It’s no secret that launching a full-time small business is hard work, even when you’re confident in your vision, business plan and proposed customer base. But it’s also an endeavor full of surprises, both good and bad. How entrepreneurs react to these curveballs is often the difference between a business growing into an established presence or fizzling out and closing.
Complicating matters is that surprises take on many forms, especially where money matters are concerned. Road construction or bad weather might cause dips in business for brick-and-mortar stores. Clients might ghost on contracts or be delinquent on payments. Unexpected expenses might crop up and eat into profits. On the plus side, landing a lucrative contract or client is always a possibility, which can be the difference between a so-so year and an amazing one. Navigating these ups and downs can be fraught with anxiety, and finding the right tool to track your financial picture isn’t always the easiest.
Nurturing a strong community support system is another solution for those going it alone — as Nicole Brichacek, founder and owner of Gypsy Beans & Baking Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, has discovered. Today, her cozy coffee shop is the bustling hub of a vibrant, artsy neighborhood, with its location catty-corner to a pinball emporium and an independent movie theater. It’s the kind of place where regulars are greeted by name, and new customers are welcomed like old friends.
Since Brichacek opened Gypsy Beans in 2006, she’s weathered some unpleasant setbacks, such as financial difficulties and operational missteps. However, she’s also learned that timely support can come from unlikely places — and decisions that look devastating can have silver linings. Here are some of the most surprising things she’s learned shepherding her coffee shop to success.
Finding out what you don’t want is invaluable. In 2005, Brichacek celebrated her 30th birthday by buying the bakery where she used to work. This purchase had its pluses — she now owned valuable equipment and was generating money — although it also made her realize a bakery alone wasn’t her business calling.
”When I just had the bakery, I was isolated,” Brichacek says. “We were in a warehouse, didn’t see people all day. It really made me know that I was a people person. I wanted to be part of a bigger picture of a community.”
Rather than rue her purchase, she viewed it as a means to an end; in fact, Gypsy Beans opened the next year. “Take advantage of stepping stones,” she says.
It’s crucial to recognize (and address) skills and weaknesses. For solo entrepreneurs, recognizing (and then addressing) skill set gaps before they impact operations is crucial. This is easier said than done, of course. Some personality types find it difficult to ask for help. In other cases, owners might not see clear-cut (or affordable) solutions to solve knowledge gaps. Other entrepreneurs might not even realize their lack of aptitude is hurting business until it’s too late.
Thankfully, technology can do some of this heavy lifting. QuickBooks Self-Employed (which tracks items such as expenses, invoices and income in an organized, streamlined way) is one way for solo business owners to keep a firm grasp on their financial picture while easing their fears. QuickBooks software is specifically tailored to take the guesswork out of accounting so solo entrepreneurs can track their cash flow even if they’re not financial wizards.
Finding trusted human experts to provide support is another solid option. At Gypsy Beans, Brichacek now counts on a business lawyer and office worker to keep things running smoothly. They’re so helpful, in fact, she wishes these extra brains had been on board earlier in the cafe’s lifespan. “To this day, I [still] wish I would have done this better,” she says.
Challenges change — but honing problem-solving skills early on can be an advantage. Growing pains are to be expected when a business is just starting out, especially because owners are learning on-the-fly how to troubleshoot issues and solve problems. These challenges don’t disappear as businesses become successful, they simply morph into other, different challenges.
For Brichacek, figuring out how to identify problems and address solutions early on was key, since this approach can be applied to many different challenges later on.
”If you learn how to do that with some of the small stuff easily, then when it starts happening to big stuff, remember that concept,” she says. “And it lets you move through those challenges relatively easily.”
Going all-in is a recipe for success — but at a price. It’s no surprise that solo entrepreneurs find work-life balance tough to maintain. Brichacek is no exception: When she founded Gypsy Beans, she was single and didn’t have a family, which meant she had the bandwidth to immerse herself in the business 24-7.
Now, more than a decade after Gypsy Beans opened, she recognizes the importance of self-care and prioritizing her health.
”There’s been a lot of times where I’ve ignored my personal health for the greater good,” Brichacek recalls. “I’ve been here for 72 hours straight and only slept 20 minutes in my office chair a couple of times throughout that timeframe.
”Has it been worth it? Yes,” she adds. “But also just make sure that after the fact you prioritize recovering from that crazy time. Looking back, I could have approached it with a little bit of a gentler handle compared to what I did.”
A successful formula isn’t easily scaled. When something isn’t going right, humans have a tendency to dig in and stubbornly try to right the ship. However, to Brichacek, there’s something to be said for cutting ties sooner rather than later.
”The biggest thing that you can do is just slow down, know when you have to change [and] analyze when you have to change before it gets too late.”
She learned this the hard way. Six years after launching the original Gypsy Beans café, she opened up another location in a nearby suburb. On paper, the expansion should’ve been a slam dunk: The new Gypsy Beans was on a busy street near a thriving theater, and she installed someone she trusted to run the store.
Unfortunately, the location soon became a painful (and expensive) lesson in the importance of vetting management better and “not overstepping yourself,” as Brichacek puts it. She had a newborn at home, and wasn’t able to be as present to advise the employee.
At the same time, Brichacek also realized this person wasn’t as emotionally invested in the business as she was, another illuminating lesson. “They just didn’t have that same drive that I did, because it wasn’t theirs,” she says. The second location closed within a year.
Don’t feel guilty about embracing the present. When running a business, it’s tough not to feel pressured to achieve constant annual growth or continually look ahead toward what’s next.
Having the second Gypsy Beans location falter taught Brichacek the importance of nurturing the café’s home base, while still remaining open to what the future might bring.
”We’re such a ‘more’ society,” she says. “We always want more; we want the next thing. There’s a level of contentment as a whole that we never feel. And it’s like, I’m content doing exactly this for now — and because I’m adaptable, that can change down the road.”
Make no mistake: Gypsy Beans still sets annual goals, but “you do it in a way that’s realistic and lofty at the same time, because it makes you push yourself,” she adds.
Even if you’re a solo small business owner, you’re not alone. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day weeds of running a business and lose perspective on your place in a community. However, entrepreneurs do make a difference, sometimes more than they even know.
Several years after Gypsy Beans opened, construction from a street improvement and beautification project made getting to the store extremely difficult. Brichacek fell months behind on the storefront’s rent and was in danger of being evicted.
Unbeknownst to her, members of the community pooled their money to cover two months’ rent, and then approached her neighborhood’s board and convinced them to give Brichacek a payment plan for the other two months. She only found out about this support — and that Gypsy Beans could stay open — when she went in to get eviction papers.
This generosity helped Brichacek see exactly how her labor of love had found a home in the neighborhood. “This place has become beyond just me having a coffee shop,” she says. “This is literally part of what this community is — and we’re here to serve them, hands down. That’s my biggest priority.”