5 Lessons I Learned My First Year Running an Online Business

Although I’ve been in business for over 12 years and grown my team to 100 employees, I wish someone would have shared these five business lessons with me.

Running an online business, much less one in a highly competitive industry has its own share of risks and rewards. On one hand, you’re doing everything you possibly can to avoid competing on the downward spiral that is pricing, while keeping suppliers informed and customers happy. It sounds so simple at the outset: concentrate on quality and the sales will follow.

But the reality is hardly ever that easy.

Because over time, you’ll have instances where you make mistakes, suppliers fall short and customers get upset. How you react to those situations will say more about your commitment to quality and to growing your business, than any amount of promotional advertising.

If you’re thinking of striking out on your own, your first year will truly test your mettle and build your character in ways that you can’t imagine right now. Although I’ve been in business successfully for over 12 years and grown my team to almost 100 dedicated, happy employees – I dearly wish someone would have pulled me aside at the start and shared these five life lessons with me:


  • Lesson #1: Don’t Be Afraid

    It sounds so easy, right? “I’m not afraid!” you say, “This is exciting! I can do this!” I applaud your enthusiasm. But there are going to be times where you feel uneasy, worried and even scared. But remember, fear is just your body’s way of trying to prepare for the unknown. Unless you’re being chased by a tiger or some other life-threatening event, fear is poor preparation. Acknowledge that emotion and act anyway. In hindsight, after your first year, you’ll look back on whatever was causing you so much trepidation – and laugh, because it will seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things. You’re better than fear. Recognize it for what it is, then take that bold step.’

  • Lesson #2: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

    Before you file this lesson in the “easier-said-than-done” department – hear me out. It’s deceptively easy to want to handle everything yourself – from your marketing to your website and even your accounting. In the beginning, being a one-man, or one-woman show is a given. But eventually the orders are going to come in, and you’ll find yourself working 16 hours a day to avoid working 8 for someone else. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Hire part-time help or even a virtual assistant to manage the day-to-day tasks that are nibbling away at your time. Your time is far more valuable than any dollar amount.

  • Lesson #3: Go Above and Beyond

    You can take advantage of this lesson by following lesson #2. Once you clear out all the “nibbler” tasks, you can set your sights on doing the absolute best job possible – and then going one step further. For instance, I sell promotional items, an industry where competition is fierce and choices are everywhere. We go above and beyond your typical promo company by refusing to outsource, managing and shipping orders efficiently, and even doing screen-printing in-house to save our customers money. We even have a product suggestion tool that helps fellow business owners, schools and organizations decide on which products would work best for their particular promotion. The bottom line is that you should always be looking for ways to make the customer’s experience of shopping with you one that’s easy, hassle-free and even fun.

  • Lesson #4: Don’t Worry About Making a Profit (At First!)

    Look, I get it. You’re in business to make money. But that shouldn’t be your only goal – nor your ultimate goal. If you focus solely on dollar signs, you may very well make a profit, but to the exclusion of everything else! And at first, it will seem like most, if not all, of the money you make is being siphoned off into other things you need to keep your business afloat. But in time, profits will outweigh expenses naturally, and you won’t have lost sight of that original goal – delighting customers first, making money second.

  • Lesson #5: Continue to Grow

    No business ever succeeded by resting on its laurels. The moment you stay content with where you are, is the moment that competitors will creep up on, then bypass you – leaving you struggling to catch up. In continuing to grow, don’t think that this means jumping at every new shiny object or technology on the horizon, but rather looking for smart ways to invest your time, money and effort – in ways that will strengthen your business and nourish your soul.

The bottom line is that running a business, even an online business, is no different than opening a corner store – it takes preparation, dedication and recognition of your own talents, and how the talents of others can work together with your overall vision and plan. Make it happen – you can do it!


Heather Sanderson is the CEO of Overture Premiums and Promotions, a promotional marketing company based in the Chicagoland area. Overture is in the top one percent distributors of promotional product companies in the country and launched Blue Soda Promo, an eCommerce division 3 years ago


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