4 Tips To Start a Business From a Woman Who Knows

start a business

I had the great opportunity to sit down with Melinda Emerson  recently, and pick her brain about how to start a business. If your dreams involve being your own boss one day, you’re going to want to listen to what she has to say. 

To be sure, she knows her stuff when it comes to dishing out facts and tips to start a business. She goes by @SmallBizLady on Twitter, hosting a weekly  #SmallBizChat. She runs the Succeed As Your Own Boss blog where she posts articles and tips on breaking into entrepreneurship, and she writes a business column for the New York Times. On top of all that, she is the founder and head of Quintessence Group, her marketing consulting firm.

It was a great conversation, and I wish I’d had a megaphone instead of a tape recorder and medium roast coffee with me so you all  could have heard all of the gems she had to share. But, I’ve got the next best thing for you: here’s the top four pieces of advice she had to share with career ladies like yourself.

1. Be Nice

Yes, really. If you picture a successful businesswoman, what do you see? Pantsuits? A flawless multitasker who strides through her day, leaping over obstacles and bulldozing her to-do list? A ruthless calculator who eats her competition for breakfast and always comes out on top, lipstick unsmudged? Well, that’s what a lot of people expect, but acting like that won’t win you any friends… and friends are everything.

Emerson: “Being kind to other people, even if they’re perceived as being a direct competitor, has been very very helpful to me. I have been very generous, sharing other people’s content, and I think that’s been one of my secret weapons to gain my Twitter following. My joke is that I always say, “Be sweet, Retweet!”

But as a woman in a male dominated industry, (and let’s face it, right now, a lot of us are,) isn’t there a lot of pressure to treat others as a threat, and protect yourself?

Emerson: “That doesn’t make sense, because first of all, there’s 27 million small business owners. There’s only 1700 big businesses. So we are predominant out here, everyone’s trying to sell to us, so why would we try to cannibalize and kill each other? That just doesn’t make sense. I have been very blessed to have wonderful mentors and people around me who have been super helpful.”

She also tells us that you it is crucial to start out with a network of friends to sell to- which can mean the person in the cubicle next to you, or the person that lived in the next dorm.

Emerson: “It is amazing to me how many people with no friends start a business. It is amazing to me.”

2. Specialize

Remember how I mentioned that it might be a good idea to figure out your business plan, ya know, ahead of time? Ms. Emerson backs me up on this one.

Emerson: “Who is your paying customer, what is your niche? Because people too often are generalists, and the recession killed generalist consultants. People want to hire people that are specialists, people who specialize in solving their problem every day. So you’ve got to figure out, what are you going to specialize in?”

Yeah, but, what about giving it the good old American try, and just jumping in on a wing and a prayer, seeing what pans out? Aren’t you supposed to follow your passion, and then try to figure out how to make money from it? Aren’t tips to start a business supposed to look like motivational posters?

Emerson: “It’s crazy. [People say,] find your passion! No. Find a profit center! Find your passion that has a profit center. Because most of the time, people that are entrepreneurial have a myriad of ideas.” (You already know what our Career Girl has to say about ‘passion’.)

Again, that’s not to say that you should toss all the fire and energy and starry-eyed idealism out the window. Drive is good, a plan is better.

3. Behave… At Least Online

I’ll bet a lot of you guys are familiar with that rainy little patch of disillusionment that you hit when you graduated with a college degree and realized that the jobs were still far from guaranteed. Many people have begun to question the value of receiving any higher education at all, with the current state of the system. But,  don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that your job of learning is done.

Emerson: “When you come out of college, all that means is that you’re trainable. You don’t know anything to help anybody make any money yet. Not often. So, how about you just come and be quiet and learn for a minute? And then talk to me about your ideas. But learn my system first.”

She also mentions the pitfall of starting a business in an industry in which you’ve never worked at least part time.

Emerson: “Too often people romanticize entrepreneurship, like ‘I’m gonna start a restaurant!’, and have never worked in one. That’s a mistake. You need to go work for a small business so you understand just how hard that is. And then be really honest and really realistic with your own skills. What are you good at? What are you not good at?”

Emerson recounted how she had devoured every resource she could find when first starting her own business–and still relied on the knowledge of mentors to fill the gaps. 

 Emerson: “In order to be successful, you have to be flexible. You have to listen. You have to be a lifelong learner. You have to make sure that you’re not resting on your laurels, that you think you know everything already. I go every single year to ten conferences, and I go to the workshops. Even if I’m speaking keynote at the conference, I go to other people’s workshops. I still think there’s stuff you can learn from other people. When you get to the point where you don’t think you can learn from anyone else, you’re in trouble.” 

And that, she says, may be part of the reason some Gen Y and Gen Xers seem to be conflicted on the new rules of the workplace, and the concept of “paying your dues” and putting in the grunt work before hitting it big.

Emerson: “I think many [millenials] don’t do their homework, and many of them assume they could do my job today. And what they don’t understand is that there’s 20 years behind my credentials. I look younger than I am. But I’m not. I have forgotten more than they know about it. But that’s okay. I think you need fresh ideas, and they’re so excited, and they have so much energy. I think energy is needed in a workplace. But I think it has to be measured.”

We had a great talk, and I wish I could have shared even more of what she had to say. (She does offer some free ebooks if you’re dying for some more tips to start a business served up straight.) But if I had to leave you with one tidbit to take away, it would be this: the key to her success, she tells me, is that she is “relentlessly consistent.”

Now: Start A Business!

So, get on it, girls! The process may not always be sexy, but owning your work and setting the terms of your own success definitely is.

Nicole P.

Nicole Pieri graduated with a B.A. in English from The College of New Jersey in 2011, and has since decided that jeggings aren’t as cool as she originally thought and that writing for a living online is way better than being a starving artist. Relocating from a cow town in Northern New Jersey to the big city of Philadelphia has brought her some great opportunities and changed her attitude from “always look both ways!” to “I’m probably faster than that bus.” In her spare time she enjoys crocheting and speaking in the third person so that it looks as if she’s important enough for someone else to have written a bio about her.

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