6 Lessons I Wish I Knew When I Started My Business

New Guitar Business

Starting a small business can be one of the most exciting experiences in your life. In some cases it is the literal reinvention of yourself. For me, I never really intended to start a business and never gave it that much thought. I simply had a passion for my work and it naturally transformed into a business. This might sound pretty cool but really it is not a very good way for things to happen, you will understand why as I share a little bit of my story.

I studied jazz guitar in college and I always planned on being a professional musician or maybe even a music teacher. Like many students, while I was in school I had a hard time being able to afford a guitar that was of high enough quality to really get the kind of sound and playability that I needed for my exercises and performances in class.

Coming from a background of woodworking, I had the idea of building myself a guitar. I figured it would be a lot cheaper and it sounded like fun.

So over a period of time I built my first guitar using whatever materials I could find and scrounging for tools that would get the job done. To my surprise, I found that building guitars was just something I could do well, maybe even what God designed me to do. Eventually, after being asked to make guitars for my college guitar instructors and other players, I ended up being a guitar maker by trade.

Carving Guitar

Because my career just seemed to happen to me and because of my creative personality type, I began my career with no plan whatsoever, just a starry eyed artist wandering out into the mysterious future letting his destiny unfold. Needless to say, this approach can lead to many problems from a business standpoint. I traveled a very difficult road, but have come a long way since then and learned a great deal both in my craft and my business.

Today I am very satisfied with my work and feel a great sense of accomplishment at having endured the long years and many trials and coming out on the other side a better person with better guitars too.

The good news is that I don’t believe it has to be as hard for you as in was for me. That’s why I’m happy to share with you a few lessons I learned the hard way, that might help you avoid some of the common pitfalls that many new business owners encounter as they venture out into their own entrepreneurial destiny.

1. Balance Your Craft and Your Business

One of the first important realizations I came to was that just because hand crafting guitars came so naturally to me, didn’t mean that I was by any means good at running a guitar making business. They are two totally different skills, and for me the latter is much harder to master. I am still and always will be a head in the clouds dreamer, reaching for the ultimate quality regardless of cost. But I am happy to report that you can find a balance by incorporating some structure into your business that enables you to to keep reaching for the stars, just in a little more controlled and consistent way.

The first step to getting a handle on this aspect of running a small business for me was a book that I highly recommend. It helped me understand this concept and find ways to make the necessary changes in the areas I was struggling with and is called “The E- Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Business Don’t Work and What to Do About It” by Michael E. Gerber.

2. Cultivate Your Business Organically

Once you can incorporate some restraint and measured application of your powerful creative drive to peruse excellence, you can make the wisest choice you can ever make, to not go into debt. This choice doesn’t seem like a possibility in some people’s minds, I know it took me along time to realize that the debt-based system almost always ends in failure. Not borrowing when you are starting your business will force you to have restraint and move at the slow steady pace necessary for healthy growth.

Growth is all around us, look at the trees and the grass, they never grow in huge spurts! They just keep at it, day in and day out, and that slow growth from season to season, year to year, is the very thing that makes the trees strong and beautiful.

When we try to artificially stimulate growth by borrowing money – or keeping with our analogy, by adding some fertilizer to get a fast response – at first it looks like a great deal. Eventually though things get out of balance, and before long all the gain that was made will be lost and usually more.

A tool that helped me get some balance and much needed education in this area is budgeting software called YNAB, which stands for, You Need A Budget. I tried other budgeting software before and I could not make them work for me. YNAB finally got through to me because it is built on clear principles and has great resources available like an eBook, training classes, and the software itself is really great as well.

3. They Don’t Always Come if You Build It

Guitar BusinessThe next epiphany is one that was very hard for me to embrace. My beliefs about this topic were deeply engrained. I’m not sure where I got these ideas, but I was willing to sacrifice everything for them.

I’m referring to the idea that if you make the best product in the world you will be successful. Unfortunately, there are many incredible products out there that go totally unnoticed. The world at large may completely and tragically miss out on these products because the person who created them, like me, had the notion that if their product was that good, it would simply have to be a success.

Once I began to understand this truth, I had to restructure my time and efforts to incorporate set times for working on ways to help people become aware of my guitars and their unique qualities and true value.

In order to be able to build my guitars and find ways to communicate their value, I first had to learn to organize my time. The biggest help to me in this area was a book called, ”Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Since time was the issue here, I just listened to the audio version of this while I worked on my guitars and stopped to take notes as needed. This book laid the foundation for the systems that I still use today.

For those of you who use an iPad, I also use two apps; a “to do list” app called Omnifocus which is expensive, but definitely worth it, and a Gantt chart app called SG Project Pro which is really powerful and that I really enjoy using. The head programmer who designed SG Project is a guitar player too, so it must be good. 😉

4. Making Friends is More Fun than Marketing

When it comes to marketing I don’t advocate throwing money around to build up some flashy tricks or gimmicks, but I have seen great results in the slow, hard, diligent, and very rewarding work of being genuine and connecting with people in a meaningful way. It really isn’t marketing, because there isn’t that much of a strategy, essentially it is just making friends with people, getting to know them and understand what they need and want from your product.

Once I know someone, I can better understand how to express the true qualities of my product. If they have needs I’m not currently meeting, then I can try to redesign my product to incorporate the needs and wants of my potential customers. The best part is that making friends is not only more effective than marketing, it’s more fun too.

Simply taking the time to communicate with people via email has been the best tool for this aspect of connecting with people. In addition to regular emails, I use a free email list service called Mailchimp which helps me easily send out a newsletter to the rapidly growing list of people who subscribe to my blog. Building a list of subscribers is a fun way to interact with people who are interested in your product. I even give away a free download of my eBook to every person who subscribes! This is great because it’s a win-win. The book helps me in that is gives people more insight into who I am and what my product is about, and it gives them something of value that they are interested in for free.

5. Connect and Grow Online

The most useful tool of all I have found to help build these essential relationships is having a website that I can make changes to myself. Like many small business owners, I was set on getting the ultimate custom original website regardless of the cost. I ended up paying around $4,000 for a website which at first seemed like a great deal, it was really cool looking, but I soon began to realize that having such a fancy custom website wasn’t all that I thought it would be.

After only having the website for a short while, I came out with a new guitar model, suddenly my new website was no longer accurate and as time went on it quickly became outdated. Because it was totally custom made I couldn’t make any changes to it, and to hire someone to do it was more than I could afford at the time, especially after spending so much to have it made the first time.

Thankfully, I found out that there were cheaper and better looking ways out there that cost a fraction of the price and were simple enough for me to make changes and add products myself to keep my website growing along with my business.

6. Don’t Just Learn from Your Mistakes

GuitarMy hope is that as you have read this article you may have realized that you are not alone in your struggles and were inspired to make some changes in your business, or if you are just starting out on your entrepreneurial adventure, maybe you will avoid some of the hardships I endured in my journey. Learning from our own mistakes is essential to make progress as individuals and as business owners, but there is still an even better way; learning from other people’s mistakes.

Now that you have heard about a few of my mistakes and some of the ways I’ve overcome them, do you have any lessons you learned the hard way that you’d like to share? If so leave a comment below!

About The Author:
Tom Bills has been hand crafting one of a kind custom archtop guitars since 1998. Tom’s guitars are considered to be among the best instruments ever made by collectors and players worldwide. He has written for many online and print publications including his book, “The Creation of the Natura Elite Archtop Guitar” which is currently available in print or for free download on his website.

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  1. John Lee

    Good article! I can identify. My business partner and I have a website Discount Bible Guys and being in Christian retail for over 20 years we thought starting our own website would be so easy! Boy were we wrong. The internet is totally different from regular retail. Sure I know the product and what sells but how do you promote your website? These were issues we never really thought through. It’s been 2 years since we first launched our website and I have had to learn search engine optimization SEO , started a blog, started a Facebook fan page, started a twitter account, all with very little help from anyone because no one will just tell you “how to do anything” They will sell you their knowledge for a price. One we never realized would eat away at our cash flow so much! After 2 years I feel like I’m still a novice at all this “other stuff”. I Love selling Bibles! That’s my love, but there is so much more than meets the eye to do! May the Lord richly bless your efforts Tom!

  2. Tom Bills

    John, thanks for your comment! It’s good to know I’m not alone. One reason I felt like writing this article was a good idea was to try reach others struggling with similar issues and maybe give them a little boost, because it can seem overwhelming at times and for me, sometimes even the slightest encouragement that came at just the right time helped me keep pressing on toward the prize. I actualy took the WordPress classes at bloggingyourpassion.com and they really helped me, it might something worth checking out. Thanks again! – Tom

  3. Tom Strauss

    Very good article! Excellent lessons. Two comments: 1) I also recommend “The E-Myth Revisited.” Great book. 2) Building a business without debt, while difficult for many businesses, is more important than ever in this economic climate. A slow start, ups and downs, and unexpected bumps can quickly throw a debt-laden business into bankruptcy.

  4. Derek - Freeat33

    How does someone just start making a guitar anyways. That is pretty cool.
    David Allens book looks pretty good too. and thanks @Tom as I will be checking out the E-Myth revisited also.
    It is sad to know that many of the best products may never get discovered because the true artists are not marketers.

    • Tom Bills

      Derek, I’m so glad that you found the article helpful. We’ll, I guess I didn’t really just build the guitar out of the blue, I had to really condense the part of the story regarding the way I started making guitars. The first guitar took me about 6 months, but there was a period of several years leading up to that time when I was reading books on making guitars and made the mistake of listening to all the people around me who told me that making a guitar was too hard and that I could never do it. When I was in college the necessity of literally needing a guitar finally pushed me to jump in and build it.

      My story is very long and filled with many miraculous events such as when I broke my right hand in a spiral fracture. I was diagnosed with never being able to use my hand again in a normal way because of the combination of scar tissue and type of break in my bones. Condensing again…., but one day a woman I didn’t know at my church told me that God would heal my hand if I would receive it. I said OK and she prayed for me right there in the lobby.

      When I returned to the doctor for my next rehab appointment (I had and still have 4 screws and a metal plate in my hand) the doctor was shocked and kept asking me what I did to my hand because the scar tissue was gone and I had full motion of my fingers. He cancelled the other 6 months of rehab because I was healed!

    • Derek - Freeat33

      Tom – That is an amazing God story. I have a few of those myself. One such was how I nearly drowned while on cocaine and jumping off the light house ( For Fun ) in my hometown. At three in the morning and disoriented already from the drugs I got “lost” underwater and could not find my way to the surface. I Suppose if I was sober I would have just relaxed and floated back up, or breathed out and followed the bubbles, but instead I panicked and swam as hard as I could. I figured I had a 50% chance at survival if I guessed. I actually took a 50% gamble on life, and when tired and out of breath I did not reach the surface, I went limp and asked God for a second chance at life. As soon as I thought the words, I felt my head touch the cold night air.
      I haven’t even written this story on my own site, but you have it! Thanks for sharing your amazing God Story.

    • Tom Bills


      That is amazing! God is so good!

      Thanks for sharing that!


  5. JP

    Tom –

    Thanks for your article. Your business is tight. You have a clear message here, an attractive website, and a defined product.

    Where did you learn to build your online presence? I recently took a class by Marie Forleo you ticked a lot of the boxes she mentioned. I’m curious if you had coaching or if you organically figured it out.

    One suggestion on your site – move your best video from the Art of Lutherie website to your main guitar website. It solidifies your brand immediately.

    My guess is that your audience is going to expand to people you don’t know personally. As a result I would recommend “introducing” yourself on your website with a video from the Art of Lutherie. I would never have known to go to your blog, then go to the post on your new video course, and then go to your new website…unless you had explained it in this post. Put another way, I think a large portion of your customers (and readers of this post) will check out your website and leave within a few seconds. A video will improve that capture rate. Just a thought 😉 Thanks for listening.

  6. Pauline

    If you love what you do and are good at it, everything else will come easy. I like to value my time working for myself and try to invest that time only into the craft and not the business side of things. I have someone running my accounting much better than I do!

  7. Li Summers

    Hi Tom,
    Thank you for sharing so honestly. I also had my fair share of hardship when I first started my own greeting cards business in the U.K. about six years ago because of this strong powerful desire to create art. I moved to the USA and last year started a web design business. To me this is clearly the right path as I enjoy tremendous satisfaction in helping my clients because I remember how hard it was for me to start a new business. I usually end up being a business mentor for my clients too. I feel I am always looking out for their best interest. I still have to fight the urge of being a perfectionist and it isn’t easy if I want to earn a living doing web design, that’s why I am writing to let you know that your post strikes the chord of my heart. I really appreciate what you say.

    Since two members of my family are strong guitar players (and my son is now studying in Nashville – music) they are always looking at guitars and yours is a great site for them to keep a close eye on. Hopefully one day they will get a guitar of their dream!

    Thanks for your story, you’ve inspired me alot!

    • Tom Bills

      Hi Li,

      I am so glad that you were inspired from the article and that you took time to share here in the comments. I totally know what you mean about perfectionism, it can really shut you down sometimes if you let it. When I manage to keep it in balance its a great asset to have, don’t your think? You might also like my book that you can download for free from my website, in it I talk a lot about the importance of what’s in your heart as you do your work and how it seems to infuse what you are doing for good or bad. It sounds to me like your heart is in the right place when you are working for your customers which I’m sure adds greatly to the quality of your work and your interaction with them.