10 Things You Didn’t Learn in Your Intro to Business Class

Expert business advice from bosses who’ve been there

In partnership with Surex

Millennial girl in glasses sitting at desk in home office on laptop
Photo: iStock

Call it Side Hustle Season. A whopping 87% of women surveyed in the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Canada Report indicated interest in starting their own businesses and, according to Statistics Canada, more than 1 million Canadian women were self-employed as of 2018. Instagram and Etsy are full of bad-ass bosses building entrepreneurial empires—and new pages pop up every day.

Still, entrepreneurs face more than a few potential hurdles when trying to get a new business off the ground. Maybe it’s when an influencer tags their brand and suddenly they have to fulfill, like, one billion orders basically overnight. Or perhaps it’s when their warehouse (aka mom’s basement) gets burgled and they suddenly realize that, hey, business insurance that covers stock theft is probably more than just a “nice to have.” Whatever it looks like, every entrepreneur has a moment in their journey when they think (or sob): “I wish somebody had told me about this!”

That’s why we tapped a “Been there, survived that crisis” squad of successful Canadian entrepreneurs for advice on how to overcome these unexpected hurdles of small business ownership, so that other ambitious women with a side-hustle in their sights can learn from their experiences.

Class is now in session.

Lesson #1: Plan, plan and plan some more

“Being in a small, remote northern community means high shipping costs, limited access to goods and long distances to retail outlets,” says Joella Hogan, founder of The Yukon Soaps Company. “So many times I have been in a situation where I have run out of a key ingredient, a label or some other piece—like the time I ran out of rosehips in the middle of winter, or the time I ran out of lye in the middle of mass production. But there’s no reason that being from a small town should stop you from building your dream enterprise. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I needed to stay on top of my main ingredients and my production schedules.”

Lesson #2: Always budget time for disasters

“We made the mistake of assuming things will always go according to plan, but now we’ve learned the importance of adding buffers to give ourselves breathing room,” says Connie Lo, co-founder of NIU BODY. “Here’s an example of the speed bumps we encountered with just one order: The Trump tariffs delayed our shipment by three weeks; then when the components were delivered, we realized the supplier had entered the wrong amount on the purchase order and only delivered half of what we had ordered! For this reason, it’s crucial to build in time for the unexpected.”

Lesson #3: Keep your eyes on the prize

“In early 2018, I was focused on my wedding and I let things cruise—and, in some cases, didn’t even do what was necessary to keep things steady. It was fine…at first. But after our seasonal summer lull, oh, I felt it,” admits Saschie MacLean-Magbanua, founder of The Formation Studio. “We were forced to come up with creative strategies to deal with a dip in revenue. We implemented short term solutions to have a direct impact on sales, as well as long term planning to prevent this kind of issue again,” she says. “One of these changes was diversifying our offerings from workshop packages, which required a weekly commitment, to a more casual drop-in program. We immediately reached a new audience.”

Lesson #4: Let it go, let it go

“Once I realize that I am doing something that isn’t productive or having the desired results, it’s important to stop, accept the outcome and reflect on how we got there,” says Meron Berhe, co-founder of Bantu. “Learning to let go of something that isn’t working regardless of how much time and/or money has been invested is very necessary, because continuing down the same path won’t serve you and doing so out of a sense of duty or obligation isn’t constructive. Ruminating about your defeat isn’t productive, either.”

Lesson #5: You’re allowed to say no

“My biggest mistake along this journey has been saying “yes” to every project that came our way,” advises Ashley Montgomery, found of Ashley Montgomery Design. “Sometimes you know right off the bat that a prospective client is going to cause you nothing but problems and the money just isn’t worth it. Those clients can leave you feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing and leave you questioning if this is the right career path. Trust your gut and take on projects with people that you know you will work well with and will feed your soul.”

Lesson #6: You get to define success

“Thankfully, I participated in a great accelerator program that bridged gaps in my knowledge in terms of operational things, like getting incorporated early, getting business insurance, getting a lawyer, etc.,” says Tomi Gbeleyi, founder of Makeup For Melanin Girls. “But I wish I had known that not all businesses need to aim to be “unicorns” or need to seek VC [venture capital] investment. I had a very narrow perception of success and used “funds raised” as my barometer. I was chasing growth at all costs when it wasn’t necessarily the best fit for the brand I am creating. Now, profitability and long-term growth are more important to me than fundraising.”

Lesson #7: Know your worth

“As my business grew, I was failing to raise my prices when my costs increased. It is hard to see your own value sometimes when you are creating products,” says Hogan, “but the reality is that the cost of living is rising globally. My biggest fear was that people would stop buying my products, but in fact, I have seen increases in sales [after raising my prices].”

Lesson #8: Do what you do best, and let other people do the rest

“Don’t lose sight of why people are paying you, and spend your time doing what makes your business money,” says Montgomery. “Find processes or people to do everything else for you. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. For my business, a bookkeeper was one of the greatest assets and worth every penny.”

Lesson #9: Growing pains are real

“A difficult learning for us was how to maintain control over product development as we scaled,” says Laura Burget, co-founder of NIU BODY. “We started in our kitchens; but at scale, managing cash flow and production is very different from when you are doing all production by hand. We experienced many growing pains when we increased production to orders that were hundreds of thousands of units. Now, we’ve learned to map cash flows on a month-by-month basis to see where our gaps will be, and have gotten used to being extremely upfront with people and asking detailed questions.”

Lesson #10: Give yourself some credit (literally)

“The Canadian Small Business Financing Loan is offered through several financial institutions,” says MacLean-Magbanua. “When we were first applying to the bank for our loan, we asked the banker, “If we don’t get this, what are our other options?” He named a few that were more expensive or harder to get, making it seem like applying to this program with him was our only shot. It wasn’t until we spoke with another entrepreneur that we realized other banks offered the same access with very different application criteria. In the end, we went with a different financial institution and it was a breeze in comparison.” Small lifestyle changes can also help you save money to further invest in your business.

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