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Life & Business

Life & Business: Starting and Running a Business: How to Find What Works

by Sabrina Smelko

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When Kristen Pumphrey launched P.F. Candle Co. in 2008, she had no experience or education in how to run a business. Kristen knew she loved candles and had a knack for making them, but going from a 12-year-old who loved crafting candles to a full-blown, small-batch candle company was a new challenge that, at times, seemed overwhelmingly hard. But like almost everything in life, experience is knowledge is power. Since then, her husband Thomas Neuberger has joined the team of now nearly a dozen. Along the way, Kristen has learned countless little lessons and, due to her authentic approach to business, has gained a large loyal following of supporters and customers from around the globe. Today, hindsight being 20/20, Kristen is sharing some honest and simple advice to help you discover what works for your business to run smoothly. —Sabrina

Businesses don’t just happen overnight. They’re grown one day at a time. Having no formal business training, I was forced to apply a DIY mentality to growing Pommes Frites Candle Co. There’s so much information out there, it can be overwhelming, and I’d always second-guess myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing. I found what matters the most is hard work, common sense, and a good perspective. These are a few tricks we’ve picked up over the years that help shape our decision making – none of them cost a dime to implement. When it comes to finding what works, listen to your instincts and be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

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Start small

Jack of all trades, master of none. Focus on one great product or service and build from there. It’s tempting to add skus and line items, thinking the more you have, the more you’ll sell! I found it was confusing for our customers. Narrow your field of focus, and your product and brand will benefit. Once you’ve established a great reputation for that, expand.

Embrace mistakes

Mistakes will happen because nobody is perfect. It’s not the mistake, but how you deal with it, that sets the tone for your business. Do you learn from it, or do you let your mistakes crush you? Some of our company policies were implemented because of mistakes – taking a look at the drawing board and saying “well, we will never do that again!” Sometimes, I can get caught up because I don’t want to make a mistake. The project I’m working on may never get off the ground because of that fear. Don’t wait for something to be perfect to put it out there into the world. In fact, putting something out there before it’s “ready” will probably help it become an even better project with real-life feedback.

Life & Business: Starting and Running a Business: How to Find What Works

Don’t worry about what other people’s paths look like

Some people want the magic secret – what marketing trick did you do to get this account? Should I work with a rep? Take the energy you spend worrying about other people’s trajectories, and put it all on your own. There’s no one single thing that set everything else in motion – it’s usually a lot of little breaks. Say yes to your little breaks whenever you can, and keep the momentum moving forward. If you’re wondering if something will work for you, try it. What’s the worst that will happen?

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Control the things you can

There’s so much that’s beyond your control. You cannot control the way someone will respond to your email or what your competitors release to the market. You can’t control if your line will get picked up by the store that you just emailed. I try to focus on things within my control – to me, I can control the images on my website, the things I post to social media, and most importantly, I can control how I respond to our customers.

Learn the difference between what you need and what you want

It’s easy to get caught up in wants disguised as needs. Be realistic with yourself about what you really need to run your business, and you’ll see you can scrape by with a lot less than what you want. Do you really need a new computer, or will your old one get you by for another year so you can invest that capital in inventory, instead? In the beginning, especially, it pays to be cheap. We do a ton of handmade shows and markets, and I always wanted to create new displays for each one. Tom would ask me, “Will it really get you more customers if you have this flashy display? Really?” And it wouldn’t. Instead, I only upgraded to things that could have double-duty use in the studio later, or were repurposed from displays we already had. We saved money, and it ended up creating our “look.” Win, win.

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Find a partner

My business didn’t really take off until I found a business partner in my husband, Tom. Instantly, our labor was doubled, but I also found that he balanced me out in areas I was weaker, and vice versa. Obviously you don’t need to enlist your significant other in your business, and some people would strongly suggest against it (that’s an article for another time). Just find somebody that complements you – if you’re a creative genius who can’t remember to pay the bills, get a partner who stays on track and is great at bookkeeping. A business partner is somebody who will hold your hand when the going gets tough – who will motivate you, be a sounding board, and tell it to you like it is. What I’ve found that works best is making sure you are surrounded by people who zig to your zag.

Ignore the advice that doesn’t work for you

Seriously. Feel free to ignore my advice, too. Get used to hearing the phrase “you know what you should do…?” Followed by something you will most certainly not be doing. Your business won’t fail if you don’t tweet/Instagram/email 10x a day at prescribed times. Everyone and their mother will want to tell you how to run your own business, but at the end of the day it’s your name on the line. I try to follow the advice that speaks to me. My rule of thumb – if the article I’m reading is making me anxious rather than inspiring me, I can probably go ahead and ignore it. Rather than building your business strategies on fear (“If I don’t do this thing, I won’t succeed! But everybody else did it!”), build it on what feels good to you. Sharing photos, exciting news, collaborations – if you’re genuinely engaged with your business, people can feel that.

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Comments

  • Such great advice! I just started a business and I am already feeling a little overwhelmed by everything people are saying I am “supposed to do” and comparing myself to other people in my field. It is so reassuring to hear that everyone’s path to success is different.

  • Great post filled with honest advice! In the second year of my freelance writing business, I finally feel like I’m finding my footing. A lot of that is a result of following advice very similar to that in your article. I’ve recently started letting my fiancé in a bit with planning and organizing and it is already such a relief!

  • Thanks for sharing! Great advice! I like especially the advice on “what you want vs. what you need”. This is something I need to learn.

  • I first discovered Pommes Frites candles at the craft fair in San Francisco and something about the product (and the people behind it) just really stuck with me. I’ve continued to buy their candles and am so thrilled for their success.

  • “Take the energy you spend worrying about other people’s trajectories, and put it all on your own. There’s no one single thing that set everything else in motion – it’s usually a lot of little breaks. Say yes to your little breaks whenever you can, and keep the momentum moving forward. If you’re wondering if something will work for you, try it. What’s the worst that will happen?”

    Thank you Kristen for this paragraph. I needed this today. My dream is to work as a fashion stylist and own my own boutique store. A younger relative of mine posted a photo on social media of her on her first day working in the costume dept of a TV show. I wanted to be happy for her, but it kind of put me in a bit of a mood because I chose to study something different than what I want to do, just to have something to fall back on. Thankfully, I talked myself out of that little mood.

  • These are really excellent advice! When I started my first business, I wanted everything to be perfect and ended up spending more than I should! Very costly mistake which I never want to experience again! Thanks for sharing your tips!

    Prudence

  • Bravo on such an honest article! I love that this focuses on the things you can control and how you react and not pouring money into other people’s ideas and concepts. Such a great reminder to trust your gut and not spend all your capital :)

  • Such a great article! I really love the last bit about choosing to follow the advice that works for you – it can be so hard to get wrapped up in what other’s are telling you do.

  • Thanks so much. Great post! I am planning to start a small business soon and while I was searching for advice on starting and running a business found this article. It helps a lot

  • This was a very inspiring read. I have been slowly growing my own handcrafted business for several years. Reading about Pommes Frites renews my hope that I can still do it.

  • you say ‘I try to follow the advice that speaks to me’ – well, yours spoke to me! continued success (also love your disclaimer :-))

  • Such a comfort reading similar experiences to that of my own. I launched ISSIE-MAE 18 months ago with no business acumen and am riding the roller coaster. Once you become a business owner it feels as though you become a part of a secret society that only its members understand!

  • Great article. Thank you, this made me feel better and more confident/frozen in fear with a start-up company. I have just recently shifted from apparel to now a candle company because I love the simplicity of a candle, believe a singular product item is great to start a company, and believe I can connect my faith and values through a company. A question I had is about giving back or engaging the customer in the company I want to start. Would you recommend starting the company and then expanding into that aspect? Did you write a business strategy plan? And I would most likely start this company with my husband… do you have any suggestions or tips to creating a company together? I am more creative minded and big picture, and he is into sales and business. Thanks so much.

  • All such great advice Kristen! I often think with my own business that it seems like such a huge mountain to climb when I look forward, but if I look back I realize how far I’ve grown and learned. We need to remember to do that more often.

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