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Elizabeth Lewis: Law Office of E.C. Lewis, P.C.

Small Business Champion Interview

About My Entrepreneurial Journey:
My entrepreneurial journey started before I was born. At least about fifty years before I was born, and based on research probably closer to 100 years before I was born. You see, I am at least a fourth generation small business owner and it is believed actually a sixth generation small business owner based on Denver census records (anything before that becomes family folk tales).

Small business ownership is in my blood.  My father owned a real estate business. My grandfather, with a lot of business help from my grandmother, owned an electrical business. My other grandfather owned a restaurant along with several other startups. Going back to my great grandparents, one owned a large ad agency in Philadelphia back in the days of radio advertisement; another, after the death of her husband at a young age, started catering for locals and worked as an independent artist; yet another after a divorce started offering music lessons to support her family. Going back to fifth and sixth generations, records show independent carpenters and other tradesman who worked for themselves. The idea of working for anyone else was something that couldn’t be reconciled with how I was raised – owning a business and being the boss was a family trait. Of my living relatives, a majority of my uncles, aunts, and cousins are small business owners today or were at one point in their lives.

I myself became a small business owner five years ago. Upon finding out I was pregnant, I knew that it was the perfect time to change not only my family status, but my work status.  Three months pregnant, I turned in my resignation and started my law firm on January 1, 2010. My first child was due June 28, 2010. Big life changes awaited.

As with every small business owner, my first year was filled with twists and turns that I didn’t expect and some, especially the birth of my son, that I did. I spent time learning how to market, how to budget, and how to read my finances. Some things came naturally – for instance how to budget as I had managed my finances for years. Others had step learning curves – learning that growing a business takes time. Other things just happened. For instance, I learned that I could combine being a brand new mom and business owner. My newborn soon became an honorary guest at many events – and a great way to start conversations with strangers. (And a way to instill in him a drive to be a small business owner; to this day, people ask about my son at chamber events and he talks about wanting to go to work with mom to “run” a business.)

So, what do I do? In addition to being a small business owner, a boss, and a mother to my oldest furry child and now two human children, I am an attorney.  My business is a law firm that focuses on providing legal solutions for small business owners – a group of people that not only am I part of, but I love working with! I get to work with business owners when they are at their highs (starting their first business, signing a first lease, hiring their first employee, making their first dollar) and I get to figure out ways to help them find light at the end of the tunnel at their lows (fights between partners, issues with vendors, worries about making payroll). Even at times that seem bleak, many times I can determine fixes to situations that a business owner can’t see through the darkness.

How do you measure success?
Measuring success for me is how my clients respond to what I do. I take my work personally – if a client has a success or sings my praises, I feel awesome! Going to a ribbon cutting for a company that I helped start is the best thing possible! I have received several emails from clients saying thank you that have left me feeling good for days. And being able to be present at a client opening, a client anniversary, or other client event shows that I have helped someone change his or her life just like opening up my own business changed mine. My client’s successes are my successes.

What is the biggest “happy accident” you have had in starting your business?
My happy accident in my business was actually the self awareness that I needed to ask for help. My whole life I have been self-sufficient (a trait I have found that many entrepreneurs share). I started working at a “real” W2 paying job at 14. The only time in my life that I haven’t worked at least one job was for several months my first year of law school (you aren’t allowed to work while in your first year of law school by ABA rules, something that I had a hard time following because I had always worked at least one job since I was 14, even during undergraduate and graduate school). I learned how to wash my own clothes and cook my own meals as my mom worked. I learned to work during high school and college to help pay my way in the world – with several jobs offering tuition assistance. Asking for help was something I was not familiar with. However, as a business owner with two young children, I have learned that you need to learn to ask for help. It may be small (and cheap) at first – a free appointment with a SBDC counselor to ask for business plan advice or coffee with a power partner to ask for business referrals. It may be personal – requests for family to babysit to go to a networking event or even something as simple as to watch the baby so I could get a haircut to look presentable to clients. Then it may grow to where you have to pay for such help – a CPA to do your payroll, a new employee to take over tasks you don’t have time for, an attorney to write an estate plan (yes, even attorneys use other attorneys if they know what is good for them!). I have even met people that have hired administrative assistants just to help with tasks such as dry-cleaning and appointment setting (I’m not there yet, but there is always the ten year anniversary goals!) or for people to answer their tweets or Facebook questions. Asking for help – whether paid or not paid – for many people is a skill you have to learn as entrepreneurs tend to be people who do things themselves.

When have you been the most satisfied in your life?
I have to say that right now, I am completely satisfied with life. I have a growing business, two healthy and happy children, a (somewhat neurotic) great dog, a happy marriage, and a great network of people that I interact with on both a personal and professional level every day (and many people on both levels depending on the day). This isn’t to say there aren’t nights that I don’t wake up worried about how much I will bring in this month or that the phone will never ring again (it always does). But that is the life of a small business owner and human in general. Many small business owners I know are 80+ years old and still have those thoughts at 3:30am. The difference is that I have control over my business – I don’t have to worry that a company with thousands of shareholders will lay me off tomorrow.

What was the best piece of advice you were given when starting your business?
I received two great pieces of advice.  The first was purely business. I was told that your first year of business, you will not make money. If you are lucky, you will come close to breaking even – and that is if you are lucky. You need to be prepared both mentally and financially for it. By your second year, you will probably break even and maybe even make a little.  However, chances are good you won’t be able to pay yourself what you need to. Again, you need to be prepared mentally and financially to be able to live off of Top Ramen if you have to. By your third year (and beyond), you will finally reap the rewards of being a small business owner (if you made it this far). You will make money (if you don’t, you need to reconsider your business) and have a life. However, you need to be prepared for two years of hard work and no money to get to this point.

The second piece of advice I got (which was more personal) was you can have everything, but you can’t necessarily have it all at once. This came from a co-chair of board I was on who had a business and also children. This advice came as I was (and still am) dedicated to my children and my business. My colleague (who I consider both a business contact and friend) knew what I have learned – you can either raise your business or your child full-time- you can’t do both. If you want to do both, you have to realize that your business isn’t going to grow as quickly as one that receives 100% of the owner’s attention. However, if you are lucky, then you can grow a business slowly, but also raise your children. Being able to take time off without asking permission when my son has a field trip is priceless.

What is your biggest struggle in being a small business owner (and/or starting a small business)?
My biggest struggle (other than having a child six months into being a business owner and then again a little less than three years later) was realizing that the advice I received (see above) was really true. Everyone says, based on the norms in their industry, that won’t be me, I will make money in XX days, I will be open in XX days, it will only cost XX to get open even though for everyone else in my industry, it is ABC. You can run a business that makes XX and have a personal life. Your children (or dog, or love to ski, or marathons) won’t get in the way of being a business owner. You are not special, it will not happen, and you will end up not making money until ABC, not being open until ABC, or spending ABC to be open. You will find that life gets in the way of being a business owner (unless you have absolutely no life). I was lucky – being a small business attorney prior to opening my own law firm, I saw time after time, business after business without proper funding. I knew I needed at least a one year financial cushion. While I was (mostly) prepared financially, I wasn’t prepared mentally that it would really take two years (plus) to build a business that made a profit. I thought (like every other business owner), I would be the exception to the rule. I thought I could start a business, have a family, and success would fall from the sky. I wasn’t the exception to the rule. I should have listened to those that have gone before me – they actually knew their stuff.

If you weren’t doing what you are doing now what would you be doing?
Prior to law school, I worked in IT. To be honest, even now I sometimes wonder if I wouldn’t be happier in IT, which is what I would be doing if I weren’t a lawyer. I look at my peers from back in the day that have jobs where the perks are free massages, catered meals, unlimited vacation, a beer fridge in the office, and a salary that they can count on (minus the dreaded “L” word – layoffs). I remember that I missed several years of “real” income while going to law school and then later starting a business (again – see above about the first few years of owning a business). Then, I realize that if I go to CrossFit at 10am on a Thursday, I don’t have to explain to anyone. If I want to show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt because I don’t have any appointments, I don’t have to explain to anyone. If I want to take days off, I don’t have to worry about clearing it with anyone.  And if I want to take every Friday off (which I do), to raise my children – and any other day that they need me – my career path is the same because my clients aren’t worried about the hours I work, my marital or child status, but that I am there when they need me. Would the same be true if I was in IT still? Who is to say? But I am happy where I am now which is all that matters.

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