Realities of running a small business

For many of us, turning an idea into your own small business is a dream come true. You get to be your own boss and often enough do something you love. How rewarding is that! But as Maan Agsalud reminds us in a previous interview about establishing Common Room, “It’s easy to romanticize being a business owner… [but] it would be foolish to think that it’ll just be fun and there won’t be hardships.” 

Cat Limson of Bedazzled Accessories agrees. “Acknowledge that it will be difficult,” she says in her interview. Yes, running your own enterprising venture has its ample share of challenges. Getting into it with eyes wide open may not spare you from them, but it will definitely help you prepare. Here we’ve compiled some common challenges that the makers we’ve interviewed have encountered (and assure you that there are lots to be hopeful for). 

1. Where’s the money?

As most small and micro business owners would attest, the lack of funds is typically on top of that problem pile. When you don’t have enough cash flow, how do you pay your vendors, pay the rent, or cover the salaries of your employees? It’s no surprise that most micro-enterprises start off at home and with an employee of one. You. 

Having little capital or staying conservative with your spending, especially when you’re starting out, doesn’t have to mean not being able to keep your business running. Popjunklove from our Common Room mommas started with a mere P5,000

When Cat was starting her affordable accessories line, one of her biggest hurdles was money. Since every order was COD, she didn’t have extra funds. “It’s either you save or add a source of income…we can find ways for everything.”

2. Lack of time.

If you’re a small business owner, chances are you’re wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot of things. Work won’t simply be from 9 to 5, you might even have another job to support your little venture. The hustle is real! 

Cat, who used to work fulltime as a preschool teacher from 8am to 4pm and would do tutorials until 9pm, could only make her beads in the evening when she got home at 10:30pm. There was a time she would even make unfinished orders of her beaded accessories while on the bus heading home. “I found a way because I really wanted to make it work. If the problem is time, you make time.”

3. Hiring people.

In many of the interviews we’ve done with our makers, a lot of them have cited this common speed bump in their entrepreneurial journey—knowing when it was time to hire people and actually doing it. 

Our own Roma and Maan realized it was time to hire sewers for Popjunklove when they saw they were already losing opportunities to take more orders. For the three Verceles sisters—Jamaica, Janeeva and Danice—who each have their own ventures (Paperaica Shop, Dear Self Beauty, and Ciento Cookies), they started hiring their first employees when they realized they couldn’t remain consistent and efficient with their work. 

In their Meet the Maker interview, Jamaica shares that she hired her first assistant when she was no longer consistent in creating artwork for her brand. Her time was getting eaten up with production work for the stickers, stationery, and other products. Hiring someone meant the former animator could focus on designing and illustrating. 

“With every business, at some point, if you see that you’re already inefficient with what you have to do as the owner you really have to replace yourself,” says Janeeva. “You have to hire someone to replace yourself so you can do more.” Whether it’s doing the design or being more focused with marketing and customer service, hiring employees allows you, the owner, to focus on what the business needs the most at that particular time. 

For the three young and successful entrepreneurs, hiring should be looked at more as an investment. “People are scared to hire because it entails a lot more funds…if you hire someone, train them well, the return will be much more than what you’re paying kasi they add great value to your business,” says Danice.

4. The challenge with suppliers.

Before the pandemic made “supply chain issues” almost a buzzword for even non-business owners, micro and small businesses already had to contend with supplier and vendor problems. 

Ria Olizon and Sarah Garcia of Real Scents count minimum order quantities from their suppliers as the biggest challenge. In their Meet the Maker interview, Sarah explains, “We have to make sure that we’re able to consume those [orders], and not leave them as inventory.” Every time Real Scents has to introduce products, they make sure that they fully consume most of the raw materials they ordered. 

Ria adds, “It’s also difficult to find suppliers who can cater to small businesses, because they usually cater to larger businesses, larger corporations with larger quantities.” This can force a small business to work with more expensive alternatives. When you research possible suppliers, it’s best to collect necessary info (including their company values, if they align with yours), check samples, and negotiate for the best rates possible.

5. To pivot the business.

We’ve written about how to stay innovative in business. Change is never easy, but it can mean the difference between thriving or languishing. One way to do so is when you pivot to a new business model or even with your brand, which can bring another level of difficulty for a small business. 

When Hannah Armada of Studio Haebi, felt something was missing in her brand, she attended a bootcamp on brand auditing so she could pivot her business. In a previous interview, she mentioned that being a one-person business meant there was nobody to call her out on her blind spots. The brand specialist conducting the workshop certainly called her out, which left Hannah hurt and full of questions. She did come out of it learning 10 valuable lessons, but being your own boss often requires asking and answering some hard questions on where you want to take your business. It’s especially hard when you realize you need to pivot to do

Gouache, a brand known for its handcrafted waxed canvas bags, had to pivot to a new business model during the pandemic. Previously, they used to follow a batch process for a design when the item goes out of stock. During the pandemic, they enabled their customers to pre-order an item on their online shop and have it made within seven days. This required management and the local artisans they employed to scale and adjust to the new direction. 

Remaining flexible and being bold enough to make changes are important traits to hone when it comes to facing hurdles in your business.

6. Standing out in a crowded market.

With so many things vying for people’s attention these days, how do you make sure your product stands out? 

Before Ria of Real Scents started their home fragrance brand, she looked at bazaars and saw there was an opportunity to introduce room scents. Her curiosity led her to study and research more about it. Today, Real Scents has a line of room and linen sprays, essential oils, premium fragrance oils, water-based diffuser, reed diffuser and hand wash. While they make sure to have the go-to “classic scents” (fresh bamboo, anyone?), they’ve also made it a point to introduce scents unique to their brand that they have created on their own. 

For Bedazzled, when it was launched in the market several years ago, most beaded accessories at the time targeted an older demographic with more disposable income. Cat knew she wanted to target a much younger market and made fun accessories that they could afford. By knowing who her market is, what they like, and what they could afford, she made sure her accessories stood out.

Building your own business will come with many difficulties. But if you know it’s what you need to do—whether out of necessity or passion—then make a go for it. “If you have that desire in your heart and you see the opportunity, don’t be afraid to try,” says Ria. 

“If you don’t start, you really won’t learn,” says Roma. “You won’t make mistakes, you won’t be great, or at least a better entrepreneur that makes better decisions for your business for it to continuously grow.”

Words by Mabel David-Pilar 
Mabel has been a writer and editor for many publications, including shelter and food titles and a book on the most endangered Philippine trees. She spends most of her time writing, illustrating, stalking Common Room’s online shop, and making ferments. Together with her sisters, she co-created to celebrate fermenting in the Philippines.