Life Lessons From Our First Two Years In Business

My wife Kathy and I jumped into to world of entrepreneurship two years ago. Seemingly overnight we went from pastor and retail sales to small-business owners. In a matter of weeks Em’s Cafe was born. 


I’m often asked if our Cafe is successful. It’s a good question to consider especially when the statistics tell us there is little chance we will be around in 5 years. A Globe & Mail piece said that, “30% of small businesses will fail within two years.” Well at least we have cleared that hurdle. But over 50% of small businesses don’t survive 5 years so I guess we still have more challenges to navigate. 

As a small-business owner, I am always trying to learn how to to be better. Of course I want our business to grow and be successful…but how would I know if it is?

Our original vision for the cafe was, “to have a positive impact in the community and the lives of our customers.” That continues to be our motivation today along with wanting to be the no 1 destination in our county.

But really those are outcomes or results of something. How do we get there? How do we accomplish what we believe God has called us to do?

Recently, I heard financial guru Dave Ramsey explain it this way.

“If you’re gonna win in business, you gotta love people.” Actually it was more like, “You gotta looooooooooove people.”

That’s it. You gotta love people.

Ramsey went on to say that if you are in business for money, then you will likely fail (and he hopes you do).

Every day, our business gives us hundreds of opportunities to love people…our team, our customers, our neighbours and other business owners in the community.

Sure, we continue to give attention to market trends, operating costs, margins, marketing strategies and opportunities for growth, but loving people is what we do. At least it’s what we try to do. 

 Keys to Surviving Two Years in Business

In addition to trying to love people, there are a number of lessons we’ve learned (more accurately still learning) that will not only serve us well in business but in our personal life as well.

Wise Counsel

Long before we signed our names to any business document we sought input from people who are way smarter than we are and that has only continued. We are deliberate in who we connect with. When it comes to our business, we looked for people who are not only successful in what they do, but in how they do it.

Two years in, there are new things to learn, different decisions to be made and complexities to be managed. We couldn’t do it on our own…and we don’t want to.

Em’s is the result of the involvement of so many people, the list is long. It would be naive to think that somehow Kathy and I pulled this off on our own.

Educated Ignorance

Have you ever done something without fully understanding what it was going to take to succeed? Yeah me too. I recently heard Malcom Gladwell use the term “useful delusion” when referring to entrepreneurs embarking on a new idea. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but basically it means to be confident enough, even ignorantly so, to think you can do something even if it’s a long shot. It’s not arrogance, but optimism rooted in ignorance.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should do our homework, do the research, collect the data and gain the insights necessary to make a decision, but no matter how much we prepared for the cafe, there was no way we could have anticipated exactly what it would be like or what it would take to launch it and run it.

Years ago, our son did some cliff jumping at a summer camp. He was about 7. We boated out to see him leap from 20 feet up into the lake. The only problem was, he didn’t know how to swim. He found a way to get back to the shore and then up he’d climb the heights and do it all over again. He had the time of his young life.

At some point, you just have to jump.

Tortoise Mindset

When you take on a new challenge like launching a small business you learn new things about yourself. I discovered that I was more entrepreneurial than I ever thought before. That may sound like a good thing in business…it is…but it can also get you into trouble.

The children’s story of the “tortoise and the hare” serves as a great metaphor. I’d go on Dragon’s Den next week if I thought it’d help. But we’ve just begun year 3 and we are not ready to pitch anything to anyone. Having a long-term approach, moving forward consistently and intentionally will serve us well, just as it did the tortoise.

Small businesses fail for many reasons…things like lower sales than anticipated, large debt load or unforeseen obstacles like competition opening up down the street. And all these can effect cash flow.

Of course we want the business to grow. But how to do that is an ongoing tension to be managed. We continue to learn how to manage the tension between growing the business and potentially sabotaging it by being reckless. It’s art more than science I think.

Tortoise Thinking

  • It’s okay to make mistakes, just not fatal mistakes. Not everything we’ve tried succeeded. Some decisions just don’t work. That’s okay…as long as we didn’t put everything on red 23 and let it ride.
  • Seek input from objective sources; have a trusted circle of people who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. I can’t say this strongly enough. Always try to be the dumbest guy in the room…for me that’s not too hard.
  • Avoid debt. It’s not impossible. In fact people like Dave Ramsay would say it’s the only way. Maybe there is good debt and bad debt, but I watch Dragons Den and Shark Tank and it pains me to see people leverage everything they have for a dream…especially when the sharks tear their idea to shreds…that hurts. Whatever you choose, minimize debt as much as possible.
  • Don’t sacrifice the future for the present.  This relates to everything from day to day operations, marketing, money, hiring and other business relationships. We have 5 , 10 and 15 year views for our business. How it plays out may change but we hopefully will never put our future in jeopardy by what we do today or next week.
  • Never forget your “why”. The more complex business gets, the easier it becomes to move away from what got you there in the first place. Remembering why we opened the cafe keeps us grounded and gives us guardrails against making a decision that could cause us to wreck.

So there you have it. 3 keys to business that work in every other area of life as well.

wise counsel…educated ignorance…a tortoise mindset

Whether you’re considering your career, your marriage or personal goals, you will never go wrong by including them.

Feeling stuck? Not sure what to do next? Your life not where you want it to be?

Life coaching can help. Contact me to arrange a free 45-minute discovery call. Lets talk.


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