My friend Nicole and her family visited our house for breakfast this morning. She and her husband are the founders of Green Ronin, a Seattle-based game publisher. As we enjoyed a couple lovely hours outside at the picnic table, we chatted about life and work. We talked about what it’s like to own a small business.

Because my father was a serial entrepreneur, I’ve spent most of my life around small businesses. Chris and Nicole have had a taste of the lifestyle over the past eight years. They’ve seen the bright spots and the dark, and have some strong opinions about entrepreneurship.

“What sort of advice do you have for somebody who might be starting a small business?” I asked. Here are the highlights of our conversation:

  • Be wary of going into business with your friends. Though it sounds like a good idea, working with friends is often a recipe for disaster. “At the very least, partnerships with friends prevent you from being effective,” Nicole said. “You don’t say the things that should be said, or in the way that you should say them. You pull your punches.”
  • Do your research. “I think it’s important to know what you’re getting into,” Chris said. “You can’t be successful by just jumping into an industry without having some idea of how it works. I didn’t just start publishing games, for example. I started by writing for somebody else. I had to learn about how a game company operates.”
  • Start slowly. We all agreed that small business owners should move slowly. “We started Green Ronin in our spare time,” Nicole said. “Chris still has a full-time job outside the company.” By starting small, you’re able to control growth and focus on what’s important. Starting small also keeps things manageable. During my sixteen years working at the box factory, I saw all sorts of businesses come and go. Many of those that failed had tried to grow too quickly.
  • Embrace guerilla marketing. “You can spend thousands of dollars on traditional marketing and see poor results,” Chris said. “We’ve placed big ads in magazines that just didn’t work. But it’s possible to spend much less on non-traditional approaches that get better results. For example, one way for us to introduce people to our products is to give away quick-start guides to our games at large conventions.” Think outside the box.
  • Create boundaries. We began to discuss how much time our businesses take, and how I always seem to be working on Get Rich Slowly. “You need to create boundaries,” Nicole said. “A lot of people think that they can just work from home and enjoy a life of leisure. It doesn’t work that way. I wish I had better boundaries. My workspace is in a corner of the kitchen. It’s too easy to find myself answering e-mail at one in the morning.”

In the end, we all agreed that owning a small business offers advantages over a traditional job, but it also has its drawbacks. The best part, of course, is being involved with something you love on a daily basis. Unfortunately, that can be the worst part, too!

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Starting a small business can be scary, but it’s also a great way to make money doing what you love.