Guest post :: Debra Giunta is the Founder and Director of Design Dance. In 2008, Debra founded Design Dance as a way to bring dance education to children in all communities regardless of age, experience level, background and income through partnerships with schools and community centers. Debra is passionate about new ideas and continues to be grateful for the opportunity to explore new ways to collaborate with her peers in the field of arts education. Here, she writes about her first year in business and the lessons she learned along the way.
The story of my first year in business includes mold, a tough breakup, and the threat of repossession from my car loan company. I threw myself into entrepreneurship when I was 24 years old and on a break from college, determined to build a thriving dance studio out of an abandoned store-front with a part-time side job and a non-existent savings account. Within nine months, the space had closed, I was left regretting many of my reckless first-year decisions.
After I got clear about my goals and learned what a “healthy” risk was, I began to view my first year in business as “the lost year” – a time when I was flailing and irrational. To be honest, I’ve spent the majority of my time running Design Dance feeling embarrassed, hoping I would never have to tell the story of my failed mold studio. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to embrace my first year in business because – while there are a host of choices that I wouldn’t recommend – I did accidentally begin practicing behaviors that have gone on to become some of my very best practices today. In the spirit of finding the silver lining and looking at situations with appreciation, here are five things I did during my “lost year” that actually set me up for success in the long run.
I built a high-stakes situation for myself.
Starting a business without funding isn’t always advisable (depending on your industry.) The fact that I incorporated and signed a lease while my excitement for the idea was still high meant that I bought into my business before fear could catch up with me. That was crucial to not giving up when times were tougher than I imagined they could be.
Today, I’ve built habits around creating stakes for myself and my team. That doesn’t mean we throw ourselves into reckless financial decisions, but it does mean we start acting on our vision right away. Spending an incredible amount of time mapping out how you’ll get to where you want to go rarely serves you. The road to get anywhere is never as you planned.
By not allowing yourself to get too attached to the “how,” you create space to stay focused on the “why” and the “what” – which is the exact drive you’ll need to keep yourself moving through the ups and downs of starting something new. Creating stakes for an early idea might look like talking about it with friends and family before it’s perfect, buying the domain name when the idea comes to you, or spending a bit of money to incorporate it right away. That little bit of extra build up around your idea builds a solid emotional connection to your project which helps to take you from the dreamer phase to the action phase.
I embodied what I thought a business owner was.
It might sound silly but in my first year in business, I took myself to the thrift store to buy stereotypical “business clothes”. I looked ridiculous. Looking back, I know that wasn’t necessary. At the time, I needed to feel like what I envisioned a business owner was; it played a crucial part in my ability to take ownership during the difficult moments.
Even now, when I have a meeting I’m nervous about, an email I’m dreading responding to, or a public speaking engagement, I take time to value the experience of embodying the version of myself that I want to show up. Sometimes that means my choice of outfit and other times it means taking a moment to envision the type of leader I aspire to be and using that vision to inspire my actions. I’ve learned that it’s okay to play pretend until it starts to feel right.
I got my idea in front of people before it was perfect.
The other perk of creating buy-in right away is that you have no choice but to put something out there. The longer you spend alone with your idea, the more precious it becomes to you… and the harder it is to face the facts when it clearly needs to change and adapt. As soon as you have any idea, the first question you should ask is “How quickly can I see how my client responds to this?” I hear this advice regurgitated all the time in business articles, but in practice, know that it is really hard.
For entrepreneurs, putting our idea in front of people can be brutal and more personal than we expect it will be. Whenever I have a new idea, I think about doing everything I can at the beginning to land it on a moving train. Once you’ve created a situation where people are using, responding to, and interacting with your product or service, there’s enough momentum to push you through. The longer you wait to put your idea on the train, the faster it needs to go to keep you moving forward.
I found my people.
My initial business was a store-front dance studio. I held lots of community events to gain initial traction. It’s far too easy to find yourself locked behind a computer all day, especially at the beginning of a new venture. Baking community-building directly into my marketing strategy ensured that I was out of my comfort zone, meeting people, and – most importantly – constantly learning. Regardless of your business model, finding a community of stakeholders is undoubtedly crucial to your growth. Be a leader: host events, start a Facebook group or take people to coffee.
I got clear on my mission.
It took me a little while, but the most important turning point for me was getting clear on my mission and what had the potential to set me apart in my field. This is way harder than it sounds. For me, it was about more than market research. It was about really looking at my unique struggles and strengths and working that into my business plan, curriculum, and workplace culture.
If what you’re doing doesn’t speak to you, it won’t speak to the people you’re trying to reach with your product or service either. Whether or not your business has a social mission at the heart of it, take time to connect with whatever your mission is and allow it to grow and change over time.
How have things have changed since my first year in business?
My relationship to dance or education is really different than it was nine years ago! When I first started my business, I cared a lot about teaching the art form of dance. I loved helping my students learn a new technique or feel confident on stage. But today, my excitement for my work has less to do with teaching children how to dance, and more about teaching them about their own power in taking up space, giving them an hour per day of emotional release, or allowing them to explore a different story about themselves than they’ve perhaps been told by peers or grownups. The work is the same, but my connection to it is different and I don’t doubt it will change again over time.
If you’re interested in more information for dance classes, use code FOUNDINGMOMS here for a 30% discount.