Starting a business is not easy and it takes more than being good at what we do. We needed to be good at what WE WILL DO...and that was not always clear.
As new Entrepreneurs, we found ourselves in uncharted territory, wearing many "hats", becoming general contractors/ marketing directors/ inside & outside sales reps/ web developers/ IT specialists/ procurement officers/ HR/ fork lift operators/ shippers/ receivers/ accountants/ financial analysts/ data managers/ LEAN Experts and more.
Our guiding principle from the start was to put a lot of effort in the first 2 years, so everything is in place the way it should be, then the future will be easy...and fun!
We had to adapt quickly because we had limited time to get our business ready. We also had full time jobs so timing was not on our side. We had to constantly shuffle priorities and outsource tasks where it made sense.
This being our first business, we came upon some major inefficiencies at the beginning but also learned how to avoid them in the future.
One example of time wasted was designing our logo. After spending a combined 20 hours sketching out ideas and sharing them with friends and family, we realized we knew nothing about designing logos, finally hiring someone on fiverr.com for $5 to make us a beautiful professional and modern logo that we are extremely happy with.
On more critical projects, we decided to take full control, in particular our ERP system. We knew that hiring a professional will cost us thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars and will force us to rely on someone else for one of our most important assets which is our data.
We chose an out of the box cloud based modular ERP system eliminating the need for IT/hardware support and overpriced consultants. We set it all up ourselves and our only cost was $120/month for 3 licenses.
The ERP system had the standard modules (sales/warehouse/purchase management, accounting and finance) as well as hundreds more modules that can be downloaded for free, instantly integrating with existing data. It even came with a website builder allowing us to create a beautiful presence on the web. The ERP system came with free basic support and free upgrades.
Rather than being consumed with reading books about how to start a business, we went to those who have first hand experience and soaked up all the information they had to share. We sank our teeth in every detail and used logic, awareness, innovative thinking and knowledge based tools that creatively captured the enormous amount of information coming in. I would sit in line every morning at the Tim Horton's by my house analyzing every movement and trying to figure out which of their processes I can incorporate into our business.
We spent the first 3 months scouting for a business location, shopping for our ERP system and setting up the data within it. We also had to learn the system and customize it for our business needs.
We created multiple forms and documents: Customer credit application, supplier agreements, quote/sales order/invoice templates, employees offer letter...
We filled out countless forms: business incorporation, bank loan applications, government grants, rental agreement, credit applications with suppliers...
We had to project our future cash flows and sort out our Finances: took out RRSPs, increased credit card limits, applied for bank loans/government grants...
We also had to write a business plan, create business cards, a logo, a website...
Once we moved into the building, we quit our jobs. For 4 weeks we got the store front and warehouse ready: we cleaned, painted, installed and fixed.
We purchased racks, counter, sheer, saws, rollers, fork lift cutting fluid, office supplies, computers, printers, internet, phones....
We hired contractors to put on a store front sign, to install our heavy equipment and cable and phone lines, fix the warehouse garage door, electrical...
We marketed our business: Google AdWords was used as our primary marketing strategy quickly learning how to set it up to properly target our audience while optimizing our website for indexing in Google search. Our second marketing strategy was to cold call potential customers. We also set up a Google+ page, Facebook page and LinkedIn pages to complement our newly created website.
Most importantly, we had to learn very quickly everything about buying and selling metal, who our customers were and their needs.
We hired our first employee requiring us to gain a whole new set of skills. We became responsible for the lively hood and well being of this individual while ensuring that he is fully trained, engaged and utilized in performing his job while creating job satisfaction and guiding and encouraging him to adhere to the the new company culture.
From the very beginning, we implemented a culture of continuous improvement. We questioned every process always looking for quicker and more effective ways of doing things, utilizing every tool at our disposal. We knew that as the business grew, making changes/improvements will become progressively harder and we wanted to get everything right as quickly as possible.
Once the business was up and running, changes had become continuous and plentiful.
Knowing what to order and when has evolved into a simple report that takes few minutes to generate and an email to suppliers that can be generated in seconds.
The weekly cash out process has had over 30 iterations and was reduced from 3 hours to 45 minutes.
Customer pricing for metal cutting services started as a list, evolved into a calculator and in its final iteration was embedded into the quoting module utilizing existing functionality, improving the accuracy, consistency and speed of quoting.
Administrative tasks have been greatly reduced and some eliminated all together. Everything became meticulously organized for quick filing and retrieval.
We write upwards to 100 emails per day. We utilized every functionality Outlook had to offer decreasing the time it takes to write and retrieve emails. Outlook has become our #1 source for knowledge and we learned how to perfectly utilize the search capabilities within it.
We strive to get back to customers in less than half an hour, so we created 2 digital stamps embedded in emails that say: "responded in less than 10 minutes" and "responded in less than 30 minutes". We wanted our customers to know that getting back to them promptly did not happen by chance but was part of the plan.
Recently, we have gone paperless in a major way using a free popular app that is used by over 50 Million people. We use it primarily for tracking and communicating orders between the front of the store and the warehouse. We also use it for tracking off cuts of sheets and plates, for to-do lists and as a knowledge base tool. In the first month alone we created over 1,000 lists using this app and have it connected to over 10 devices in the store and at home.
This popular app almost doubled our productivity and was implemented flawlessly. It became our internal Google Search...our lifeline... our to-do list for customer related actions and is a great example of the impact that continuous improvement culture can have on an organizations.
As far as we know, we are the only company using this app for the purpose for which we are using it for, making us innovators in our particular industry.
There are many opportunities for our business to further evolve and we are excited about what the future will bring. We recently accomplished a major milestone: 1,000 unique businesses have bought from us.
We now understand first hand the challenges of starting a new business...and how time consuming and knowledge intensive it is to get it right. We stuck to our guiding principle of putting a lot of time and effort in the beginning, trying to get everything right from the start and because of that... 2 years later... we are still confident that the future will be easy...and fun!