I’ve never considered myself a “business-y person”: I always avoided classes with terms like economics, management, and marketing like the plague. It probably had something to do with being young, idealistic (naive?), and slightly revolutionary. Very dramatically, I always believed that the majority of business and industry (and those who controlled them) would stop at nothing in their quest for profits. I also believed that there was a way to do “good” in the world and shake up the status quo, and though I wasn’t quite sure how (a minor detail), I was positive it didn’t involve business.
Naturally, I had absolutely no desire to guide the helm of my own company — business was the root of all evil, right? But as we all know, life tends to put unexpected opportunities on your path and give you a chance to grow in ways you may not even have thought possible. In a strange turn of events, at the (still fairly young) age of 27, I am a part of a small but growing tourism business, as one of four owners; moreover, I am also incredibly proud of what we have achieved in our four years of existence. Our business, Bodhi Surf School in Costa Rica, has developed into something that even I, the one who has been eternally suspicious of capitalism, can be proud of.
How did this happen? Well it turns out that what I didn’t know about business could fill a whole library. It has taken me four years of being a business owner to really understand the impacts that your company can have on the world, and that just like with anything, you can use this power for incredible good if you so choose. Here are a few things that I have learned from my education at the Business School Of Just Doing It where I majored in Flying By The Seat of My Board Shorts.
Your Business Can Be Anything You Want It To Be
People value different things: some have a burning desire to make money, some want nothing more than to have a lasting positive impact on the world, (and the rest fall somewhere in between — we want to do good, but also to make some kind of a living from it). So being that businesses are started and run by people, it follows that the values of the owners/operators are going to manifest themselves in their business. That means you can make your company into exactly what you want it to be: it will be an extension of yourself, and much like rearing a child, it’s inevitable that your values and beliefs will have an enormous impact.
In my opinion, there are many like me — young, naive, ready-to-change-the-world types — who are put off going into business because of their preconceived notions. In a way, it’s not difficult to see why: those from “Generation Y” and later have grown up in a world where capitalism went a little bit off the rails. We witnessed huge corporations doing unspeakable things to their workers, their clientele, and the planet. In movies and TV shows, we saw how it was usually the nice, normal people who sold their souls in pursuit of wealth, and we collectively worried that it could happen to us. So instead, many of these brilliant and philanthropic individuals never even consider starting their own businesses. Instead, they go into spheres where they believe that they will be able to do the greatest amount of good: in the non-profit sector or through social/environmental work, health care, etc. I believe that this is changing, and more of these youngsters, in all their glorious naivety and readiness to change the world, are becoming business owners or are going into business. I’m banking that it will be a game changer in the world of business.
Doing Something Positive With Your Business Will Be Rewarding
It seems kind of funny to even include this section, but I realize it may not be obvious to everyone, as honestly it didn’t used to be for me. As I mentioned before, for years, we’ve seen countless examples of people who, under the umbrella of their business or company, try to get ahead at the expense of others and/or by cutting corners. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been cleverly hidden from sight, so some of the worst-behaved companies give the illusion of doing good for their patrons/their workers/the planet, something that is both frustrating and incredibly confusing for the consumer who may not have time to do research on every single product or service that they put their dollar towards.
However, more and more, people seem to be “awakening” to the immense damage we’ve done as a species to ourselves, each other, and the planet. It appears we are now entering into the “we need to fix this” phase, and this market opportunity is proving very interesting for businesses. Added value is being actively sought by consumers: so if there are two businesses who essentially offer the same good or service, but one “does good” — think of Ben & Jerry’s, an ice cream company that, among many positive business moves, has striven to be a leader in the movement towards fair trade and GMO-free foods — that added value ends up becoming a deciding factor.
To me, the incredible thing is that if you choose to do something positive with your business, you can still benefit from it financially. I seem to have grown up thinking that business was fatally incompatible with doing good for humanity or the planet, that it couldn’t be trusted to do anything other than blindly seek profits, and that anything that benefited humanity or the planet had to be via the government and tax dollars, charity, or non-profit organizations. But it’s just not true! You can do as much or as little good as you want with your business, in fact, as a business owner, you are in a prime position to do so.
Taking A Stand On Important Issues Makes Your Business Stronger
I have learned that taking a stand on contested and perhaps controversial issues can actually make your business stronger. If you own your own business, you probably have valuable insights into issues in your sphere, and thus have the ability to make educated inferences on those issues. Sometimes it’s scary to do this — any opinions that you make public could alienate potential customers — so it’s a bold move to put your values over the almighty dollar. While it may lose you some clients to have your values be known, it may also become a valuable opportunity that leads to dialogue between you and your potential market.
At Bodhi Surf School, we stand firmly on the side of environmentalism, conservation, and responsible development, and that’s not something that we are ever going to try to hide. We feel we have the right to have a stance as we are knowledgable and therefore able to make an educated decision about what we believe. Living next to the ocean and being there practically every day for work or play, we can see very clearly that things are changing for the worse, and we know it’s from human impact. We pick up countless pieces of plastic garbage that wash in from the ocean during our biweekly beach clean-ups. We see dead sea creatures wash up on land. We can feel it when the ocean is dirty, or when it’s warmer every year. But we don’t want to just preach our values, we want to live them, to have them shape first our intentions and second our actions. We will also encourage our guests to do the same, and not necessarily through our words, but by our example.
Small Businesses Are As Important As Ever
Part of what always turned me off from business was the huge conglomerates that would come to mind when I thought of the word. I don’t think I ever had a negative thought about small, family or individual-owned business, other than feeling sorry for them when I would see how difficult it was to own a small company in a big-business world. Today, I believe that small businesses are the way of the future. That’s how it used to be, and I think that’s where it’s going back to. Small businesses consist of innovative people who often have to take big personal and professional risks and do an immense amount of work. Often, it’s those very people who notice a void in their industry and work to fill it, meaning there is likely already a market. Most importantly, small businesses have the opportunity to provide a more personalized service than larger competitors.
I believe that people are drawn to small businesses because despite how hard it can be to be at the helm of one, it is still a dream of many to start their own business. Seeing how other small businesses operate can inspire people that their dreams, however crazy they may seem, are indeed attainable. People are always eager to know how Bodhi Surf School got started, primarily what drove and motivated us, and the more technical details of how it all went down. If we can help or inspire even one person to realize their goals of starting their own business, we will be so stoked!
Connecting With Clientele Equals Happy Clientele
I have realized that the one of the most important function of business, (aside from giving good service and doing something positive for the planet), is forging connections with your clients. Providing excellent service means people will leave happy. But connecting with them, aside from just the client-business transaction, makes them remember your business and can even turn them into spokespeople for your company. This isn’t always a possibility: business owners are a busy bunch of people. Yet I do believe it’s so important to make yourself available as an owner, and to interact with your clientele as much as is humanly possible.
At Bodhi Surf School, we are very open with our visitors about ourselves as people and about our company, and that, more than anything else we do, piques people’s interest and makes them remember us. People actually seem to find our stories pretty interesting (the simple fact that the 4 of us are from different countries), and want to hear all about us. And it’s a two-way road: we also love hearing about where our clients come from, what they do, what their lives look like, and what drives them. With so much to talk about, we frequently end up chatting with our guests for hours, not because it’s required, but because we want to and we have the ability to do so. Moreover, it’s that — having taken the time to connect with our clients — which has made the difference between our guests being quietly satisfied and being genuinely stoked.
Having A Niche Is Key
Just like with anything, having a focus and a specialty, one that is even more focused than your immediate specialization, is, in my opinion, helpful. First, it sets you apart from other businesses, which makes you more memorable than your competitors. Second, it makes you an expert in your particular field. It allows you to do what you do and do it really well.
Bodhi Surf School is a tourism business, but our goal niche is in the sphere of education. We want people to have fun (they are, after all, on vacation), but ultimately, we want them to leave with skills and knowledge that they did not possess before. We hope that our clients leave more educated about marine conservation, environmentalism, or being a surfer or yogi — or better yet, in all of the above.
Final Thoughts From Your Non-Business Professor
So there you have it! A few business thoughts from a self-proclaimed “girl least likely to co-own a small business”. I will admit it’s been a long road, and I don’t profess to know it all. In fact, Einstein’s words ring truer to me with each passing day: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know”. Things constantly come up which open doors to worlds I didn’t even know existed. The great part about all of it is that I have a wonderful team by my side, and together, we move forward.
I will admit that now that I’m on “the inside”, I have dream of a future where it’s the norm, not the exception, to see businesses, large and small, operating in a way that is responsible to their clients, their workers, and the planet.
Do you have your own business? I would love to hear about your experience, and what you believe are some of the most important aspects of business. Are you thinking about starting your own business? Email me at [email protected] and I will be happy to share any remaining thoughts/knowledge I may have!