The response I received to last week's inspiration post was really overwhelming, in the best possible way. Blogging about potentially controversial perspectives can be scary at times; even while I'm not usually too concerned with whether people agree with me, I also don't want my intentions to be misunderstood, nor do I want to take the wind out of any well-meaning people's sails. (I've put way too much effort into supporting other business owners to then haphazardly do something to tear anyone down.) I was really moved to see how many people seemed to get where I was coming from, and voiced their support in the form of blog comments, private messages and social media shares.
One of the comments from the post got me thinking on another potential issue with some of the "inspiration" groups out there: that of experienced business owners being expected to help and mentor newcomers to the industry, because that somehow is the good or "right" thing to do. There almost seems to be some kind of moral obligation attached to it, and while the more popular and socially acceptable response seems to rally around the idea of "paying it forward" in this way, I'm seeing many wedding professionals bristling about the unrealistic expectations being placed on them. (I touched on this briefly in Kyle's and my post about competition not being an inherently bad thing, where I pointed out, "To imply to newcomers that success in business is, or should be, anything other than a meritocracy doesn't do anyone any good. In fact, it's instilling false hope to send the message that any amount of cheerleading and handholding can come close to the real work that goes into making a business thrive."
I stand by that statement, and here are several reasons why:
This industry is TOUGH. Okay, maybe every industry is - but the wedding industry in particular has its own unique set of challenges. It requires the physical stamina, resourcefulness and organization skills to carry out the events themselves, along with the charm and empathy required to close sales, and the general business acumen to keep your company afloat. Add to that the whole "once in a lifetime" element of the weddings we execute, and the stakes are unusually high. In my business coaching and at speaking engagements, I've encountered countless wedding business owners who struggle with managing their clients and their time, who don't have their legal affairs in order, who haven't mastered setting boundaries and who have no idea how to effectively market themselves in a competitive field. Focusing on "bonding experiences" and on curated social media images isn't going to do a damn thing to help these people to build and sustain their businesses - it's a fun distraction from the real work. And avoiding the real work in favor of the fluff does a disservice to the people whose businesses will go under.
Still, this industry probably isn't tough enough. I'm stating the obvious here, but when a wedding business goes under, its owner isn't the only one who suffers. Couples whose wedding is tarnished, even ruined, by a vendor's failure can never get that day back. I'm not here to wax poetic about "the most important day of a couple's life, blah blah blah..." I'm saying that anyone can start a wedding business, which means that anyone can ruin this incredibly significant event in two families' lives. I'm saying that if you want to play business owner, craft pretty visuals and prioritize hugs and high-fives over the actual hard work, then please do it in another industry. There are endless opportunities for this kind of thing, things that don't have thousands and thousands of dollars - and a couple's happiness - at stake. Be a photo stylist. Stage houses for sale. Hell, be a blogger. But if you're going to sell wedding services, then you need to take that shit seriously and do it right.
There's real value in the aforementioned "real work." For every single one of us with a successful business, there have been a ton of mistakes made, lessons learned and sleep lost. Even the most prepared and educated among us struggled, and had to endure a fair amount of trial-and-error when it came to contractual policies, pricing, sales tactics and event day management to get where we are today. And while parts of the process undoubtedly sucked at times - and will continue to suck for as long as we're in business - I think it's safe to say it's also been incredibly value. What a grandpa I sound like when I say that "hard work builds character," but it's totally true. The struggles make the successes that much more worthwhile. And with every bump in the road, we become more resilient and better equipped for whatever the future holds. Those rare few I described in my last post, the pretty and privileged rock stars, may never have gotten to enjoy this journey and all the formative experiences and battle scars it offers. The rock stars' followers, more focused on the pretty trappings, may never even get the opportunity to really get into the journey, because they're doomed from the start.
Whew - it felt good to get that off my chest! Now that I've said all that, I want to emphasize that I really do believe in supporting business owners in their work. I wouldn't have created WeddingIQ (something that isn't a moneymaker by any standard) if I didn't, nor would I do coaching, speaking or have countless one-on-one discussions with wedding professionals of all experience levels.
It's in that spirit that I'd like to offer newer entrepreneurs a few suggestions for how to seek more meaningful business interactions - ones that go far beyond the "pyramid scheme of pretty" that I mentioned in my previous post.
Use your time wisely. Even before your business takes off, your time is precious - and, as is the case for all of us, it's a limited resource. If you're going to attend meetups, networking events, seminars and conferences, plan them with intention. Some of these things can be costly, and even the free ones can eat up half a day or an entire weekend. Research in advance: who are the organizers, are they successful business owners in their own right, do they run businesses you can support, is there a plan to make the event worthwhile for attendees? Accepting every random Facebook event invite you receive or showing up every mixer you see advertising is a great way to waste your time and distract yourself from activities that might actually benefit your business.
Be a sponge. If you aren't yet busy with clients and events, you're probably feeling frustrated - the bright side is you currently have the luxury of free time for professional development and skills-building, something that won't last forever. Use this opportunity to seek out resources that will teach and inspire you in a real way - find some smart blogs to follow, take a course in graphic design or bookkeeping or time management, soak up every bit of business-related information and knowledge you can. I don't know anyone who's ever regretted knowing too much about their craft and their industry.
Don't abuse professional groups. This goes for in-person networking get-togethers as well as professional groups on Facebook. And, while a person of any experience level can certainly be tone-deaf, it usually seems to be the newbies who are engaging in the most annoying behaviors: forcing business card exchanges and overselling themselves in conversation, requesting referrals from total strangers online, or expecting social media to solve all their business dilemmas without them having to do a shred of research or critical thinking of their own. Don't be this person - professionals in our industry have long memories, and you don't want to leave a legacy of cluelessness.
If you want a mentor, then make the first move. But do so in a genuine, considerate way. Most veterans of the wedding industry are tired of being approached by strangers and asked to offer up all their hard-earned knowledge and experience to benefit a budding competitor. On the other hand, most of the professionals I know are also incredibly generous when they build a real relationship with an entrepreneur they believe in. If you're interested in learning from someone, be sincere about it: reach out to them, explain why you're so inspired by them specifically, let them know what you're hoping to accomplish by contacting them, and be respectful of their schedule and their boundaries. And, while your business experience isn't going to match theirs, figure out if there's something you can do for them - maybe your business involves a skill or a product that could benefit them. Even a small token of appreciation or a card can go a long way toward acknowledging the value of someone's time.
Be realistic, consistent and thick-skinned. Face it: in business and in life, you're not going to get very far having expectations of other people. You aren't owed anything; no one is obligated to give you information or resources no matter how nicely you ask, and some people are absolutely not interested in helping someone who may very well compete against them in the future. And, the fact of the matter is, many of us who have been around for a long time have been burned by upstarts in the past - the wedding industry involves a lot of social climbing, and can feel very much like high school sometimes. Lots of us have bent over backward to help newcomers, only to be passed over for referrals (or even basic kindnesses) once that newcomer's business takes off. So, if you feel you're getting the cold shoulder from experienced wedding pros as you're starting out, try to hold your head high and keep moving forward. If you're focused on the quality of your work, and proving yourself over time, you'll build stronger, more mutually respectful professional relationships and may someday have the opportunity to mentor others, if that's what you feel called to do.
We'd love to hear from wedding professionals - seasoned veterans and startups - about their experiences with mentoring, networking and earning respect. What challenges have you faced? What can be done in our industry to help new entrepreneurs succeed, without unduly burdening those who've been working hard for years?