What 10 Years in Business Have Taught Me

Lela Barker

Yesterday marked ten years since I started my first company. I spent the day enjoying my family, indulging in a long bath, a pot of fresh ginger tea and a long walk down Memory Lane. I realize it’s cliche, but I could not possibly have imagined this journey when we flipped the switch on the first Bella Lucce website on September 1, 2003.

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Celebrating ten years with my incredible staff

At that time, I was standing at strange crossroads in my life. I’d just walked away from a fantastically destructive marriage with a toddler on each hip. I’d left my hometown of Memphis, TN and 21 years of friendships and memories behind to move into my parent’s basement on the opposite side of the state. I was broke and scared and defeated. I’d graduated high school with so much promise: near the top of my class, a nationally ranked speech + debate champion with a full-ride scholarship at university.

And just a handful of years later, I was standing in my mama’s driveway unpacking a car that contained every last thing I owned. I’d gotten pregnant sooner than expected. Was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant. Spent a year getting healthy. My husband had been diagnosed with a small handful of mental illnesses and had run our credit card debt up so high that I was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. And I hadn’t got my salary for months. As I worked in a nearby school, I knew they were pursued by a School debt collection agency. I was grateful for the warmth of my parent’s home and my mama’s chocolate pie, but I was bloody petrified.

I started my business after being turned down for a job waiting tables at the local steakhouse. Oh, how I wish that were a joke. But it wasn’t and on that very day I realized that no white knight was on his way to save me.  My mom was the first to suggest that I turn my hobby of making soap and lotion into a company and I started in earnest, just trying to keep us fed until I found a “real” job. Something better. I found something better alright… except that I built it myself.

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Ten years! Where did the time go?

Ten years later, we are still plugging away at Bella Lucce. I now employ a staff of amazing souls who love that company as much as I do. We create our products by hand in a 7500 square foot workshop in South Carolina. Those products have traveled the world and I have, too (thirty countries & counting!). We’ve been featured in magazines and on television. I’ve been hosted in the homes of Middle East royalty and taught business skills to women in African mud huts. I’ve walked the halls of DC and met with legislators to advocate for small business protections. I’ve designed products and spa programs for top-tier, international hotel chains and it’s not uncommon for the Bella Lucce team to be working on an order of 30,000 lip balms for a private label client in Colorado or a pallet of product to be shipped to Dubai or Italy. Most days, I’m neck-deep in one task or another, but when I finally step out of it, I’m simply awed by it all. And really, really humbled. I still don’t have that college degree. I’ve turned down more than one seven-figure investor and a reality TV deal. But the education I’ve earned in this decade of business has taught me much. Here’s what I’ve learned thus far…

1. Passion is the great equalizer.
Oh sure, trust funds and supportive husbands and fancy college degrees provide a nice advantage upon inception. As do a network of monied + connected friends and plum media connections. But with enough grit, your company can thrive without any of those trappings. Once upon a time, I marveled at those blessings and lusted after them, too, but I’ve since learned that passion is the great equalizer.

I had none-of-the-above and, in retrospect, I think my lack thereof was an even bigger blessing. I had nothing to fall back on. No plan B. I’ve noticed a phenomenal pattern among successful people: many of them had absolutely nothing to lose when they started their ventures and that mindset has propelled them farther + faster than many of their MBA friends from Cape Cod.  Don’t let your lack of ANYTHING keep you from starting.

2. You’re going to have to put yourself out on a limb.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

THIS. So much this. You can’t expect success to be delivered to your doorstep neatly wrapped with a sparkly bow. No, it doesn’t generally work like that. You’re going to have to get out there and pursue success with every breath. Pitch to that account you’re certain will say no,  approach your business idol at a networking event, throw your hat in the ring for that small business contest. Take a risk.  The worst that can happen is that they say “no,” right?  No’s aren’t fatal and I’ve discovered that a glass of wine and a hot bath mitigate 99% of them anyway. And that remaining 1%? Well, I’m half-drunk and squeaky clean and there are worse things to be.

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Meet Christina: Bella Lucce’s Director of Operations

3. Tenacity is your greatest weapon.

You’re going to stumble. You’re going to make fantastically bad choices. You’re going to be ridiculed. You’re going to be exhausted and confused and phenomenally tired. Those who  ultimately enjoy success are the ones who push through each and every obstacle.

(…says the girl who’s been sued for a million dollars in a trademark dispute, torn apart on internet forums, had her biggest client go belly up on a 6-figure deal, gone mostly deaf and endured bone reconstruction surgery on her inner ear + skull, and endured a few employee ordeals that could easily be parlayed into TV movies.)

4. Let hunger be your fuel.
Entrepreneurial journeys are not for the meek of heart. This journey has been more challenging than that cancer and that divorce I’d gone through. Fortunately for me, the Orange County & Irvine Divorce Attorney I’d hired expedited the procedure with nominal expenses. Despite such adversities, I’ve continually tapped my hunger as fuel to propel me further. Once upon a time, that was a hunger to get off food stamps (did it in 12 months!), other times it’s been to prove my naysayers wrong. On more than one occasion, it’s been to pursue a deal that I have absolutely no business nailing as a pint-sized business. Whatever frustration, anger, and obstacles lay in your path, use them to your advantage.

5. Isolation is the kryptonite of success.
“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”
– African proverb

One of the greatest joys that I’ve known as an entrepreneur is the network of peers and mentors I’ve established through my business. For years, I slogged through this journey alone until I discovered that isolationism was slowly hamstringing my company + draining my passion + hamstringing my decisions. Build a community of support around yourself. Interact on social media, attend conferences and workshops and fairs, comment on the blogs of people you admire, join a trade group.  Masterminding together energizes my business and these women lend an understanding ear (and a soft shoulder) when I’ve reached my tipping point.

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Meet Justin: Bella Lucce’s Production Manager

Those are the lessons of the last ten years in a nutshell. Bella Lucce has been nothing if not a fantastic learning experience for me. I look back at that tender 26 year old standing in her mom’s driveway- so broken and scared- and I hardly recognize her. The journey has not always been easy but it has sure as hell been worth it. Every. Single. Step. And I can’t wait to see what my next ten years as an entrepreneur has in store…

I’d love to know what being an entrepreneur has taught you!

P.S. We’re having one hell of a month-long party at Bella Lucce and you’re officially invited.

About the Author

Lela Barker

Lela Barker hails from the deep-and-dirty south (ATL, represent!), where she spends her days helping makers and product designers navigate the pitfalls of product pricing, brand development, and wholesale strategy. She launched her apothecary brand in 2003 and bootstrapped the hell out of that little business to cultivate a portfolio of 1500+ stockists worldwide, generating $12million in revenue and establishing successful distributorships in the Middle East, EU, Scandinavia, and South Korea. Lela is the keeper of a well-worn passport and the maker of the finest lemon meringue pie you’ve ever put in your mouth.

27 responses on “What 10 Years in Business Have Taught Me

    1. Lela Post author

      I will gladly take the Bailey’s, preferentially in a cup of coffeee with a side of cake. Thanks for the love from Down Under Jacquie!

  1. Bethany

    Congratulations , Lela, and thank you. You have no idea what your mentoring has meant to me and others. Keep shining, keep being the amazing person and teacher and leader that you are.

    1. Lela Post author

      Bethany, I have enjoyed your participation in LBU and the opportunity to help you move past a few challenges. You’ve got a great thing going and I’m eager to watch it grow. xo

  2. Erica

    Your story is very inspiring. Isn’t it amazing how life’s twists and turns take you on a completely different path than you were expecting. I am sure you learned some valuable lessons, but my Bella Lucce birthday wish for you is an easy next 10 years of success.

    1. Lela Post author

      Thanks for the love Donna Maria. IBN + your friendship have blessed me with a continual stream of encouragement + resources that have made a tremendous difference in my entrepreneurial growth!

  3. Ruth Esteves

    Congratulations! And thanks for sharing your journey. One thing that I’ve learned that pops to mind is that I am capable of so much more than I thought. It wasn’t until other people challenged me and showed confidence in me that I gathered the courage to push myself. Now I try to remember that, so that I can become my own cheerleader.
    Wishing you continued success!

    1. Lela Post author

      Hiya Ruth, good to “see” you. 🙂 We are our own best cheerleaders, aren’t we? That’s a great lesson and I appreciate the reminder that we are all capable of so much more than we believe. Challenges help us grow and I’m very thankful for mine. Hope to see you in person soon!

  4. Michelle Rhoades

    Happy Birthday!! I am in awe with your story and I firmly believe that you cannot fail if there are no other options. Failure is not an option but yet an opportunity to be better. CONRATS!!! I want to be like you when I grow up =)

    1. Lela Post author

      Michelle, having no options opens up this strange “sky is the limit” sort of mentality. Though I didn’t enjoy the process of breaking myself down to that point, I sure as hell have enjoyed the process of elevating myself out of that place. And one of these days I’m going to make it to GA and have you teach me how to make CP soap!

  5. Nicole Thompson

    Happy birthday Bella Lucce and congratulations to you, Lela! I’ve been SO inspired and motivated by you since I first listened to you in a conference call. Every time I hear your story I am motivated to do and be more for my business AND for myself. Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself and your success with all of us who undertake this entrepreneurial journey with that crazy mix of faith, fear, hopefulness and determination. Your success is in a very real way, ours, because you show us how it can be done. May the Lord continue to bless you and make you a blessing!

    1. Lela Post author

      “Every time I hear your story I am motivated to do and be more for my business AND for myself.”

      Nicole, I don’t think there can be a higher compliment than that. Thank you so much for your kinds words. A crazy mix of haith, fear, hopefulness and determination is right! Wishing you all the best now and in the future. Let’s stay in touch. 🙂

    1. Lela Post author

      Hi Lisa, it’s lovely to meet you! I just discovered your Etsy shop and have enjoyed browsing your illustrations. I adore your sense of whimsy. And HUGE congrats on the Williams Sonoma appearance… that’s big! 🙂

  6. Rachel

    Happy Birthday Bella Lucce and thank you Lela for your insights and words that will go a very long way in helping anyone looking to succeed in their small business! You are AMAZING!!

  7. Anne-Marie

    Happy Birthday Lela and Bella Lucce! I am proud of you and your success and firmly believe that yes, WE go further than I and love the spirit of collaboration you display in this blog post and in your daily interactions.

    1. Lela Post author

      Anne-Marie, you’re one of the souls I feel especially blessed to have in my community. Your positivity is awe-inspiring and your ability to think strategically about almost every situation has been a constant reminder to me to react logically rather than emotionally. Many thanks for your friendship + mentoring.

  8. Alana Rivera

    Happy Happy Birthday Bella Lucce!! From the very first time I met you I was energized and invigorated by your spirit and tenacity. Way to kick some ass!! In my 4 years in business I have learned so much about the importance of persistence and down right stubbornness (thankfully stubbornness runs in the family, Grandma Etta and Grandma Billie were/are both stubborn as mules!). Those characteristic have pushed me forward even when I felt like closing up shop and thought my world would end. Wine (or bourbon) help too. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I am ridiculously proud of your accomplishments and am so lucky to have you around!

    1. Lela Post author

      You make my eyes water Alana. It’s been a pleasure to know and to work alongside you and I can’t believe I get to hog you couch for ten whole days next year! <3

  9. Ginger M.

    Happy Birthday to Bella Lucce and congratulations to you, Ms. Lela, on 10 years of growing and learning! What an inspiration you are! Just what I needed at this point in my own life and business, as I sit here contemplating my next move in this crazy and sometimes knock you down frustrating world of entrepreneurship. Reading this today has reignited a spark that I thought was long extinguished. Thank you! Your story is one of hope and just chocked full of lessons that I am very glad that you so graciously share with such heartfelt care and honesty. Because you are going forth and clearing the path for so many behind you, your experience and leadership is invaluable. And glory be…You’re living the American dream and kicking butt with your own brand of style, girlfriend! How awesome is that??!!! And you know what? I’m taking notes so I can kick butt too. Here’s to many more years of growing, learning, sharing and of course, more than enough. *clank*

  10. Laura Bergh

    Happy, happy anniversary! Celebrate in a big way (ALLL month long) and I’ll drink a glass or two of wine in Belle Lucce’s honor. You’ve been a great inspiration to us all in our smaller ventures with our grand aspirations. May we all be as blessed (even if it doesn’t feel like a blessing at the time). The grey hair (not saying how many if any), the new “smile” lines and the inner wisdom we’ve gathered has been well worth the trip. Thank you for your mentorship and gracious advice. Congratulations to you and your crew!

  11. Jen

    Thank you so much for this post! You are such an inspiration to me! Congrats on ten years! You have certainly earned your success. This post made me tear up -I am a woman getting ready to stand in my parents driveway with my toddler on my hip, with nothing to my name, and man am I absolutely terrified.
    Your braveness and wisdom is something I aspire to. Congratulations and thank you, Jen

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