Building a Business: 4 Milestones Worth Celebrating

Last Updated Aug 19, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

How do you know when you're on the right path to building a valuable company? In my mind, you have to celebrate four key milestones. These are not the big and obvious triumphs like being nominated for an award or surpassing a million dollars in sales; I'm talking about the subtle moments that few will laud you for but, in my opinion, make all the difference in the early stages of building your company.

1. Your first sale to a stranger
It's great to have a supportive network who will buy whatever you hawk, but the first sale you make to a stranger is a glorious moment to remember. It's the first time someone, unencumbered by "moralsuasion," sees your advertising/storefront/fan page/brochure/site/keywords and says, "Yes, I'll have some of that." It's the ultimate validation that whatever business idea you dreamed up might actually work.

2. Your first lease
I think getting your business out of the house and into a commercial space is one of those important milestones that prove you're serious about building a company. You're committing to a home for your business, showing to potential employees, customers and suppliers that you have a vision for your business that goes beyond just you.

I started my marketing agency, called "Acre," from my parents' basement. Then I moved it to a spare bedroom in the house I rented with my fiancée. Finally, I found an office. For me, this was the first time I truly committed to the business -- I was no longer hedging. My first office was really just a large cupboard or a small room, depending on your perspective. It had enough space for two desks with a telephone cord running between them. It had no windows and no air vents, which meant the door remained open all the time in a desperate attempt to generate some airflow. The space cost me $50 a month, but no matter how modest it was, having an office outside of my house legitimized my business in the eyes of most.

3. Your first employee
I'm not against freelancers who run home-based businesses and choose never to hire employees. In fact, many of the freelancers I know take home more money in less time than my business-owner buddies.

But I'm sure you'd agree there is a difference between trying to maximize your personal income and freedom through free agency and trying to build a business that can one day run without you. The latter, of course, needs at least a few employees. And hiring your first is a milestone worth celebrating.

4. Realizing you can no longer write a check to cover expenses
I can remember the first time I saw our P&L and our monthly expenses exceeded $100,000. It felt terrifying and exhilarating at the same time because I could no longer write a personal check to cover our expenses. Until that point, I had viewed my business as an extension of me personally -- that is, there was no hard line between my personal and business finances. But once we eclipsed the $100,000 mark in expenses per month, I realized I could no longer think of myself as my company's banker. This was the moment I finally realized my business was an entity unto itself.

Have I missed any? Let me know which milestones you have celebrated.

(photo courtesy of Flickr/nImAdestiny)

  • John Warrillow

    John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell. He has started and exited four companies. Most recently, he transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which was acquired by The Corporate Executive Board. Watch this video to hear John's thoughts on starting and growing a business you can sell.

    John and his book "Built to Sell" have been featured in CNN, MSNBC, Time magazine and ABC News. John was recognized by BtoB Magazine's "Who's Who" list as one of America's most influential business-to-business marketers.

    John now divides his time between homes in Toronto, Canada, and Aix-en-Provence, France. He is a husband and father of two rambunctious boys.