12 Life Lessons From A New Small Business Owner

What I've Learned After 1 Year of Being The Boss

Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about things…things that you never tell anyone about? But you still dream and wonder…what would happen if?…what if it is possible?…what’s the worse that can happen? That’s often where the dream dies too. When we think about the unfavourable outcomes, they scare us back into reality.

Have you ever been there? Yeah, me too.

A year ago, Kathy and I made a decision to leave our jobs and open a cafe in Coldwater ON, a town of 1100 people. Yes, I think it was a risk. To some perhaps a great risk, even a bad risk. But we did it.


We just celebrated our first year at Em’s Cafe and I’ve been reflecting on what it’s meant for us to chase this dream.

I’ve concluded that the lessons I’ve learned so far as a small business owner translate into valuable life lessons as well. So here is some of what I’ve learned after 1 year in business.

12 Life Lessons From A New Small Business Owner

You can’t underestimate the value of wise counsel. We never would have made the decision to leave secure jobs and start something that we had no previous experience in, without the input and counsel from people we trusted. The small circle of individuals who guided us were invaluable, and still are.

Do you have trustworthy people in your life? They tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear.     

Starting a business is hard work. This seems obvious, but I’m not sure if we knew ahead of time what it would take, we would be so anxious to do it. Perhaps a little ignorance helps. We have never worked as hard as we have this past year and it was awesome.

I’m reminded of the season 1 “Frazier” episode when he was about to engage in a street fight with Mr. Mann. It was broken up be for it started and as he makes his way into a cafe he says… “Dad, dad, did you see me? My hands are trembling, my chest is pounding, my mouth is all dry and my legs feel like jello…I feel great!”

Accomplishing something important to you will likely be harder than you could ever imagine…do it anyway. 

You can do more than you imagined. So many aspects of the cafe were new to me: bookkeeping, staffing, payroll, ordering food, dealing with customers and vendors to name a few. But you won’t know what you’re capable of until you start. You can never foresee all the tasks, responsibilities and challenges that you will face as a business owner, but you will be able to do more than you ever thought you were capable of.

I’m convinced that most of us never reach our potential; don’t let fear keep you stuck…don’t settle for mediocrity. 

Even when you love your spouse you may have fleeting thoughts of killing them. From opening day, Kathy and I worked together, 7-days a week for over 5 months. (In October I launched my life-coaching business which meant spending fewer days each week at the cafe). Working 70+ hours a week together week after week can strain even the best marriage. We’ve had our moments for sure. Thankfully the occasional thought to commit a felony against the other was dismissed as we vented, sometimes screamed, but eventually talked and resolved our differences.

Conflict is a means to greater growth and intimacy. Don’t avoid conflict, strive to do it well.       

Not everyone wants you to succeed. It’s true. Some people will be surprised if you succeed and some may hope you don’t. There will always be those who want to discourage you from pursuing your dreams. I won’t go into the reasons here, but it’s good to be aware. Use their cynicism as motivation. But don’t let them too close either.

Proper boundaries can protect you from those who want to harm you.  

The people you surround yourself with make all the difference. The cafe would never have happened without the support of so many wonderful friends and family. Everywhere we look in the restaurant we are reminded of them. The space is so personal to us because of who were involved. So many contributed in so many ways; selecting paint colours, painting, wiring, plumbing, creating menus, furniture and more. 

Who you surround yourself with can make all the difference between success and failure. 

Success is not defined by money. We have people ask us all the time, “Has the cafe been successful?” I suppose most are asking if the cafe is making money. Sure as a business you want to be profitable, maybe in the beginning , just paying the bills. But that kind of success will be hollow and unfulfilling if that’s your only measurement. Our vision, from the beginning was to create a meaningful experience for our customers through a warm atmosphere, friendly service and great food & coffee (especially the coffee) and to have a positive impact in the community. If we are doing that, then we’re successful.

Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” 

Our life is not about us. I was a pastor for 15 years, I’ve been a therapist in private practice, and I drove a truck for UPS before that. Now I’m a cafe owner and a life-coach. Each has been an opportunity to make a difference in someones else’s life. I may actually connect with more people as a cafe owner than I did as a  pastor?

Whatever you choose to pursue in your life, make it about improving the lives of others not your own. 

Generosity is contagious. We hopefully foster a spirit of generosity at the cafe. Whether a free coffee or lunch for someone in need, or a quiet conversation with someone who is hurting, you can never go wrong caring for others. Customers leave money with us to pay for others meals and we’ve seen other local businesses do incredible things too. To celebrate our 1st birthday this past weekend, about 10 Coldwater businesses teamed up with us to raise funds for the Men’s Lighthouse Shelter & Soup Kitchen, here in Orillia. It was incredible to see so many rally around a great cause.

You can create change and momentum by taking action and leading the way for others to do the same.   

You can’t do everything so do a few things well. Our goal at the cafe was to do a few things really well, rather than try to do a lot of things potentially with mediocrity. Even customers will ask for more; “When will you offer salads? Why don’t you sell bread.” My standard answer then is, “I’m not getting up at 3am to bake you a loaf.” Doing too many things can compromise what you want to accomplish.

Take time to consider how you want your life to look and don’t let other things crowd our the most important. 

Be clear on you you want to be. As a cafe we are not trying to be Tim Hortons or Starbucks, we’re trying to be the best Em’s Cafe we can be. Although I don’t mind when I hear our coffee is better than theirs. Is not about market share & profitability but about being the best version of Em’s we can be. Learning how to do that is a daily, on-going process.

Don’t try to be someone else. You’re not them, and you never will be. You are uniquely qualified to be you. 

So there you have it…12 life lessons that I gained from 12 months of being a small business owner. There are more to learn too.

Q. Did a particular lesson stand out for you? Why?

Are you looking to make some changes? Life coaching can help. Contact me to arrange an initial free 30 minute Discovery Call. Let’s talk.


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