What Ten Years in Business Have Taught Me
September 3, 2013
Sunday marked ten years since I started my first company. I spent the day enjoying my family, indulging in a long bath, a pot of fresh ginger tea and a long walk down Memory Lane. I realize it’s cliche, but I could not possibly have imagined this journey when we flipped the switch on the first Bella Lucce website on September 1, 2003.
At that time, I was standing at a strange crossroad in my life. I’d just walked away from a fantastically destructive marriage with a toddler on each hip. I’d left my hometown of Memphis, TN and 21 years of friendships and memories behind to move into my parent’s basement on the opposite side of the state. I was broke and scared and defeated. I’d graduated high school with so much promise: near the top of my class, a nationally ranked speech + debate champion with a full-ride scholarship at university.
Many years later, I stood in my mama’s driveway unpacking a car that contained every last thing I owned. I’d gotten pregnant sooner than expected. Was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. Spent a year getting better. My husband had been diagnosed with a small handful of mental illnesses and had run our credit card debt up so high (buying music gear so that he could be a rock star, no less!) that I was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. I was grateful for the warmth of my parent’s home and my mama’s chocolate pie, but I was absolutely petrified.
I started my business after being turned down for a job waiting tables at the local steakhouse. Oh, how I wish that were a joke. But it wasn’t and that was the day that I realized no white knight was on his way to save me. No serious employer was going to take a chance on a broke, newly-single mother without a degree. My mom was the first to suggest that I turn my hobby of making soap and lotion into a company and I started in earnest, just trying to keep us fed until I found a “real” job. Something better. I found something better alright… except that I built it myself.
Ten years! Where did the time go?
Ten years later, we are still plugging away at Bella Lucce. I now employ a staff of amazing souls who love that company as much as I do. We create our products by hand in a 7500 square foot workshop in South Carolina. Those products have traveled the world and I have, too (thirty countries & counting!). We’ve been featured in magazines and on television. I’ve been hosted in the homes of Middle East royalty and taught business skills to women in African mud huts. I’ve walked the halls of DC and met with legislators to advocate for small business protection. I’ve designed products and spa programs for top-tier, international hotel chains and it’s not uncommon for the Bella Lucce team to be working on an order of 30,000 lip balms for a private label client in Colorado or a pallet of product to be shipped to Dubai or Italy. Most days, I’m neck-deep in one task or another, but when I finally step out of it, I’m simply awed by it all. And really, really humbled. I still don’t have that college degree. I’ve turned down more than one seven-figure investor and a reality TV deal. Here’s what I’ve learned in ten years of business.
1. It’s not where you start.
Oh sure, trust funds and supportive husbands and college degrees will provide a nice start. But with enough grit, you can thrive without any of those trappings. Once upon a time, I marveled at those things and lusted after them, but I’ve since learned that passion is the great equalizer.
Don’t let your lack of ANYTHING keep you from starting.
2. You have to put yourself out there.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” - Wayne Gretzky
THIS. So much this. You can’t expect success to be delivered to your doorstep neatly wrapped with a beautiful bow. No, you’re going to have to get out there and chase it. Pitch to that account you’re certain will say no, approach your business idol at a networking event, throw your hat in the ring in that small business contest. Take a risk. The worst that can happen is that they say “no,” right? That’s not fatal and I’ve discovered that a glass of wine and a hot bath mitigate 99% of no’s. And that remaining 1%? Well, I’m half-drunk and squeaky clean and there are worse things to be…
3. Tenacity is your greatest weapon.
Meet Christina: Bella Lucce’s Director of Operations
You’re going to stumble. You’re going to make fantastically bad choices. You’re going to be ridiculed. You’re going to be exhausted and confused and phenomenally tired. Those who ultimately enjoy success are the ones who push through any and every obstacle.
(…says the girl who’s been sued for a million dollars in a trademark dispute, torn apart on internet forums, had her biggest client go belly up on a 6-figure deal, gone mostly deaf and endured bone reconstruction surgery on her inner ear and skull, and endured a few employee ordeals that could be parlayed into TV movies…)
4. Let hunger be your fuel.
Entrepreneurial journeys are not for the meek of heart. This journey has been more challenging than that cancer, that divorce and that bankruptcy. But I’ve continually tapped my hunger as fuel to propel me further. Once upon a time, that was a hunger to get off food stamps (did it in 12 months!), other times it’s been to prove my naysayers wrong. On more than one occasion, it’s been to pursue a deal that I have absolutely no business nailing as a pint-sized business. Whatever frustration, anger, obstacle lays in your path- use it to your advantage.
5. You are not an island.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
- African proverb
One of the greatest joys that I’ve known as an entrepreneur is the network of peers and mentors I’ve established through my business. For years, I slogged through this journey alone until I learned that isolation is truly the enemy of success. Build a community of support around yourself. Interact on social media, attend conferences and workshops and fairs, comment on the blogs of the people you admire, join a trade group. Masterminding together energizes my business and these women lend an understanding ear (and a soft shoulder) when I’ve reached my tipping point.
Meet Justin: Bella Lucce’s Production Manager
So that’s the last ten years in a nutshell. Bella Lucce has been nothing if not a fantastic learning experience for me. I look back at that tender 26 year old standing in her mom’s driveway- so broken and scared- and I hardly recognize her. The journey has not always been easy but it has sure as hell been worth it. Every. Single. Step. And I can’t wait to see what my next ten years as an entrepreneur has in store…
P.S. We’re having one hell of a month-long birthday party and you’re officially invited.