12 Valuable Business Lessons Learned The Hard Way


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Business lessons learned the first time in business are never wasted the second time.

2020 has been an incredibly challenging year for many of us. But, the biggest challenge (aside from battling to stay safe) is learning how to change rapidly in mindset, attitude, direction and behaviour. It reminds of an old saying that if you sit on a rock long enough, it gets warm. 

The ebbs and flows of this year, have been merciless but this is the time to believe in yourself now more than ever. The business lessons are learning now, will come in handy post-pandemic.  The entire year I felt like I was lagging behind in everything. I had some wins though and found better solutions to things. I hope I can help you avoid some of the pain I endured over the last couple of years, particularly this year. 

Here are the 12 business lessons that I learned that hard way:

Lesson #1 Don’t Take Advice from Habitual Advice-Givers

Be very careful when accepting advice from people who freely dish out advice. They tend to be lacking in many ways. More often than not, they have more interest in solving other people’s problems than they do their own. It’s an ego-gratifying habit that you don’t want to get sucked into, and dragged into the wrong direction. 

In business, it is always advisable to have a few trusted knowledgeable advisors that you can go to for advice. These people will have a better understanding of your situation and also will have your best interests at heart. Also, give yourself time to think things through before taking any action. 

Lesson #2 Be Willing to Learn

Look at things bit by bit, you shouldn’t go all in. Learn for yourself that way it will be known to you. Having the willingness to learn is critical to your success as an entrepreneur as you’ll need to constantly innovate in order to constantly stay ahead of the competition. Particularly now! Simply having that desire and willingness, shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Additionally, take the time to stop and reflect on the past. Your past performance actually does reflect your future performance. This is always something to remember when you are looking at your personal business endeavours and also your financial endeavours. If it was well, it shall be well again as long as you learn from your mistakes. Mistakes that are learned from are absolutely necessary to build character. Building a business is an experience like no other. 

Lesson #3 If You Can’t Afford it, Don’t Gamble It

A common-sense rule of gambling – “Don’t play with money you can’t afford to lose”. I know that risk is inherent in every endeavour but gambling isn’t. 

Note the difference: risk is a calculated move, while as gambling is forfeiting control to risk i.e. guessing. Guessing is foolish and reckless, but calculated risk tends to lead to the biggest rewards.  So when you choose to gamble or guess, ensure that you can afford it. No matter how lucky or skilful you think you are, playing with money you cannot afford to lose will seriously set you back on the chance you lose it all. 

In the long run, the uncomfortable experienced left after such an experience will haunt you and leave you unable to make the right moves or judgement because you already feel like a loser in the game. This goes beyond the bounds of self-control and decency. Therefore, strive to be a more intelligent player – and, you should strive to be a consistent winner in everything – you should always play with the right foot forward. 

Lesson #4 Prioritize Earning

Focus on business activities that will generate earnings – cash flow is king in any business, especially now. I learnt this the hard way when I started my second business in which I had a lot of my capital tied up in inventory that I needed to convert into cash real quick to make other essential payments.

To stay afloat as a small business – keep your doors open – you’ll need to focus on getting paid first. Don’t give too much attention to things that don’t contribute directly to your bottom line. So, once your customer buying process is in place, focus on getting paid – convert product/service into cash over and over, while increasing efficiency and quality.

Lesson #5 Don’t Do It All By Yourself

This was the greatest lesson and the greatest roadblock for me. It is very difficult to let someone else do what you know you can do or even figure out on your own. I learned this lesson the hard way last year while trying to do everything. Business can get quite lonely, so strive to make a positive contribution to your own happiness and mental health by getting the support system you need to stay healthy and happy.

Lesson #6 Learn to Say No

My inability to say ‘No’ to people was costing me time and money. This made me an easy target for “friends” to use me. I spent billable time servicing friends and giving them special treatment in discounts and freebies. When I started out, I was so happy about every potential sale that came my way that I never stopped to think about how it would all play out to my bottom line. Please don’t get me wrong, yes friends should get “special treatment” for merely being a friend and also one of your first customers, but that shouldn’t be in the form of discounts and freebies. Having them pay full price, provides you validation for creating value and they are more likely to provide honest feedback to your business. In turn, help you grow your business. 

Lesson #7 Focus on Customer Retention

It amazes me to see small businesses mistreating customers they have worked so hard to get. When someone has your attention, ensure that it stays that way because acquiring a new customer is much more expensive than retaining an existing one. Customer retention is important for consistent growth and financial planning of your business. If you can count on a committed customer returning, you can easily make business decisions pertaining to budgeting and sales more easily. So, love your customers and take good care of them, tomorrow you may need them. This brings us to lesson #8. 

Lesson #8 Let Your Customers Pick Your Next Customer

The best customers are obtained through referrals – a customer acquisition strategy that also happens to promote retention.  With referrals, there is no need for spending money to attract new customers. Research says that 83% of consumers trust a product or service recommendation from family and friends.  So, let your existing customers help you bring in new business by making that initial recommendation. Ensure that you take the time to get to know your customer and then move on to provide a positive experience. They’ll be more than happy to tell their family and friends about it.

Lesson #9 Not Every Shilling is a Good Shilling

Essentially, not every prospect has the same shilling. There are times in business where you might be tempted to do business with certain people and then find yourself spending more to earn the shilling you are trying to earn. 

From a consulting perspective, sometimes there are clients that come to you asking for things that are outside of your scope of service. Since you know how to go about it, you are like…what the heck I will do it even though you are not super efficient at it as you are in the areas to do day in day out. Earning that shilling is going to be very slow and painful with a longer, larger ramp up time. Thus, you won’t get the enjoyment, their satisfaction at the end of the day and potential profitability out of it.  

Ultimately, in business do not make the mistake of taking on the wrong customer simply because they put money on the table. Know your customer, and pursue them with vengeance, knowing that each one you catch will make your business stronger and better in the long run. 

Lesson #10 Be Confident Enough Accept Your Faults

I learned that accepting the fact that you aren’t perfect will save you a lot of time and move you forward more quickly. Everyone has faults, so avoid the ego trip of trying to cover-up your mistakes. Instead, accept them and face the reality of your own mistakes. There is no greater sign of confidence, growth and self-acceptance – in the good, the bad and the ugly. 

Lesson #11 Don’t Be Afraid To Start Small

I think this is the most important lesson of all the business lessons. Most people are totally afraid to start small because they think they need much more to get somewhere. Personally, I don’t believe in starting with money, I believe in the purpose and the money will follow later on.  After all, you must start somewhere and at the end of the day, you don’t need a lot to do it. Just start. 

Lesson #12 Keep Going

Keep your head down and keep going. It is easy to quit but don’t. Tackle every problem as it comes along and learn those business lessons. Don’t overthink it or overanalyze about why it will not work out. Things will get better, just keep going.

Over to You

There you have it, guys. Twelve (12) business lessons I learned the hard way over the last couple of years as a solo entrepreneur. 

Anything here you can use? Add? Share your business lessons with us in the comment section below.

Image Credits: Top by Prateek Katyal from Pexels.

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Irene Makanga
Irene has an MBA in Finance and is an avid businesswoman, passionate about financial literacy.



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