Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to start a small business. Some desire flexibility and control over their work. Others want the opportunity to make more money than they could in the corporate world. Even more are forced into it by a down economy. Akil Bello, founder of Bell Curves in Brooklyn, NY, wanted to make a difference.
Akil launched Bell Curves nearly a decade ago, and sat down with us to share his experience as a small business owner, including why he made the leap to self-employment and what he'd do differently if he had to start all over again. And, if you're afraid of making mistakes as a new small business owner, Akil assures us that he's made them all -- and has lived to tell of his thriving business.
Tell us about your business.
Bell Curves is a 10-year-old test preparation company providing SSAT, ISEE, ACT, SAT, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT tutoring, classes, self-study materials, lectures, and training for individual test-takers, educators, and administrators. We focus on providing highly-effective and affordable services. Bell Curves is a socially-responsible company that seeks to provide a public service while still making profit.
Since its start in a small two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, Bell Curves has grown significantly. In 2010, Bell Curves merged with The ProTesters, almost doubling the number of clients served while reducing duplication and administrative overhead. In 2011, we delivered programs in eight cities -- from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Washington DC to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Why did you start this company?
I joined my brother in starting Bell Curves because after working for more than a decade in one of the largest test preparation companies in the country, I was growing increasingly frustrated with an industry that exacerbated disparities in test performance and access to education. Secondarily, I was looking for long-term stability. The prospect of being a part-time tutor (which I had been for 13 years) while supporting a family didn't appeal to or comfort me; I was looking for something that had greater potential to allow me to retire. When my brother broached the idea of starting a business to leverage our experience in test preparation and education, I jumped at the idea.
What's your favorite thing about running your own business?
Its hard to narrow down one aspect of the business that's my favorite thing. That will vary day to day. Today, while at home writing these responses, the flexibility of being my own boss is highly appealing. On other days, I appreciate the ability to learn and grow as I delve into the diverse elements of running a business.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in growing your company?
I think the biggest challenges that I faced are those faced by many, if not all, small businesses: marketing, recruiting, and shifting from product expert to business owner. Marketing is challenging because often the benefits are difficult to quantify, and the value of getting expertise that you don't have is hard to prioritize above other needs.
Recruiting presents the challenge of trying to build a team of highly-skilled individuals who can share your passion, yet provide insight, skills, and perspective that I don't have. I have to try to build a team in which I can be confident I'm not the most knowledgeable and skilled in most areas (because if I am, I'll do all the work).
Finally, learning to go from product expert (in my case test prep teacher and developer) to business man presented a huge challenge because the skill set and focus is very different. Nothing in my life as a teacher really prepared me to be a financial auditor, manager, or marketer, and developing those skills as early in the business as possible was key.
Did you put together a business plan? If so, what did you learn from doing it?
I did not put a business plan together, but should have and am currently working on one.
What mistakes have you made along the way?
A better question would be what mistakes did I NOT make. I've made pretty much every mistake you can make. Everyone will make mistakes as they learn a new business or new role. I've lost contracts worth $100k a year because I didn't listen carefully enough to the advice of business partners. I've hired and fired when I shouldn't have. I've been wrong about projections and predictions. I've overlooked opportunities. I've allowed things I shouldn't have and pushed for others that were not worthwhile. No matter what mistakes I've made, I've tried to learn from them and keep moving forward.
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting over again?
If I were to start a new business or were able to start again, I'd plan more. I'd write a business plan just for me, so I could plan out the predictable contingencies. I'd write a business plan to allow me to think through the considerations that other business owners say must be addressed. I'd plan for growth and failure. I'd try to make sure that as many variables as possible were something I'd planned for or considered or experienced.
Final words of wisdom for anyone wondering how to get started...
If you are even thinking of starting a business of your own, go get a job working for someone starting their own business and work with them to grow it. Especially if you don't come from a business background. My experience as a part-time tutor did not prepare me for dealing with buying group health insurance plans. My experience as a teacher didn't teach me how to forecast yearly income, how to assess overhead, when to fire an under-performing employee, how to assess how to properly position an underutilized employee, or how to distinguish between an 1099 employee and a W2 employee. I'd have much preferred to learn these lessons and 100 others on someone else's dime when I didn't also have to worry about paying myself and my staff.