What We Learned in Our First Year of Business

Owner/Creative Director
Molly’s extensive background in marketing, print and design allows her to bring an interesting, creative perspective to her writing. She loves sharing her knowledge on topics such as business, design trends, and marketing tactics.

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Well, you know what they say. There’s a first time for everything.Evidently, that includes starting a business.

When Jackie and I met, we were freelancing individually. As we worked more and more together, the thought of owning our own design business became the topic of more and more conversations.

Now that we’re about a year (and a half) into owning McGrath + McKenna Design group here in Denver, CO., reflecting on the past year has taught us some powerful and light-hearted lessons about business ownership.

However, if there is one thing we both agree on, pursuing our dream has been exactly what we anticipated it would be: hard work.

We’ve had countless late evenings that turned into early mornings, experienced huge wins, bounced back from some losses (which, let’s face it, are really postponed successes), we’ve learned, adapted, celebrated, and frankly, cried some.

With all we’ve gone through, we wanted to share some of our top takeaways. Here is a list of the top 12 things we learned at Mc+Mc this past year.

1. Keurig single serves are not enough.

I love my Keurig, but one single serve pod isn’t going to do the trick. Invest in a carafe and get down to business. (Plus, you’d be doing your part to save the environment!)

2. It IS worth the cost to hire a business lawyer.

Having an understanding of your business responsibilities as well as the laws of the industry is a must. Don’t short yourself and think that understanding the law is optional. It’s worth the investment to protect what you’ve built and you don’t want to risk losing everything from the very start.

3. Humility IS your best policy.

Having humility might be the most important thing on this list. It is a trait that your clients and colleagues will appreciate about you and your business. You’re bound to make mistakes, so don’t try to be invincible. The only person that can relate to that is Superman (or Batman), depending on if you’re a Marvel vs. DC Comics fan.

4. Be fearless.

This one seems obvious and I’m sure you’ve heard it before. But it really is true. You’re going to experience things that take you FAR out of your comfort zone. Embrace them and be willing to adapt as you grow your business. You’d be amazed at what you can do if you take fear out of the equation.

5. Even though you own a business and want it to be successful, don’t give up what’s important to you.

Our biggest struggle this past year is making sure that we take time for ourselves each day. Whether it’s setting aside time to go to the gym or catching the next episode of Top Chef, don’t put what’s important to you on the back burner. The business can easily take all of your (free) time so try to find balance. The work will be there in the morning. (But do make sure to hit deadlines. Those are important, too!)

6. It’s okay to say “no”.

Saying “no” is not something to be afraid of—especially as a business owner. As we were starting out, we felt like we had to say “yes” to everything. Saying “yes” to everything can easily have the adverse effect of what you think it might. Our schedules quickly became unmanageable and the late nights doubled. It seemed like we didn’t even have time to eat! Since being in business for a little while, we’ve understood that saying “no” can be a very healthy thing for your company. Of course, taking on new work is what’s going to pay the bills, but be sure to manage expectations of both yourself and the client.

7. More importantly, it’s okay to be wrong.

Aside from humility, this may be the second most important thing on this list. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Allow yourself and give yourself permission to be human. Owning up to mistakes will allow your subconscious to become cognizant of the mistake and potentially protect you from making the same mistake in the future.

8. Overtime is imminent.
As a business owner, prepare yourself to be “on” all the time. Truthfully, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to work so this one came pretty easy for me. The key here is to find balance as mentioned in #5 above. Embrace that your schedule is about to become something you’re most likely not used to. A lot of things about your daily routine will change, so allow yourself to figure it out as you go along. Change can be tough, but you get what you put into the company and the work. Rome wasn’t built in a day—but they were laying bricks every hour.

9. You are now in charge (YAY!)…of everything.
Oh, you’re out of printer paper? Guess who has to go buy more? Oh, your laptop crashed, guess who has to replace it? Oh, business taxes were due a month earlier than individual tax returns? Guess who is in charge of knowing those kinds of details? I’ll give you a hint: YOU.

I think this was the biggest blast of cold water when first starting out. Until you do run a business, you won’t (and most likely can’t) know all of the things that are required of you day in and day out. From the little things like refilling the Kleenex to getting the large contracts signed, you’re responsible for everything and it’s up to you to get everything done. Plan time into your daily schedule to address daily tasks because ignoring them will cause them to pile up faster than you can say “achoo!”

10. We should have paid more attention in Accounting class.
This expands nicely on our last point. From the start, we knew we’d have to understand the numbers, but we really didn’t know to what extent. We invested in QuickBooks right off the bat and quickly noticed it wasn’t just about income minus expenses. We went through multiple accountants, which frankly, only added to the headaches.

So what’s the lesson? No one is going to know your business better than you—how items need (and should be) categorized, the specifics about invoicing, etc. It’s worth revisiting your notes from Accounting 101 and be sure to keep the continuing education going. If you do get to a point where it can be someone’s full-time job, great! But always stay involved in your books.

11. Your gut instinct is usually the right one.
It helps us to remember that we made the decision to break out on our own. That was the hardest gut instinct of them all and we did that, so what’s next?

It’s difficult to trust your intuition when first starting out. Not every decision will be a clear one, so take the time to weigh your options but never underestimate the power of a first hunch.

12. Be helpful before profitable.
There is a reason we saved this one for last. The main reason Jackie and I wanted to start our own design company was for the sole purpose to help businesses market themselves in an effective (and good looking!) way. Obviously, making a living applies here, but it doesn’t drive every decision we make. Our business is built on passion and compassion. We’ve learned first hand that if you allow your true passion to drive you, it will drive your sales as well.

"Our business is built on passion and compassion."

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