The first 3-5 formative years of any new business are the most critical and can dictate whether you’ll fly or whether you’ll flop. But they aren’t just a giant litmus test to see if your business (and you!) can survive, they’re also a giant opportunity with no ceiling on your potential. You’re not quite committed to certain ways of doing things, you’re flexible because you’re small, and while you can’t really plan (because planning is just guessing in disguise), you can gauge things and adjust as you go, which is a beautiful thing.
In 2011, Jillian Bremer started a style blog. At the time, she worked as a buyer for a new apparel company, but it wasn’t long before that itching feeling to start her own business took over. Fast-forward just four years and Jillian now runs her own business with her father at the helm of sourcing and buying. Inspired by the vintage jewelry pieces her dad would find for her at local flea markets, Sweet & Spark aims to bring the undiscovered gems of the vintage jewelry world to people across the globe. As an entrepreneur and new business-owner, Jillian knows the importance of those first few years of business all too well. Today she’s offering her advice for anyone getting through those first scary years in any business, from how you should approach them to what you should take from them. –Sabrina
People ask me all the time: “if I had known what I know now, would I still have started?” And I never admit that three years ago I didn’t know a thing about vintage jewelry. At the time, all I knew was that corporate America was robbing my soul of creativity and that I loved fashion. After reading every Seth Godin book and blog post ever written, I decided to quit my life as an apparel buyer and journey on a mission to defy mediocrity. After all, you only live once, and we live in a world of information where you can learn anything you want. So what’s the worst that can happen? You go back to corporate America?
Armed with my dad’s love for antiquing and my eye for style, I moved from Pittsburgh to San Francisco and within three months, re-launched Sweet & Spark from a lifestyle blog to a curated vintage jewelry brand. Together we Spark-hunt around the country, digging up the most modern, one-of-a-kind vintage costume jewelry from the 1950s-90s. At the core we’re about unique, gold statement pieces, but we also have that something old for brides-to-be. Check out the jewelry in person and learn about vintage with your friends by hosting a Spark Party, or you can get first dibs on our favorite finds via Instagram and our new arrivals page.
After three years, somehow I’m still standing in one of the most expensive cities in America as a self-funded entrepreneur, building my company organically. Once you define what success means to you and you start living outside of your comfort zone, the magic will happen. And for me that’s been to build a life full of happiness and flexibility over money. Little do people know that when they congratulate me on all my successes, they are actually complimenting my happiness, not my financial status.
If you’re willing to try it out, self-funded and filled with determination like me, you’ll quickly learn there’s an abundance of resources to go around. So commit to the ride, not the destination, and start however and wherever you can. Each of the first three years will be filled with an important fundamental building block for survival.
Year One, Consume.
No one will ever believe in your mission more than you. This is your chance to utilize the network you’ve built over your lifetime and reconnect with old colleagues and friends. They will give you the strength and courage you need to forge your own path. Ask them to make introductions to people in their network that you admire. Spend your days meeting new people over coffee; ask a lot of questions, take notes, be genuine and stay in touch.
Stay up late teaching yourself new tricks; read articles and books on unfamiliar subjects and post “help wanted” ads on Craigslist or at local schools for affordable, one-on-one help. Then throw everything on the wall and see what sticks. Don’t over-complicate things, focus on what’s working and when you’re feeling stuck, simplify however you can.
Be prepared to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. If you have enough passion and gratitude, the highs will fuel you through the lows. Welcome change, but don’t lose sight as to why you started doing what you’re doing in the first place. Before you know it, you’ll be over your first year hump and celebrating.
Year Two, Connect.
Now that you are the master of all trades, it’s time to hustle. You can’t spend all day working alone. Build your tribe by putting yourself out there and asking for help, sending emails to people you’d think would never respond and attending every networking opportunity that comes your way. You’ll be surprised what you receive when you ask for it. Say thank you and always pay it forward.
Embrace your financial restraints by allowing them to exercise your creativity. Practice The Lean Startup method, (an all-around excellent book by Eric Ries) by building a business that’s constantly testing new ideas and channels. There is no such thing as a bad idea. Without having several projects in different stages, you will become scared.
At some point, it’s normal to have the strength of your will tested. And when you find yourself scared, make a list of all the positive things happening. You will bounce back!
Always prioritize the things that you’re naturally good at, as that’s what you’ll eventually become known for. Then figure out how to work with people that are better than you and who can push you aesthetically. Collaboration is king and from which, killer content will evolve.
Make sure to smile and have fun, the people are the best part! Unlike corporate America, you get to choose whom you spend your time with. Invest in creating lifelong relationships by spending extra time with those that energize you and saying no to those that don’t. And just like that, you’ve survived another year and have a handful of new friends that would do anything for you.
Year Three, Create.
Realize it’s not just about you anymore. You now have all of the tools and love you need for stability. Don’t forget to schedule down time, it will be during those moments that clarity hits and the only way new ideas will continue to flow. Take a minute to read Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative.
Step away from the computer, the noise on the Internet will paralyze you if you don’t stop reacting to inbound emails and social media. Take every opportunity to connect with fans and customers; they will help you understand the tribe you’ve built. Who are they? How do they want to feel? Where are you creating value?
Remember, you are not trying to be everything to everyone. Invest your time into creating opportunities for people to join your tribe organically. Refine your process and schedule so that product and content is the center of your day. Don’t let your day-to-day busywork hinder your ability to see the big picture.
Continue to work with people who make this adventure fun and who understand your vision. Don’t let mass consumption and the pressure to scale too quickly discourage you. If you’re a millionaire after year three, you’ve killed the dream. Hold on tight and keep believing because anything can happen.