Ten Years In Business: All The Things I Know And Don’t

We had a big party and since it was all three birthdays, we called it a ‘triple threat’. 🙂

I was talking with some people earlier this year about figuring out a business birthday. I mean, we all know our birthdays but what day did you start your business?

If you open a storefront (or say a coworking space), that date is pretty straightforward (i.e. when you opened to the public).

If you have a service-based business (or really any business you’ve started part-time), it’s a little more nuanced.

Is it when you started the concept (launched the website, Facebook page, or whatever you’re “I’m really doing this thing” moment was)?
Is it when you got your first paying customer?
Is it when you quit your job to focus on the business full-time?

For me and others like me, those questions have three different answers.

The Breaking Even blog launched October 14, 2007. (If you want to go in the blog archives and look up that first cringe-worthy post, feel free).
My first paying customer was in January of 2008 (I could probably go back in my old email archives and find the exact date).
And I quit my full time job April 22, 2009. (Please appreciate that until I wrote this blog post and looked it up, I thought this was 2008).

The truth is somewhere in the middle. So I called it an even ten years this April (which also happened to line up with my 37th birthday and Anchorspace’s 3rd birthday). It feels the most true, so it is.


Apparently 30% of American businesses survive ten years. So getting here is a really big deal to me.

I’m not going to pretend I did this all myself.

Most of us who have gotten here have access to some money.

Between family willing to help during rough patches, having a line of credit at my local bank, having the ability to work part-time jobs to generate cash when needed, and graduating debt free from college thanks to my parents, I started a business at 27 because I had access to resources a lot of people don’t have access to. And don’t you think for a second I forget it.

Now could I have made different decisions and used these resources for something different? Could I have said “meh I don’t want to work this hard” and just closed the business at multiple points? Of course. I made some decisions that got me here. I also want to acknowledge I am fortunate and have tried to use this opportunity not just for myself, but to make an impact on others too (clients, employees, my community, etc.).

Does this mean you can’t do it without cash? Of course not, but you might need to do your thing part-time for a couple years to save up your nest egg or make other sacrifices. And that’s ok, so long as you know this is a marathon and not a sprint, it’s all figureoutable.

Networks work in two directions.

I grew up in a small business household and my parents taught me business was about service, hard work, and taking care of your employees (versus getting to do whatever you want, whenever you want). My first client asked if she could pay me to help her (thanks Leslie Harlow). My friend Jen Litteral introduced me to someone at a cocktail party that turned into my biggest client that year. My first customers like Meg Ashur and Michael Goldman took a chance on my new company and told people about me. I was welcomed into various groups like our local Rotary Club, giving me speaking opportunities to reach new people. A lot of people got me here and to pretend otherwise does a disservice to them and me.

Now I’m in a position to help others out and I want to be as generous as others were to me.

Always remember networks go two ways. I invest a fair bit of time into friendships, online and in real life. So if you want a good network, you have to be a good network. Ask your client how their trip to France went, offer an internship to your friend’s kid studying what you do in college, and share the event your potential client is throwing on behalf of a non-profit they care about. You don’t want to be that person people see a call from or an email from that makes them sigh and say ‘What does she want now?’



Bootstrapping will get you far, and creative thinking will get you the rest of the way.

This mantra has saved me: only buy crap when you need it.
Could I have opened Anchorspace with fancier amenities and really wowed the people at our open house? I’m sure. But waiting until someone said ‘hey, can we get a paper shredder’ and ‘how about a white noise machine for outside the conference room?’ (and clearly creating an environment where people feel like they can say what they need!) has saved me thousands of dollars. Also, asking people for specific stuff really helps. A good friend now, I was just getting to know local resident Brenda Beckett when she gave a coffee maker, end tables, stainless steel dish rack, and other supplies for Anchorspace that would have cost us hundreds of dollars.

At the same time, it is worth investing in certain things–don’t be a cheapskate. If you do need something you consider expensive, get creative. Can you rent it out? Can you share the expense with someone? Will it get you new clients to recoup the cost? Will it free up your time for more billable work? Don’t be afraid to spend money; just do it with some thought.

Take care of your employees and don’t think they owe you.

Because this is my business, I should be working harder than everyone else. Hiring an employee is an investment, but they are also a person. If there is ever a fight between a client and an employee here, I will usually take our employee’s side, which helps foster a positive work environment where people feel supported. I want my employees feel like they can take chances and not get yelled out if they make a mistake. I like to say ‘if you see something, say something’ and I can’t tell you how many times someone else’s eyeballs have caught things I didn’t because we have that kind of company culture. I am not the be all end all, thankfully!

I hire for personal qualities (honesty, integrity, intelligence, good attitude) and train on the rest. No employee owes me anything besides an honest day’s work and treating me, and everyone else they interact with, with respect.

Be with someone who understands the time and effort you have to put in, or be alone.

I’ve been single and living alone most of these last ten years. I can have a protein shake for dinner and pull an all-nighter without someone telling me how boring I am. I can’t say this cost me anything in terms of personal relationships because honestly I don’t really know what I would be like if I had a normal 9-5 job.

I do know I needed to put that time in to be successful… and there’ll be times I’ll have to work even harder to realize new goals. I’ve always hoped I’d share my life with someone who understood my passions. I like to end a day feeling like I’ve left it all on the field so to speak, where I did my best for everyone including myself… and it takes a special kind of man to not only understand that, but also admire it. I have had both partners who worked against me and partners who were supportive–it is the difference between running a marathon on a well-maintained trail and running a marathon on beach sand.

My tolerance for risk keeps getting higher as I get older.

Losing my father suddenly when I was 27, getting divorced at 35, and having a few other crappy, somewhat out of my control things happen (dog deaths, moves, health scares, etc.) makes me know time is short and while I’m alive, I should do as much as I can. I’m not going to have children so part of the legacy I’ll leave behind is my work and the impact that work has on others. Thinking about that legacy with a bit more intention the next ten years (and increasingly working smarter) are my new goals, which means taking bigger chances. Opening new locations, hiring more people, going after bigger projects means more financial risk. But as I see from failing that I didn’t die from it (or hurt anyone else), it’s made me open to making bigger decisions more easily (and creating new problems/risks for myself). You can always make more money and when you realize no one is going to die if you don’t close the $100,000 contract, it makes you realize you can at least risk it!


So you might be reading this thinking you might want to be self employed. What do I think it takes?

If you remember the feeling (back when you were in school) of it being Sunday night and you haven’t done your homework… and you can live with that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach the rest of your life, you can handle running a business.
If you’re kind of good at a lot of things, business ownership is a great way to make yourself instantly diversify as efficiently as possible.
If you go into starting a business knowing it’s the opposite of being all about you, you’ll be able to survive by serving your employees, customers, and community.

But you also need luck, a nest egg, friends, and some other things that are not entirely in your control. Because the reality is, you might fail–even despite having all the right personal qualities and other factors in your favor.

I hate to break it to you but you might ‘fail’ at other things too.
If you get married, you might get divorced.
If you quit your job, you might hate your new job.
If you move to a new town, you might not like it.
Anything big feels scary and fun and emotional and interesting and weird and irreplaceable. This gamble of owning a business just happened to work out for me… and I happen to have some of the right qualities to have helped it work out. Nothing more and nothing less.

Thanks for being a part of the story. Because ten years doing anything is significant. And it makes me wonder what it’ll be like twenty years from now because at least from all this, now I know I could make it that far.


Nicole Ouellette
Nicole runs Breaking Even Communications, an internet marketing company in Bar Harbor Maine. When she's not online, she enjoys walking her short dog, cooking with bacon, and trying to be outdoorsy in Acadia National Park.

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