The Story

Your business is stable, you’ve been around for a few years, your company is…not growing?

As a prospective student entrepreneur or current student business owner, I’m sure you’ve heard the sayings “X number of young businesses go under in Y number of years”, “Most businesses fail in the first or second year”, etc.  For those of us that own or are employed in student start-up companies, it’s not possible for us to not wonder about these mortal blows to our potential livelihoods.  We keep them in mind, and do the best we can to avoid the initial pitfalls.

So what about the businesses that actually keep going beyond that time with a stable flow of clients?  What endangers them?  How do they struggle to continue to grow?

I can’t possibly target all of the external factors that could impact any kind of business at all, and looking outside is misleading, possibly detrimental, here.  In my experience, any work place or business I’ve been with that was chaotic or had communication issues also had a problem with not looking inward.  Ultimately these work places and businesses blamed external causes, singled out employees, and then failed to grow and flat lined.

1.     Do you have the most talented, entrepreneurial people working for you, or people who need direction and guidance at all times?

I’m not going to lie and say everything I’m going to list is equally important to consider.  THIS is the most damaging issue that too many small business owners, young and old, have to deal with.  If you have to spend time not doing your job and helping someone else figure theirs out, how much actual work was done that day by either of you?  Remember the project that needed to have a concept sent by tomorrow at midnight?  Suddenly the prospect of sleep and a life outside of work vanishes.

Always, always remember a bit of advice I was told: “First rate people hire first rate people.  Second rate people hire third rate people”.  Perhaps a bit blunt, but equally subtle, the idea is very basic in that you hire people you want to work with who produce great results, tackle work on their own, and equally motivate you to work harder.

All too often I’ve seen hiring managers and businesses hire people who are one or two things: unchallenging to their job security and therefore easy to control, and people who do not take the initiative.  Management and leadership set the example for their employees, in both functioning and nonfunctioning work environments.

Not looking for and hiring the most talented individuals for your business will 100% of the time hamper your long term growth and viability.  Look at it this way.  On the way to following up on a lead or signing a client, you should not be thinking about how an employee is still not doing their job properly.  Get the right people and your mind will always be focused on the tasks most relevant to success.

2.     Is your workplace conducive to communication, or are there hoops to jump through, waits, and walls everyone has to endure just to communicate with fellow employees?

This is obvious, but so many workplaces suffer from this issue.

Of all problems a student business can confront, this is easily one of the most common.   If a question or conflict pops up in your day to day work that you can’t answer or solve by yourself naturally you go to a supervisor or boss for their opinion.  We’ll assume you exhausted all other options.

Now, what follows should tell if communication is a problem or not at your workplace.  If your question or e-mail is responded to quickly and promptly, this is fantastic, and exactly how a workplace needs to function.  If instead, your questions and e-mails are evaded, not responded to or even worse, passed along to someone else continuously, communication is something lacking in your workplace.

When no one can answer questions, or wants to, to potential issues and conflicts how clear are roles defined or followed?  Unfortunately the root causes of communication problems in the workplace can be many, but thankfully being able to see a lack of communication is fairly evident.

As you’ve heard, knowing you have a problem is the first step to solving one.  Be upfront, clear, and honest about your inquiries and roles in your workplace.  This should go without saying whether you are the CEO or employee.   Lacking communication halfway through a big project for a client is not a situation you want to put yourself into.

3.     Can you trust your employees or fellow workers to do their jobs, or do you second guess their ability and micro-manage constantly?

It’s difficult enough having a boss who micro-manages and needs to check in on you all the time.  It’s far worse having other employees second guess the quality of your work and possibly compete with you.

In a lot of ways this ties into both of the past listed issues, but it needs to be singled out for one very important reason: if you find yourself in this position, normally it’s a sign of other issues.  The key here is to focus and use the right amount of time and energy to rectify the problem.  Too much or too little energy put forth, and you risk making the problem go on longer unaddressed or getting worse.

It’s also very likely that you can find yourself seeing other employees who aren’t producing.  In this case, don’t instigate a confrontation that isn’t your role or responsibility.  Refocus that energy on work and tasks you can do instead.  The worst outcome from this issue is that everyone tries to problem solve and by consequence, all work comes to a halt.

4.     Is your workplace one that learns from mistakes and approaches new opportunities with lessons learned and renewed energy, or does everyone look for the responsible party to blame?

Hopefully this is self-explanatory.

In an ideal work environment, employees and bosses are aware that learning from mistakes helps build trust, communication, and new game plans to approach future clients.  No one is afraid of job security if a mistake occurs or a client doesn’t pan out.  Everyone is aware that tomorrow is another day and opportunity.

In the non-ideal work environment, everyone is on edge and afraid of not performing well enough (and the blame games that follow).  Consequently, employees and bosses spend more time being stressed than actually trying to sign a client or finish a project.  This is not a good sign or promising for future growth.


All of these internal factors if handled improperly will ultimately doom a business that has maintained some kind of stability.  For young student businesses, it’s important to react promptly and appropriately.  Where we bring new ideas, we also lack connections and experience.  Therefore it’s important that everything is in line and set in the work place.  Once your work place functions to its full ability and cohesion, you can begin to see the growth your business can achieve.

About Author

Nate started Yellow Box Studios, a digital advertising agency based in Chicago, in 2010 as a high school senior. He's graduated from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign with a degree in Creative Writing and is currently working on a Masters in advertising, also at the University of Illinois.