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Ten lessons from my 10-year overnight success story

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

Each year, more than 80,000 businesses are launched in Canada and just about that many fail. And in the 10 years since founding my company, I have been on the brink of failure more than once.

One of the most important lessons I've learned over the years is that there is no such thing as an overnight success story.

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If you are thinking of starting a new business in 2017, or if you are looking to take your small business to the next level, these lessons may help you.

1. Pitfalls of partnership

Originally, I started my business with two partners who happened to be close friends. Early on, I discovered we each had different goals for starting a business. The lesson was to be clear and upfront with potential partners about what you want from the business. Is it to be able to spend more time with your family? Is it to work at home? Is it to build a multi-million dollar company and brand? Seems pretty basic, but fundamentally, you have to be on the same page.

2. Build a safety net

In the first three years of business, dealing with serious personal issues, I had to separate my business and personal life. I did this by creating a very strong support network. I no longer held myself accountable for every detail, especially with respect to my kids and family. I could focus on either the business or my family at specific times, without feeling guilty.

3. Be a Hedgehog

The Jim Collins book Good to Great features something I really believe in – the Hedgehog concept. It flows from a deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic engine. Going from good to great comes about through a series of good decisions made consistently within the Hedgehog concept, well executed, accumulating one upon another, over many years.

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4. Creating a culture

Establishing our culture was probably the most important work I did with my team. It focuses on four values: trust, respect, communication and accountability. Give this task the weight it deserves because a positive corporate culture not only benefits a business, but also promotes teamwork, productivity and loyalty.

5. Know your rights

You need to have access to sound (and affordable) legal advice – especially if you have any legal exposure in your business. Getting out in front of legal challenges is key. Try to neutralize issues early, without expending too much time and energy. Avoid getting emotional – it clouds your judgment and can pre-occupy you. Focus objectively on the facts. Finding an early resolution with no money changing hands and low risk to your business should be your goal.

6. Dealing with underperformers

Good to Great mentions that getting the right people on the bus is the first and most important part of the journey. In a large company, underperformers can fly under the radar for years, and the company's performance won't suffer too greatly. But in a very small company they can bankrupt you … and that almost happened to me. A person may be right during the first few years in 'bootstrap' mode, but as the business grows they may not evolve with it. I've had to make some very difficult decisions about people I deeply cared about, but it was best for the business and for the people involved.

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7. One thing at a time

Keep your goals laser-focused. You get lots of ideas thrown at you all the time – and it's easy to grab onto some of them and think they will be the magic bullet to get you wild growth. But as I've learned, unfortunately the hard way, chasing too many ideas can be counterproductive.

8. Mentors

I developed a small group of mentors from a few different disciplines, who are smart enough to ask the thought-provoking questions that will challenge my thinking. You need to hear to the honest truth.

9. Learn to listen

I have learned the importance of listening well. In my case, I have to be able to relate to technical people who sometimes seem to speak a different language. I've learned to listen carefully, ask questions and hold back from jumping to conclusions too quickly. But after hearing the arguments from both sides, be decisive and don't look back.

10. Perseverance

Ten years ago, I had a compelling vision that was meaningful to me: to help homeowners hire the best home improvement professionals. Over the years, we've never lost sight of that.

To summarize, ask yourself: What do I really want? Starting and growing a business is an exciting journey, but it has a lot of ups and downs. You can build something meaningful if you apply your skills and your passion with a whole lot of hard work. Push through and persevere with what you believe in, and success will follow.

Nancy Peterson is the founder and CEO of HomeStars.

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