Indie Business

Small Business Homework From a Stranger at a Bar

Wednesday night, while on business travel in the suburbs of Orlando, I headed to the town of Winter Park to find an interesting meal.

My meal at the bar of Prato ended up coming with a surprise side order of much-needed business advice and two homework assignments.

Small Business Homework | The Borrowed Abode

I got talking with another customer and was intrigued to learn he was a real estate developer and restaurant owner.  Real estate isn’t really my thing, but because I love talking to business owners and asking a million questions, we talked business, and eventually discussed my grand plan for Janery.

Upon his asking me to describe my mission and products in one sentence, I totally froze, and gave him the Most Boring Tagline Ever:  I make durable and decorative dog beds.


Seriously, my friends, I know better than to freeze like that. I also know the importance of an elevator speech. And so I was embarrassed when he spit my company’s mission statement back at me, in a much more polished, professional, and elegant manner.

Every week at my “day job” I meet small business owners, many of whom can’t elegantly describe their business in 1-2 sentences.  I unofficially coach them to work on this, I know the importance of presenting your business well, so how is it that I’ve failed to do this for myself?

My first homework assignment of the night was clear:  Perfect my elevator speech; both the one-sentence version and the longer, 30-second one.

But the homework didn’t stop there.

The man went on to ask “so how long have you been working on your business?”  

When I answered 3 years, and said I was having trouble finding US factories so that I could execute the wholesale part of my plan, he gave me a hard time again. I don’t remember how exactly he said it, but I do remember the essence: He told me that I needed to stop wasting time playing at business  and focus instead on actually doing business, by hiring some help already.

I argued (hopefully politely) with him at first.  I was really put off by a stranger daring to suggest that I was wasting time or making excuses rather than executing.  No one who pours their energy into a new business wants to hear they haven’t been focusing on the right things, but as he and I talked more, my ego recovered and I realized he was absolutely right.

I’ve said exactly the same thing to other business owners.  Why didn’t I see that I was falling into the trap myself?

Several times I’ve considered hiring a seamstress or two on a contract basis, but I never followed through with it, and frustration ensued.  I always had an excuse for why I wasn’t ready.

As I answered this stranger’s questions at the bar, I started to see what he was already seeing.  I was ready to take the next step.  Yes, I do have a prototype.  Yes, I have sold my pet beds successfully.  Yes, I have identified marketing opportunities.  Yes, I know there is a demand for my product because I know the market and have spent years analyzing it.

So what was I waiting for?  Why hadn’t I put an ad on Craigslist to hire help?

The answer was simple:  I was letting fear of the unknown and fear of failure stop me.  It’s funny how those little apprehensive voices in the back of your head can keep you from taking the next steps to grow your business.

With that, my second homework assignment was set:  Stop making excuses, and hire help now.

Back in the hotel later that night, I worked through all the “worst case scenarios.”  I always suggest doing this when you’re fearful about taking a new step.

When you intelligently work through your worst case scenarios, the big scary goal starts to look achievable. 

Then I compared existing seamstress ads on Craigslist, and wrote my own.  It was so easy to do that I found myself thinking “why on earth did I wait this long?

Regardless, I’m finally making headway with it, and all thanks to a kick-in-the-pants from a stranger in a bar.  As we parted ways and I thanked him for the great conversation, he challenged me to beat him to finding a factory as well.  Two hours later he emailed me a potential factory contact, but that was one challenge I was happy to lose.

So if you’re still reading, here is my homework for you:  If you’re trying to start or grow a business, get out there and talk to people.  Be curious about their stories.  You will learn so much, and not just from people in your niche.

And as the stranger said in his email to me:

“I am 51.  I only know this stuff because people shared their knowledge with me.  Pay me back by paying it forward.”

Helping others grow or start their businesses?  That’s something I’ve always done, and always will do.

Is there anything that maybe you need a shove with?  Let’s chat about it and help encourage each other in the comments!

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  • Reply Casey at 4:25 pm

    I need a shove! I often busy myself with “behind the scenes” work (which involves A LOT of “research”, i.e. surfing the web), when I know I should be creating like a fool and actually pitching my stuff to as many people as possible (if only to just get the practice talking about it).

    I also get overwhelmed because I have two businesses that I am trying to simultaneously nurture: one is fairly easy to brand and market because it is so niche (custom pet portraits) and the other is still a little fuzzy when it comes to mission statements, style, and branding (hand drawn abstract artwork). I feel like there is so much I need to be doing, but I usually do not know where to start. And I feel a lack of honed-in focus because I have two pretty different types of art businesses and market them both on the same social media platforms. Anyhow, my overall brand needs major work and I am trying to find a way for both businesses to live in harmony within the same brand.

    • Reply Jane at 11:06 am

      Hi Casey! Oh my gosh, your comment definitely resonates with me. Research. . .yep, I’ve done a lot of that. It’s so easy to do that rather than dive into the scary parts.
      Regarding your two business concepts, have you made a comprehensive list of what you need to get done? I find that if I write it all down, starting from the end result and working backwards through the steps needed to make it happen,that is helpful. Then just trying to take 15 minutes each day to do a little part of the necessary tasks. Somehow that makes it seem much more manageable.
      It may be, though, that you need to concentrate on just one of the ideas for a few weeks to make headway with it. Then, when you’re seeing success with it, you may be more able to focus on growing the other. I hope this helps! If not, let me know and we can keep chatting!

  • Reply Skooks at 6:04 pm

    I’m putting the business idea on hold for now (not fear-induced, just focusing on my kids while they’re still little and at home), but I just wanted to pop in and say that I’m really excited for you! I love these chance meetings that in the end feel so fortuitous. I’m looking forward to seeing you continue on this journey. 🙂

    • Reply Jane at 11:06 am

      I can understand your wanting to focus on the kids for now! It makes sense – they seem to grow so fast!! Thanks for your continued encouragement!

  • Reply jenn at 8:03 pm

    WOW! What a great and productive chance meeting. I was just talking this week to a friend about what great things can come from just saying hi to someone – this is a perfect example! You never know who is sitting next to you 🙂

    • Reply Jane at 11:06 am

      It is so true! Talking to people is so rewarding and interesting!!

  • Reply Kate, owner of MiraJeanDesigns at 8:12 pm

    Dear Jane, I met you at Del Ray’s art on the avenue and love your blog (and dog beds!) I took this gentleman’s advice earlier this year, posted an ad on craigslist for seamstress help, and have pros and cons I’d be happy to share with you. We should start a support group!! Email me if you want to talk more, I’d be happy to share lessons learned as I work on my own small business and creative venture as well. And keep up the great work!

    • Reply Jane at 11:08 am

      Hi Kate! Thanks so much for sharing, and I love what you’re doing in your shop! I’ll drop you a note for more info. Thanks!

  • Reply Kiri at 2:20 am

    That is so Wow! I’m really glad that you got that advice, and took it! I’m looking forward to seeing how you will move with this! Now that you’ve made it public – you’re letting us hold you responsible to act 🙂

  • Reply Amanda B at 5:42 am

    just what I needed to hear.. thanks. a friend said to me recently though as I have two business ideas, one I have just started and the other one I would like to.. she said, focus on the one that you are good at and is your passion and things will fall into place. in other words, do one thing great, not two things half great.. thanks for the kick up the bum! I need to start talking to people…

  • Reply Julia at 11:30 am

    Great post Jane! I just recently realized this in context of being a mom and making time to work out etc. Just got to get out there and do it! I may be waffling in business areas as well…

    Anyhow, fantastic post, thank you for sharing and “Paying it forward!”

  • Reply Lisa at 1:15 pm

    I just started reading your blog in the last couple of weeks.
    I’m not a business owner but I love to watch Shark Tank on Friday nights. This is a group of entrepreneurs
    that listen to folks pitch their businesses and requests for cash. The 5 entrepreneurs have a lot of advice for the business owners. Besides entertaining it is informative.

  • Reply Sunny's Life in Rehab at 5:25 am

    I had an epiphany of sorts myself last week, and it started with the conversation with you at Whiskey Tango. Funny how that works, huh? 52 is a good time to stop waiting for my real life to begin.

  • Reply Funnelcloud Rachel at 3:59 pm

    This post is awesome and so is that guy you met at the bar! What fantastic advice and so amazing that he actually followed-up and e-mailed you. I’m so excited to see Janery take the next step!

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  • Reply Ashley @ at 12:18 pm

    What a great conversation! I do not own my own business, but even that stranger’s voice resonated with me just trying to get my blog out there is the big world of bloggers. And on a more personal note, in my professional career. You can’t expect things to just happen for you – you have to have initiative and make them happen so you can get to the next level – whatever that is! Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Reply Jane at 11:10 am

      That’s a really good point – it does apply to personal life as well as business. Thanks!

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