A recent deep dive into “How I Built This,” a podcast by NPR, left us motivated by entrepreneurs and the stories behind their companies. Many of the companies featured — Patagonia, WeWork, Kate Spade — have grown into names recognized around the world, but the journey to success was not always easy. These stories have opened our eyes to the many mistakes and hardships that are faced in building a business, which inspired us to reach out to successful local business owners to hear their stories. Having found success in areas such as fashion, art, beauty, hospitality and design, these locals share an early career mistake or two, and offer insight as to how these mistakes ultimately contributed to their success. They remind us that while everyone makes mistakes, it is the lessons you gain from them that are the most valuable.
Ridley Wills, Founder of The Wills Co.
Mistake: Thinking everyone is your client
Takeaway: Not everyone is your client, and that is okay
“My work is as personal as it gets. As a design/build firm, we are in the three most sensitive areas of someone’s life: their home; their marriage/family; and their finances. Few industries are embroiled in the trifecta. Making sure that our firm is a ‘right fit’ for our clients is critical to making a profit. Not being the right fit for a client is extremely costly, both financially and emotionally.”
Mistake: Going at it solo
Takeaway: Find a mentor
“I followed my passion and began my career by buying and selling houses that needed renovation. Before long, I was designing and building projects for others, which required a more complex set of systems and service standards. It took me years to join a peer network group. I wish I had done it sooner. Through their mentorship, I realized that I didn’t need to re-invent the wheel.”
Linda D. Roberts, Founder and President of Therapy Systems, Inc.
Mistake: Being too financially conservative
Takeaway: Find the sweet spot for pulling in capital
“When I started my business, I was definitely financially conservative. I didn’t want to borrow capital from the bank or take in investors. I did manage to grow consistently, however, by putting all revenue back in the business. This approach probably slowed the corporate growth to some degree as my business model was extremely innovative. If you check with my banker now, he would tell you that I definitely overcame that hesitancy! In all seriousness, there is a ‘sweet spot’ for pulling in capital. This is a skill set that is extremely important for any new business owner. I am still learning!”
Barrett Ward, Founder & CEO of FASHIONABLE
Mistake: Living and dying by every initiative
Takeaway: Always plan for what’s next
“Early in my business, my biggest mistake was living and dying by every initiative, so if the initiative didn’t work, I felt like I was failing. Since, I have learned to always plan for what is next, so that the initiative itself now becomes a test to see where it will lead in the next phase. We now only have what I would call small daily successes and failures because everything is tested and gives us vision to the next planned opportunity.”
Seema Prasad, Owner of Miel Restaurant
Mistake: Hiring the best of the best
Takeaway: Being a team player outweighs talent
“So funny, because now this seems like such common sense! Early in my career I was quite focused on hiring super industry-focused cooks, managers and bartenders — talent, talent, talent … the best I could afford. I ignored the most important skill set: the ability to work as a team member! Now I look for a person who thinks of the guest and their fellow staff member before themselves. People with superb attitudes care about becoming great collectively as well as individually.”
Alan Looney, Founder of Castle Homes
Mistake: Being complacent
Takeaway: Learn from your mistakes (and don’t repeat them)
“In business, never get complacent. One thing to consider as a business owner is finding a business peer group related to their industry. I joined a group over 20 years ago where we share ideas, work on best practices, procedure and profitability. My group helped me avoid mistakes by members sharing what they learned over the years. We all have made mistakes, which we learn from. The goal is not repeating them.”
Sara Ray, Founder and Lead Designer of Sara Ray Interior Design
Mistake: Taking on too many tasks
Takeaway: Find people who specialize in specific areas
“Early in my career, I would sometimes take on tasks that should have been handled by others in an effort to save my clients money or just to get it done right away. I did things like hang enormous and/or heavy pieces of artwork, move rooms full of furniture, and just, in general, try to do more than one person should do physically. Nothing bad ever came of it (thankfully), but I’ve definitely learned that these types of things are better left to people who specialize in those areas. These days, I have a team of wonderful employees, and I know my boundaries. We are always armed with hammers, nails and muscle power, but if it’s too big for us, we don’t hesitate to get the proper tradespeople to do the job!”
Tom Morales, Restaurateur and Owner of TomKats Hospitality (managing company of Acme Feed & Seed, Acme Radio, The Southern Steak & Oyster, Southernaire Market and Fin & Pearl)
Mistake: Full-speed-ahead thinking
Takeaway: Be prepared for the outcome
“Back in the ’90s I got to know Chet Atkins, who had participated in an event in France called “Musician Day,” where all musicians would come out into the streets and parks and play music together. Skill level did not matter, it was just a day to celebrate the people who made music. Chet wanted to do a similar event in Music City and asked us to put it on, based on our success with Dancin’ in the District. We were, of course, very flattered and planned a stellar free event that engaged every level of musician, from school kids to the pros. When our title sponsor dropped out two weeks prior to the event, we went full speed ahead thinking we could make it up in concession sales. Unfortunately, that thinking led to a loss for us, and we humbly learned several lessons in the process. If we had paid attention, made the necessary cuts and looked more closely at our budget and sales projections, we could have been more prepared for that outcome and maybe even avoided it!”
Ceri Hoover, Designer and Owner of Ceri Hoover
Mistake: Making quick decisions
Takeaway: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is
“My business grew pretty fast, so I had to make quick decisions, and they weren’t always the best ones. I’ve learned to slow down and put a lot of time and thought into every opportunity that comes before me — even those that seem like really good ones. The biggest mistake I made was temporarily moving some manufacturing to Mexico. At the time, we were sewing everything in-house, and we couldn’t keep up with demand. A production house reached out from Mexico and it seemed like a good idea. Well, they failed miserably on cost, quality and time. And what else is there? I learned that for a brand like mine, U.S. manufacturing is the way to go, and that if a deal seems too good to be true, well … ”
Carey Bringle, Owner and Pitmaster of Peg Leg Porker
Mistake: Selling myself short, over spending and taking on bad partners
Takeaway: Know your worth
“In the past, I have discounted my ability or worth. Feel confident in what you are doing, or don’t do it. I have learned along the way that people often value me more than I have valued myself. Understand what your time and knowledge are worth, and make sure that you are compensated for it accordingly.
“Early in my career, I got used to spending money I didn’t have. I would say avoid that like the plague. And business partners can be great, but they also have many downsides. I have had good partners and very bad partners. If you don’t need a partner, don’t take one on. Many times people think they need someone to be there emotionally or financially. Think long and hard before you take that leap. There can be serious consequences in the long run both financially and emotionally.”
Anne Brown, Owner of The Arts Company
Mistake: Not moving on when the opportunity presents itself
Takeaway: Pursue what interests you
“I have been back and forth between academic, non-profit and establishing my own small art business. The changes have not been made by mistakes, but shifts in my interest. I have loved each of these areas for long periods, but I have been smitten with my art business for over 20 years now. That has been the most rewarding to me personally. I don’t think of myself as on a career trajectory; I simply continue to pursue a sense of adventure I have enjoyed in all three of these at different times in my life. My only mistake would have been not to move on when opportunity presented itself to me.”
Mark Deutschmann, Founder of Village Real Estate and Core Development
Mistake: Letting the promise of money impede a vision
Takeaway: Approach with a level dose of healthy skepticism
“In 2003, I took on the ambitious redevelopment of the Werthan Mills Loft in Nashville. During that time, I met John Jameson, who approached me as an investor in the project. As we deepened our connection, John revealed that his real name was John Vanderbilt Jameson, and that he was heir to the wealthiest Vanderbilt line and had a trust with hundreds of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, the money was not readily available, and John was not clear on the timing. Over time, John convinced me to hire him as a consultant with a title, Managing Director at Village. My team was suspicious of John and hired a private investigator to look into his background. Turns out, John was a convicted con man with a record in Omaha. Nothing of his story was true.
“I learned a lot from this experience. I was very sorry that I’d let money, or the promise of money, impede my vision. Hiring John caused a rift in the culture of my company and division in my teams. I worked hard to heal the wound. Additionally, I learned to rely on the wisdom and insight of known allies, and to weigh incoming information with a dose of healthy skepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, perhaps it just isn’t.”
Go forth and learn from your mistakes!
SB Note: If you are a Nashville entrepreneur with a growing business and you need a business course specifically for your needs, check out this article on Catalyst, a course designed to provide the vision and tools for your business to grow.