My business license in essence registers my company as a separate entity—separate, that is, from myself as an individual. This puts an important legal barrier between myself and the people with whom I do business. It’s an essential part of starting a business, but, like many of the initial steps, it’s not a very exciting process.
It’s so unexciting, in fact, that when I sat down to write about how to I obtained all licenses and permits for my first business, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what information I had to record on however many forms, or which municipal buildings I had to visit and in what order.
What I do remember is embarking on an epic adventure to find a fire extinguisher—one of the last obstacles I faced before I could get my business license and officially announce the start of my company.
Let me explain.
I ran my first business out of my home. At the time, my city required that all home-based business owners get approval from the city’s fire safety manager before a business license could be issued. I consulted my city government’s website for more information, and learned the steps I would need to take in order to get the Fire Safety Division’s thumbs up. The process involved the fire safety manager driving to my home, inspecting my workspace, making sure everything was up to code, and submitting her report so that I would then be eligible to receive my business license. I made the appointment as soon as I could—she was scheduled to arrive bright and early Monday morning.
The Friday prior to the appointment, I opted to finish out my weekend a little early, since I knew things would ramp up with my business once I officially opened my company’s doors the following week. Before packing up for the day, I double checked the information I would need for my appointment on Monday, just to give everything one final check so I could enjoy my weekend worry-free.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way. It rarely does. Looking one final time through the checklists for new businesses, I noticed a detail I’d missed up until just that moment. Turns out, as part of everything being up to code, it was essential that I have in my home a fire extinguisher that was up to a certain set of specifications.
I had a fire extinguisher at the house, and I quickly went to check it. Lo and behold, it wasn’t the correct type (or make, or model, or however one refers to different kinds of fire extinguishers). So, I added to my to-do list yet another task in the seemingly endless quest to get my business license.
With my appointment scheduled for the next business day, I had to act fast. And that’s when it occurred to me that I’d never had to go out and buy a fire extinguisher before. I had no idea where one procured such an item. So, yet again, I went online to do some research, and I found the nearest location that sold the type of fire extinguisher the Fire Safety Division required. And by “nearest,” I mean a couple of towns over—or about forty minutes away. Cue the groan heard ‘round the world.
A few clicks on the store’s website and I learned I would have to pay about $35 to get the fire extinguisher that was up to code, based on the requirements listed on the city’s website. It wasn’t a huge cost, but any unexpected expense is a reason for concern when you’re starting a business—and mine wasn’t technically even a business yet. My limited startup fund was growing smaller by the minute, but what can you do when the future of your business is at stake?
Next I checked the store’s hours, glanced down at my computer’s clock, and realized I would have to leave my house immediately if I wanted to get there on time: this particular store didn’t have weekend hours. I scrambled to jot down the directions to the store (this was before smartphones and built-in GPS abounded), and was on my way.
Forty minutes later I arrived at the store. I walked in and told the cashier what I was after, explaining this was for my home business. He immediately shook his head and said, “Nope, that won’t cut it for a home business. What you need is the…” and he listed off another version that was larger and, of course, more expensive.
I explained that my city government’s website had listed a specific set of required classifications. The cashier gave me an apologetic look and advised that the product I’d requested wouldn’t make my business compliant.
This wouldn’t be the first time that a government website had presented woefully outdated (or straight-up misleading) information on it, so I knew it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the cashier was right, rather than simply trying to make a few extra bucks by lying to someone who didn’t know any better. Although, the latter was certainly possible, too.
That said, a few things went through my mind: the store was closing for the weekend before too long; and the aforementioned department of my city’s government was one of those hardworking ones that closes at noon on a Friday and stays incognito all weekend. That meant I couldn’t get in touch with anyone to clear things up.
There was no way I was going to drive all the way back home, wait until Monday, clear things up with the local bureaucrats, and drive all the way back to the store to probably pick up the same product the store attendant was trying to sell me at this very moment.
More importantly, any delays in getting this fire extinguisher meant rescheduling my appointment and a delay in getting my business license.
I harrumphed, and told the cashier I would take the product he recommended. This one would cost me almost $60 instead of $35; it was just another unpleasant surprise in this whole adventure. All that trouble for a fire extinguisher.
The story would be a lot more exciting if I revealed that I would later go on to use that fire extinguisher to save myself and my precious work from a fire that spontaneously erupted in my office, causing me to thank all that is good for that knowledgeable sales clerk who insisted I purchase the higher-end fire extinguisher, not just to comply with city codes but to ensure my very safety in the place where I lived and worked.
Unfortunately for the story, but fortunately for me, nothing ever spontaneously combusted. No raging fires ever broke out in my office. That particular business has since run its course and closed, and the fire extinguisher remains unused to this day. In fact, it’s probably expired at this point. Maybe I should check to make sure everything is still up to code….
Regardless, the quest to find a fire extinguisher seemed like a lot of trouble for something that was ultimately inconsequential to my business. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and I can find in my journey a commentary on running a business in its early stages.
Very quickly, entrepreneurs must get used to unpleasant surprises in the course of running our business. Some are small, like an inconvenient Friday drive and an up charge in office supplies. Others are disastrously larger than that. We deal with both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, as time goes on and our business grows.
Whatever the size, shape, and nature of any given problem—or hint of a problem, for that matter—we must often force ourselves to jump into action at the perceived eleventh hour, as we attempt to put out fires that never get starting in the first place.
Sometimes running a business, especially in the early stages, seems like a series of adventures like that: there are many instances wherein we expend a lot of effort for only a little (if any) reward. Eventually, we hope the string of little rewards is enough to lead to a big reward down the line. Sometimes we have to make the effort, even if we’re not sure when or even if it’ll pay off.
But we do it because the alternative is too risky, the threat to our fledgling business too great. If we don’t put in the effort at the beginning, even when we’re not sure it’ll pay off later, we might find ourselves with a big fire on our hands and no way to put it out in time to save ourselves.