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Preparing to Start a Small Business While You're Working for Someone Else

Our Small Business 101 series is for anyone who owns a small business and for anyone who's thinking about starting a small business. It draws from lessons we've learned while working with thousands of Canadian small business entrepreneurs over the years. It's the class we wish we'd taken before starting Origami. And the night class you should be taking right now.

People underestimate how much they need to know when they go into business on their own. Hint: It's a lot. Any knowledge and experience that you bring to the table reduces what you have to learn when you're on the job. This is why employers ask for resumes. The lessons you learn on the job are costly. Someone has to pay for them. When it's your own business, that someone is you. So you want to do whatever you can to keep the lessons to learn list small.

The skills and experience on your resume going in to your business are going to be focused and technical. Then you're going to have soft, transferable skills like communication and problem solving. You may also have some experience managing others, maybe you've spent time in marketing and sales, maybe you've even been in charge of a budget. Whatever you've seen up to that point, you're going to see it all — and have to deal with it all (or get help) — when you start your own business.

You can fill in some resume gaps by paying attention to the business you're working for right now. If you're in a silo, head down, doing your job, it's time to look up. You're going to be building a business from scratch. To do that, you're going to need a working model in your head of what you're trying to build.

It so happens you have a working model right in front of you. All around you, people are doing things, work is getting done. Someone is coordinating that effort. Money is coming in, money is going out. Someone is keeping track of that. The business you're working for right now, even if it's struggling or dysfunctional, works at some level. It's able to pay your salary, right? And even the dysfunctional parts give you insight. They're dead ends: things you need to avoid.

If you're working in the public (or not for profit) sector, there won't be as much to pick up. In fact, the private and public settings are so different, you'll want to leave behind as many habits as you can. But otherwise, if you're going to be a businessperson, you should take the healthy attitude that there's always something to learn from the way other businesses are run. Even if the business you're going to start has nothing to do with the business you're working for now, you're going to find every business has the same basic parts (management, marketing, sales, production, HR, IT, accounting, finance, etc.) and the same basic objectives (sales, profits, cash flow, growth, etc.).

So you should assume the healthy, curious attitude and start paying attention to and learning from your employer's business right now. How does it work? If the opportunity presents itself to gain insight, take it. Even a little bit of insight helps. One thing entrepreneurs often say when asked what they would do differently at the start knowing what they know now is learn more about business. Don't miss the chance you have right in front of you.

Here are a few things to look out for as you're likely to encounter them in your own business.

What does the business do? This may be easy: "Sells furniture" or "Sells tires and repairs cars" or "Sells online advertising services." If it's clear in your mind and you can convey it easily to your friends, that's good. That's what you're aiming for in your own business. Customers don't have a lot of time to figure you out. They should be able to quickly realize how doing business with you can benefit them.

How does the business get customers? First, is the business one of many just like it in the market, or does it have something unique and different? Second, how do customers hear about it? You're going to be entering into the "get customers" game. It will be your number one priority. Gather as many tips as you can on how someone else does it (the marketing, advertising, and sales parts).

How does it recruit and train employees? Small businesses have high employee turnover. Recruiting will be part of your routine. With recruiting comes onboarding and training. That cycle will suck up a lot of time. More than you expect even if you're used to it. So try seeing how it works in your current business, the good and the bad, and using that to set up your own systems.

How does work get done? How is it organized? Basically, pay attention to the management layer. Do managers behave in an erratic, off the cuff way, or do they help staff set priorities and stay on task? Are they working on creating a clear, positive company culture or are they hurting morale by being disengaged or arbitrary? What are the means by which these two types of managers achieve their ends? You want to learn what to do and what not to do. But doing it for yourself, putting that learning into action, is going to be one of your biggest challenges.

Who makes the spending decisions? How are these decisions made? You're going to be in charge of money in your business, and you're going to decide what to spend and where to invest. You're going to have to carefully balance the money going out with the money going in. It's stressful, especially in the early days when there's not going to be enough money coming in. You're going to need planning and discipline, and some kind of system. Try and see the controls and systems in place in your current workplace, and, if possible, ask questions.

Does the business plan or set targets? Without some level of planning and goal setting, your business may end up in constant survival mode. Getting out of that mode requires, unsurprisingly, planning and goal setting. If you're lucky to be in a well-run business, then you'll see that management makes progress with a systematic approach. Try and see how business goals are set and communicated, and how progress toward those goals is made and tracked.

Is the business successful? What makes it successful or unsuccessful? You're going to want to succeed in your business. Success is going to involve growth and profit. If your current workplace is in the successful category, it's going to have a lot of strong parts that make that possible. Those parts should give you ideas about how to create success when you're on your own. An unsuccessful business is more difficult to process, because it puts you off and discourages you. But clearing your head and thinking through what's wrong in the business will help you spot hazards down the road.

Thanks for reading! If you're ready to start building a better business, give us a call at 1-888-745-1315 or get in touch with us by filling out our Get Started form. We're always happy to hear from you and learn about your business. We'd love to see your small business succeed, and we'd be proud to be a part of your success.