How to Become a Small Business Manager

Photo of a Business Person

April Lane knows a thing or two about running a successful business. For the past 19 years, April has honed her business skills and amassed a following of loyal clients and employees, making April Lane’s Home Cleaning one of the top-rated house cleaning companies in the Seattle, Washington, area. April earned her associate degree at North Seattle Community College and originally planned to transfer to a four-year university to study teaching. However, she was concerned about taking time away from her young daughter to continue her studies, and she began cleaning houses until she could develop a new plan. As her cleaning clientele expanded, April discovered her natural knack for business and used the opportunity to learn as much as she could and expand her company. Today, April Lane’s Home Cleaning is a million-dollar-a-year company that employs more than 20 house cleaners, specializing in high-quality green cleaning.

Why did you decide to open a business?

I didn’t exactly decide. I had been studying to be a teacher because I love to teach, but then I decided that my plan took too much away from my daughter and me in terms of time and money. So, I decided to clean houses until I could figure out a new plan. Then, one thing led to the next and I discovered that really liked the way my house cleaning company was teaching me about business. A year or so into my new house cleaning job, I was hurt in a car accident, and I had to get help. I had been against having the responsibility of employees, but at that point I really needed to because such a long time had passed and I still wasn’t healing.

Hiring an employee was actually a great experience and it allowed my business to grow. It was still word of mouth, but I started accepting new clients and more employees. I had four employees when I bought a small house cleaning company in 1999, which of course meant the end of my cleaning days. That was really hard for me to give up. I loved cleaning. When I first began working in the office, I was like a fish out of water. I really didn’t know anything about running an office. It was a huge learning curve, with a lot of lessons learned the hard way. I developed new scripts, improved some of the in-office processes, created and implemented a really great training program and after about a year, I raised the rates to reflect the new level of service we provided. Suddenly, we weren’t the dirt cheap cleaning company. In 2003, I changed the business name to April Lane’s Home Cleaning.

Are there common misconceptions about running a business?

Definitely. I sometimes hear people say, “I want to own my own business so I can be my own boss.” But the truth of it is if you own your own business, you’ll have to consider the needs of all of your employees and all of your clients. So, if you’re successful, you’ll effectively have several hundred bosses. If you are really successful, you may even have thousands! Now the one boss doesn’t seem so bad, right? People don’t realize, owning your own company isn’t a free ride where you just get to do whatever you want, whenever you want. You have to do what is in the best interest of everyone and your company. You strategize so that both your employees and clients are happy, or better yet, grateful, to be able to do business with you. There are a lot more expectations, from a lot more people, when you are the owner than when you are the employee. So, don’t buy or start a business if you think that’s going to mean freedom. You have freedom to pave your own way, but the responsibility and obligation are tenfold.

Another misconception is that if you are a great technician in your industry, you will also be great as the business owner in your industry. There are people like me who started off doing the technical work before running the business side, and they don’t yet realize that “technician” and “business owner” are two totally separate and very different jobs.

You don’t have to be a great technician to be a great business owner, although I think it helps to understand what people are doing in the field. I have walked a five-year mile in my employees’ shoes, which makes me a better problem solver for things that happen out in the field. It also makes me a better trainer, and facilitator, and probably a more compassionate boss, too. But, you don’t have to be a technician to be a business owner and sometimes it even gets in the way. People tend to stay close to what they know and are most comfortable with. When it comes to growing a business, you have to understand and respect the power of marketing, be willing to explore different business strategies, and know what it really means to make the numbers work. It doesn’t matter what you’re comfortable with. You have to do what the business needs you to do. For your business to grow, you’re going to have to grow, too.

What is a typical day like for you?

Most days, I come to the office early and leave early to avoid traffic. I’m in the office about seven hours a day, four days a week, with another seven-hour day set aside for business meetings and personal appointments. Lately, I have been rewriting and updating a lot of our business processes. That takes up most of my time. For example, I am in the process of delegating all of the bookkeeping. I am not a great bookkeeper. I understand it and I can do it, but I am not at all fast at it. And, I hate it. So I am writing instructions so my bookkeeper can take over all of those tasks. Then I can go back to focusing on business development and marketing strategies, and maybe work a little lighter schedule.

I also spend a lot of time with people. I meet with different business service vendors. I network. I work directly with clients if a sensitive issue arises that warrants my attention. And, I meet regularly with my staff.

I do some work-related activities in the evening. In all, I may work about 9 to maybe 11 hours a day. That being said, a lot of those hours are spent doing things that I personally just think are fun. They are work-related because they affect my business. I really like to go on the Internet and find different types of software, supplies or equipment, or other things that will be better for my house cleaning company. That is a fun and recreational activity for me! It’s not really work. It’s my equivalent to watching a home improvement show on television, or maybe reading a cookbook. It satisfies my curiosity and educates me at the same time.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

I really like doing new things. And, I enjoy finding areas of inefficiency, and then creating solutions that I know will make people’s lives easier. I like troubleshooting things like repetitive breakdowns in communication, any repetitive problem really, and then creating new solutions.

I also like to watch my employees evolve, both personally and professionally. When new employees start and they are inexperienced at housekeeping, I like to watch as they become more confident and begin to connect with the business more and with the other cleaners. There is also a personal evolution as they get older, and their self-esteem and confidence improve. They start reaching a little higher and expecting a little more out of life. When people grow and change and kind of evolve within their job position and in their lives, well, it’s just really nice to see that happen.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

My least favorite aspect of my job is being the person responsible for implementing a new business solution, specifically when it requires tasks that are tedious, or doing things that I am really not good at. I know enough by now to quickly pass things on, if it’s something that’s not my calling. But, I do still have to stick with it long enough to figure it out, so I am able to delegate it effectively. Even when the individual tasks are outside of my skill set, I still have to do it because I am the owner. It’s my vision and if I want our new processes to fit my vision, then I will have to muddle through it. Sometimes it is unbelievably grueling. Honestly, I really hate it.

What classes did you take in college that are most relevant to your job?

In college, I earned an associate degree, which involved the basics of math, reading and writing. The subjects definitely apply to my job because, as a business owner, I have to know my stuff. Before college, I earned my certification in early childhood development. I learned a lot about teaching and learning styles, and how to get kids excited about something. That has been helpful for working with employees. We hire phenomenal people, but that’s not enough. We also need to be effective teachers and facilitators if we want to remain be a leader in our industry.

What personality traits do you think would help somebody to be successful as a business owner?

I think one of the personality traits that helps me to be successful as a business owner is that I have no idea how long something is going to take. So, I go ahead and do it. I commit to it, no matter how much time it ends up taking. Really, if I understood how long things took ahead of time, I wouldn’t do half the things that I do. And, that sounds like a joke, I know, but it is really true. I think that trait actually helps me.

I guess that only works though if you are the sort of person who finishes things. I see some business owners spinning their wheels because they get caught up in too many things that they don’t finish and then they never reap the benefits of having completed the task. Then they might say something like, “Well, it didn’t work out,” but it might have worked out amazingly well if they had seen it through to completion. The world will never know.

I think most importantly, and probably universally, business owners need to have strength of character. There will always be unanticipated challenges. And, there will always be situations where you have to stand strong and choose to take the high road. A strong character is crucial. For a business to be what I would consider truly successful, you need clients who not only like and trust your company, but who rave about it. The same thing goes with employees. Especially in an industry like ours where trust is paramount, I think everybody needs to know that they are in good hands. Business owners need to have a lot of personal strength to provide that level of consistency throughout the years, both in good times and in bad.

What personality traits do you think would hinder somebody’s success as a business owner?

If you are extremely conservative or prudent with money, you might have difficulty growing your business. Sometimes business owners won’t spend money on critical things like marketing, but that is a big mistake. It prevents their business from growing, which means somebody else who is more aggressive is going to dominate their industry. They risk going out of business altogether when they won’t spend money on things like marketing.

Another fear-driven mistake I see new owners make, especially, is that they won’t hire people when they should, because they are afraid that they won’t be able to generate enough revenue to pay them. That’s a business breaker, too. Like with the marketing a more aggressive, probably more confident owner is going to hire when you won’t and again, they will dominate your industry and you’ll get left behind.

You have to have some faith in life. You have to have some faith in your abilities, and just say to yourself, “If I make a mistake, I’ll clean it up and I’ll learn from it, then I’ll just move forward from there”. You have to take risks and make some mistakes in order to find the best way to do things. There is no way around it. Not all of your brilliant ideas are going to be as brilliant as you’d hoped they would be. But, most of them will be -- if not now, then eventually. There are only a fixed number of mistakes you can make. So go make them all, and then it is free sailing from there on. If you are so conservative that you will not take calculated risks, your business isn’t going to go anywhere, in which case it may not be worth the trouble. Owning a business is a lot of work. If you’re going to do it, just go for it! Make it worthwhile!

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become an eventual business owner?

My advice is this: Stop studying and get out there and make some mistakes! Nah. I’m just kidding. Study business, it’s quicker, easier and cheaper to learn from other people’s experiences and expertise. And, it has to be easier on your self-esteem. At the same time, don't wait to move forward just because you don't know everything yet. Some of the most important things you’ll ever learn are the things you pick up along the way from your own observations and analysis. Until you are standing in the fire, you might not recognize what the lessons are that you most need to learn.

So, if you can be involved in any aspect of any business now, even if it’s volunteer work, your education will have more meaning because you can apply it to your daily experiences. We all learn on a deeper level when the principles are tangible and applicable to our daily lives.

My words of caution are: Pay attention. You will make incorrect assumptions along the way, and they will show up as limitations or as barriers that your business can’t seem to get beyond. Question your assumptions. A good way to move beyond the barriers is to go out into the world and find another business in your industry that does not have the same problems as yours. They may have other problems, they may even have way worse problems, but the important thing is that they don’t have your problems. Tell them your assumptions or explanations for the phenomenon you are experiencing, and ask them to tell you where you are mistaken. Of course, this will have to be a noncompetitor -- a business that does not service the same regions that your company does.

Lastly, be patient and persistent and know that any problem your business has exists because you have made a place for it. Find the place you’ve made for it, and go mess it up.

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