A brilliant idea for a business came to mind. You worked on the concept and went about putting shape into it. You spent sleepless nights doing all the groundwork and eventually launched your venture successfully. But the hard work doesn’t stop there. The uphill part is just about to start. How do you prepare for it? Carolyn Wong shares us her experience.
Carolyn Wong is the CEO and Co-Founder of Short Story, a meaningful gift and lifestyle brand. In this role, Carolyn looks after her growing team providing support, passion, leadership and a family culture fostering personal and business excellence. Carolyn is very passionate about her business. On any given day you can find her anywhere from product designing in the office to making cards in the warehouse.
The early stage, especially the first five years, is a crucial part of any business. Like a baby being brought out to the world, hatching a new enterprise has lots of birth pains. The adjustments, the heartaches, the trial-and-error, and the rejections are just a few of the ordeals that many business owners go through as they take their first step in their entrepreneurial journey.
If this is something that you are experiencing yourself or if you are about to take the plunge and want to prepare yourself for the business world, then you can probably relate to Carolyn Wong’s experience as she shared her story at WeTeachMe’s Masters Series talk on Navigating Your Business’ First 5 Years. Take inspiration from her journey and learn from her business failures and successes.
Acknowledge a pain point
Several businesses start from a pain point. Short Story’s inception is no different. At that time, Carolyn was in university when she felt empty and unsatisfied. She would wake up each morning dragging her feet to school and return home pretending she had a fantastic day at the university. But deep down inside, she wanted something else.
That pain point motivated her to explore other things, which led her to take up a business course of the NEIS program. Through that program, she submitted a viable business plan and received an AUD12,000 grant from the government.
Take a look at your own situation and ask yourself the following questions.
- What is your personal pain point?
- If you don’t have a pain point, look at the people around you if they have one.
- What solution can you come up with that can address this pain point?
Find a breakthrough
Carolyn used the grant to do a scrapbook photo frame where people could insert their photos through a slot in a beautifully decorated artwork. She went to schools and made cold calls to present her product but to no avail. Feeling discouraged and let down, she started making what she loved doing as a kid – origami. She folded papers and created something beautiful out of them. Her business partner, William Du, who is also her life partner, told her to frame them as it would make a kickass product. True enough, when they took it to a craft market, their products sold out within just three hours.
You, too, can find a breakthrough. Look around you for anything that can strike an inspiration. Revisit the things you have been doing as a kid. Take a look at these two important components that can lead you to it.
1. What do you love to do?
Work doesn’t feel like work when you love what you are doing. When you plan to start a business, go after what you are passionate about. It gives you the drive and determination to surmount any difficulty because what you are doing makes your heart leap and your mind race hard. Make a list of your hobbies and what gets you excited then start from there. In Carolyn’s case, it was her love for origami that helped jumpstart Short Story. Despite all the odds and the discouragement from family and friends, she went after what her heart truly desires and made it fly towards success.
2. What are you good at?
Carolyn is good not only in origami but also in business. She realised this at the time when she was feeling lost for about two years. After she quit university, she thought of helping her father, who was running a restaurant for 30 years, look at some numbers because she is good at numbers. She got a taste of business for only a week but it sparked her curiosity. “It was the first time I felt like I was fully in control of something and that whatever I put in, I would reap all the benefits,” Carolyn remarked.
Do a self-assessment of your various skills and abilities and see which ones you can utilise for business. You might have a talent that you have not tapped for quite some time that can help you propel your enterprise. You can also learn a new skill and see how your learning curve goes. As they say, you’ll never know until you try it out.
Getting to the initial stage
The first two years of Short Story was a bit slow, according to Carolyn. But those two years will be filled with lots of decision-making as what Carolyn has experienced. In her case, however, since there weren’t much data to back-up their decisions, they relied more on their gut-feel.
That stage is the time when you can really chart the path of your business. Sometimes, you need to open up your senses in order to feel the pulse of your market. And the early stage is the time when you can really get to know your clients. Learn about your customers and your prospects. This is also the time when you will be able to:
1. Test the product
The only way for you to know if your business will fly or not is by testing your product or service. The initial years is your litmus test whether you can make it or not. Get as much feedback as you can from your early stage customers or clients and see which works and which ones don’t. Do not be afraid to know the results because they will give you vital hints on how you will move forward in your business.
2. Do refinements
From the feedback, refine your product or service according to which is most appealing and effective to your market. This early part of your business is when you can do some trial and error. It is better to know ahead of the game what attracts your clients to your brand and what repeals them from patronizing your product or service. Remember that you are investing your resources, time and effort into your business, so make sure that you hit the bull’s eye when it comes to what works best for your market. It is a reality that our initial ideas might not be as brilliant as we thought them to be. Some of them will don’t work out well. Be flexible. Learn to do some adjustments, if needed. Changes are necessary for the improvement of your business.
3. Put your brand out there
In the first years of your business, you need to create as much awareness and recall for your brand. For Carolyn and William, they joined trade fairs. They also tracked down influential people that could open doors for them, such as MYER CEO and Managing Director Richard Umbers. Let more people know of your existence by putting your brand out there. Explore the social media world. Engage with people. Form a community. Bring life to your brand.
Scaling the business
The latter half of your first five years is when you have the opportunity to scale up your business. When Carolyn entered the third year of Short Story, the business was growing. But parallel with that growth was incurring more expenses. Thus, cash flow was a really big problem as they were on the brink of bankruptcy. But they kept on. They joined one last trade fair and put in all their reserves. It worked successfully and they reaped 300% growth out of that.
These are what Carolyn and her partner did with Short Story when they were on their 3rd and 4th year to turn around what seemed to be a threat of bankruptcy into an opportunity of scaling their business.
They did a rebranding of Short Story, making it even better and more appealing to their customers. They improved on their stalls, they presented their products really well and even revisited their business plan. Often times, after the initial two years, you find that you want to change the direction of your business. You sometimes refine your goals. There are instances wherein even the purpose and mission of your business can alter a bit. Note, however, that rebranding is not just merely a change in logo. It is refining the various points of your brand to make it connect more with your market.
It was also at this stage when Carolyn and William have put in systems and processes in their business. After you get the hang of the day-to-day operations of your business in the initial stage, the next part is making tasks and processes more efficient by establishing systems that will work regardless of who is in your team.
Next 5 years
After you get past the initial stage towards your fifth year, you already have to work on preparing for the next five years. There are three ways to go: remain the same, grow or exit. If you are looking at either growing your business or exiting it, lay the groundwork that will make it easier for you to move your business.
Growth and Expansion
If growth and expansion are what you have in mind, then you also need to nurture your personal and professional development that can correspond to your business growth. Carolyn is grateful for the strength her business partner provided her. Their dynamics, given their differences in psychology and abilities, created a good balance in the business. If you are working with a business partner or several partners, Carolyn cited the necessity of giving each other your domain. William was in-charge with sales while she was focused on marketing and the creative side.
She also realised the importance of surrounding herself with fellow business people who can relate to her and give her additional learnings. She found such support system through groups like Entrepreneurs Organization (EO). Getting a business mentor is also a big help in steering your business to where you want it to be.
Apart from equipping yourself with new learnings constantly, you can also look at how to expand your business. One way of expanding it is geographical. Now, Short Story is located in a thousand stalls throughout Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. You can also look at expanding your product line or menu of services. Carolyn has also included jewellery and accessories in their product offerings.
Carolyn was not even thinking of an exit strategy during the first two years of Short Story. But when they had systems and processes in place, she considered the possibility of an exit strategy, especially that she loves startups.
Even when you plan on expanding your enterprise, having an exit strategy in place is still vital to your business. You really do not know how things will turn out in the next years or so. Having an exit strategy is a preparation if ever the opportunity presents itself. If this is something you are thinking about and you already have one in place, check it every now and then. Do you want to get new investors to join you or do you prefer to sell your entire company? Anchor your exit plan on your preferences and the benefits that it can generate for your business.
At the end of the day, the decision falls on your shoulder on where you want to bring your business. The best you can do is to equip yourself with all the tools that can help you bring closer to your goals. With that, get as much knowledge as you can, especially from WeTeachMe’s Masters Series, and bring those learnings with you on your entrepreneurial journey.