a bigger way than we could as a family. Meza is able to provide a platform and space for fundraising and for hosting charitable organizations. Of course we cannot make a large monetary donation to every cause, but we have been able to donate to local schools and churches via donation of gift cards to our wine tasting events, and the benefit is two-fold. We have been able to help organizations raise money, while getting new people in the door to check out Meza.  Whatever you can do to leverage your business and give back can be so beneficial. You are constantly getting your name out there and forming partners within your community. It has truly been one of the greatest experiences of the past ten years – finally getting to a spot where we are able to give back to causes that mean a lot to us, in a bigger way.

8.       Keep things fresh and new!

We have been known to make lots of physical changes to the shop in the beginning and a lot of that was adaptation as our business model changed from more retail to more on premise (wine bar). Now, ten years in, we are refreshing the shop, adding in new elements and re painting. We  rotate stock and display seasonally and I think that these small changes really signify a fresh appeal to customers. I love following other shops and brands and seeing what is new and exciting, it gives me motivation to keep checking back so I am in the loop! Same thing applies to our own business and how you never quite stop putting more into it.

9.       If a product line / advertisement / partnership doesn’t work with your brand, do not feel like you have to include it under your umbrella.

I have struggled with this at times. You want someone else to succeed at their business as much as you want to succeed at yours, but forcing a partnership that doesn’t make sense is just not right for anyone. Staying true to your business model is not saying you don’t support someone else’s dream. In fact I think its giving them more of an opportunity to find a better fit that will highlight their product the right way.

10.   Find enjoyment and passion in all aspects of running your business.

Of course, I am passionate about wine. I love learning about it, tasting all kinds of wine and trying to find new wines I know our customers will love, but when you run a small business, the majority of your time is spent doing other things like scheduling, marketing, staffing, social media posting, and over all maintenance. Somehow that leaves very little time for focusing on wine. I have also always had a love and passion for retail and branding, and through this experience I have found that I am extremely passionate about small business and the impact of revitalized uptown/downtown areas on a community.

And along the way, I try to find enjoyment in some of the things that aren’t quite as inspirational, like scheduling and bathroom cleaning.