In a conversation last year with some fellow entrepreneurs, a business mentor of mine said this:

“Are you underfunded? Good. Love being underfunded. Because it will make you innovative in ways you didn’t think possible.”

That has stuck with me for almost a year now.

I’ve been thinking about all the ways I had to get creative during the Lemonjello’s journey when I didn’t have the money to solve a problem by hiring someone or buying something.

I think it bothered me because I was tired.

You see, in the past year, we’ve gone through another growth phase. We’ve added staff. And we’re preparing ourselves for that to continue as the result of some changes in our community that are to our benefit.

Because I was tired I didn’t want to have to innovate ways to increase traffic, have that traffic spend more, have them buy into our brand and want to be part of things here. I didn’t want to create a new loyalty program or improve our training modules for greater efficiency. I just wanted to be able to pay someone to take care of it and upgrade equipment to help workflow. I wanted to increase inventory and not have to micromanage my finances.

But that was the wrong mindset.

I know this. I’ve done it. I can do it again.

2 weeks ago I decided that this guy was right. I needed to love (again) being underfunded.

I have an opportunity right now to invent and create. And that’s actually what I’ve missed doing in the middle years of business. 13 years is a while. I was just stuck.

Let’s backtrack.

There was a time when I was all about this.

In December of 2002, I was turned down for my SBA business startup loan 10 days before we were slated to open.

I decided to go ahead. I had $3000 between my bank account and a government bond that was up to be cashed in that month. I also had a $500 limit on my personal credit card (which they declined to increase). I had good credit and no debt, but I was 22 with no access to more credit, investors, or a bank loan.

I got my startup loan a year and a half after opening. By that point it was obvious we were successful. But I’m not sure we would have been if I hadn’t been underfunded.

The first 2 years I couldn’t stop to think. I had to do. Here’s some of what came out of that:

-I learned to live on $10,000 a year. Seriously. It’s hard but kind of fun for a couple of years.

-I worked 14-16 hours a day. Every day. Except when I had mono… More labor wasn’t an option.

-I learned enough about basic graphic design and coding to be able to do our in store promotion and website. Fortunately, social media wasn’t big yet. This taught me to know what to ask and what we need and how to direct others to do this work now. When I could afford to, I hired people better than me.

-I had to rely on grassroots promotional efforts because I couldn’t afford advertising. I learned how to use a college campus and a tight knit downtown business community. I learned how to use networking events, house parties, city events, and anything available to me to introduce people to our brand. I’ve spent very little on advertising ever as a result. Because I had to build in a Word of Mouth marketing foundation from the beginning, I did. And people who love Lemonjello’s have kept it going.

-I had to negotiate abnormal terms with vendors and contractors and my landlord and the restaurant whose bakery I took over. That taught me, an introvert, how to speak my mind when I needed something to be different. It also forced me to learn how to ask for help. Not that I’m great at that still, but I’ve gotten better.

-I made a practice of limiting waste, reducing packaging, recycling, composting, and being creative about our sourcing of goods. This turned into the Zero Waste program we have now that has gotten us a lot of attention.

-I had to be personable. I had to interact with the community and get patrons to like me so they’d want to come back and build a rapport. This was hard. I hardly talked to people before that for a number of years. My very gracious initial patrons helped me come out my shell. I’m still an introvert, but I can chat with anyone now.

-I couldn’t afford to buy art, so we started a local artist program. That turned into us actually selling some pieces for local artists (at least before the economy collapse).

-I was open to feedback because I was open to learning because I had to succeed.

-At the same time, I was more confident and decisive about my decisions because I had to lead and direct the charge.

When I think about it, I owe all of my success in business and most of my personal and professional development to being underfunded.

So I’m going to choose to love it again. That means I get to ride the train into this next phase of adventure. I don’t know what’s next. But I feel it coming and I’m ready.

[Series Description: The Lemonjello’s Way posts are an intricate look at the many things that went right (and a few things that went wrong) in the story of Lemonjello’s Coffee in Holland, MI. It’s hard to build a successful shop with longevity. My initial lack of experience led us to try some out of the box things that worked. My eventual experience allowed me to tweak and refine those things.
Lemonjello’s Coffee was started in 2003 by Matthew Scott and continues to operate as a coffee shop with its own on site bakery. It also operated as a concert venue from 2003-2012. Located in bustling downtown Holland, MI, it is in the heart of a thriving independent business scene. It’s also a block off the campus of Hope College and a tourist attraction for those visiting the shores of Lake Michigan.]