By Alyssa Gregory

This post about lessons I learned when starting my first business was inspired by the Office Depot Business Solutions Center, and is a sponsored post for Socialstars #GearLove. 

You may not know this, but I am no stranger to failure. I’ve failed a number of times in the past as I found my place in the entrepreneurial world. In fact, my first massive failure was about 15 years ago. At the time, I knew very little about business ownership, but always felt an entrepreneurial pull and it seemed like a good idea to start a web design company. Needless to say, I learned quite a few things from that experience.

Here are four of the best pieces of small business advice I received when I was just starting out. That I ignored. And then learned the value of much, much later on.

1. Systems, processes, and policies will save you.

After being scattered, disorganized, and stressed with the management of my fledgling business, I learned that you need systems, processes, and standards. Having a formal process for the way things are done in your business — from billing, to data management, to work flow — is necessary because it enhances productivity and allows you to grow. If you ever want to work with subcontractors, hire employees, or otherwise expand personnel, you need documented systems for everything. Not to mention, policies are a vital part of setting boundaries with clients and establishing a work-life balance.

2. Marketing is not one size fits all.

In my early years, I wasted so much money on ineffective marketing. From a massive mailing to local companies that I never qualified, to a decal on my car, to flyers that sat stacked on my desk for two years, I had my marketing all wrong. I quickly learned how big of a mistake it is to launch marketing activities for the sake of marketing, or because an idea sounds good, without any thought to a comprehensive marketing plan or integrating individual activities.

3. Passion is important, but budget trumps everything.

You obviously need to enjoy what you’re doing in your business for it to be sustainable. If you hate what you do, you are on the fast-track to stress overload and possibly burnout. But, on the other hand, just because you love your work doesn’t mean that nothing else matters.

One of your first considerations you need to make when you’re just starting out is all about finances. How much do you need to start (initial capital); how much will it cost to stay in business (operating expenses); how much are you capable of making (profit), how will you re-invest what you earn (marketing, improvements, growth), and often neglected, how long do you have to get to your bottomline goal before you need to throw in the towel? I learned the importance of doing thorough research, running the numbers (more than once), considering several contingencies, then sticking to the budget and timeline, no matter what.

4. Never underestimate what you’re capable of.

Starting a business is risky, and it requires an immense amount of determination and confidence because there will be times when it is HARD. You need to have a good handle on your goals, business plan, and finances, and once you do, you need to work hard to achieve what you know you’re capable of. I learned that there is always a level of uncertainty in business, but you need to stay the course and work to get over the hurdles that pop up in your path. Having confidence in yourself, your abilities, and your plan can be the difference between success and failure.

I don’t necessarily think that I would have created a wildly successful web design company if I had followed each of these pieces of advice, but my path wold certainly have been different. I believe, though, that I made every mistake I made for a reason — each one taught me small business lessons I will never forget and brought me to where I am now.

If nothing else, I hope this post made the point that there will always be things we don’t know, and lessons we need to learn, no matter how long we’ve been in business. We can learn from making mistakes, but we can also learn from those that came before us.

So…what is the best piece of advice you ever received about small business ownership? Share your best small business tip in the comments.