If you’ve ever been camping in bear country, you know the drill.

Lock up your food. Keep your trash safely stowed. And for cryin-out-loud, don’t feed the bears!

When it comes to your business, it’s also a wise idea to safeguard something important: your values.

Why? It’ll save you from the horrors of being eaten by Your Wrong People (aka “bears”).

Have you done that yet? Have you formalized your WHY and the principles that guide how you carry out your work?

If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present. If you want to build a solid brand, one of the things you need to do right up front is consciously choose and publicly state your business values. (And make sure they’re aligned with your personal values.)

Stay with me here. Formalizing your business values is part of that whole vision-mission-values thing that helps you clarify who your business serves and why.

The act of clarifying your WHY not only helps the rest of the world understand whether or not you’re right for them, it helps remind you about what’s most important. It’s the part of your brand that acts like your compass — keeping you on track and moving in the right direction.

The trick though, is to make sure everything works together. When the personal and business values don’t align — if they’re just things you’ve chosen because you think they’re the best ones to help solidify your message — then you may end up working with bears (instead of your Ideal Customer).

Bears aren’t bad people, but they do tend to gobble up every pic-a-nic basket you leave out unattended. (And without so much as a “How do you do?”)

The worst part though, is that once you feed them, they come back for more. And that isn’t like feeding your neighborhood cat. Nope — that can be some pretty scary stuff.

I know because it also happened to me…

Long Story, Short

When I originally launched my small business, it was a creative agency called “Social Good Marketing.”

My intent was to build a small boutique marketing company that would serve the nonprofit sector. Or at least for profit businesses that had a social mission.

(My website even said we used our marketing super powers for good, not evil.)

My ‘why’ was clear: marketing is a powerful tool. It should be used to lift people up, not manipulate them.

My values were: honesty, transparency, sustainability, community, and extreme value. And while I knew that fear-based marketing could be effective (in the short-term), I had a strict policy about using only positive, uplifting messages to market a product or service. (No warnings about bears allowed!)

I truly thought my personal values and my professional values were aligned.

But I hadn’t really thought things through. I forgot to ask myself this question: what happens in the gray area?

At about my third year in business, I got eaten by a bear.

A client that I’d been working with on a fairly high-profile project left town without paying the balance of his invoice — a sum of nearly $25,000. (Oh, the humanity!)

Yeah, it kinda sucked the wind right out of my sails.

That was in 2008. And yes, time heals all wounds. (For the long version of this story, see this week’s post at aYearWithMyself.com.)

Looking back at how things went wrong, I realized that I’d failed to truly align my business and personal values.

There were many points when I was dealing with customers who weren’t as “good” as they proclaimed to be. They were human. With weird tics, foibles and yes — imperfections.

Just like me.

When I’d created my business values, I’d failed to anticipate that there might be gray areas. And because of that, when they showed up (in the form of clients), I ignored them. At least, until I got eaten by a big scary one.

What’s different this time

It’s been a zig-zag path back, but here I am.

Today, I’ve reinvented my small business with a new brand and updated values.

I took the time to really look at how I could I express my personal values (all of them) via my business. It sparked the writing of my first manifesto, Be a Chef. (Which later became my first book “Attract and Feed a Hungry Crowd”)

Yes, I still believe (wholeheartedly!) that business can and should be used to create positive change in the world. But this time, I wanted a business that would be a more human expression of who I am (as opposed to the idealized version).

My personal values of honesty and integrity require that I don’t censor myself if I feel I need to say something a little bad ass from time to time. And they require me to stay honest with myself.

I’ve also made sure to include my personal values of creativity, fun and staying open to possibilities. Story Bistro has leeway to do all of that!

How to align your personal and business values

Take some time to consider each of these areas before you head out into the wilderness of small business ownership:

1. Your vision for your own life. What’s on your bucket list? What would you regret not having done, if you were to exit stage-left tomorrow?

2. Your passions. What are you passionate about outside of work? What do you love to spend your time doing? Where do you really find your “groove?”

3. Your talents and skills. What are you good at that you also enjoy? (Remember, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you also want to do it for 40 hours a week.)

4. Your vision for what could be. What’s missing from the world? What problems really bug you and what do you feel is possible?

5. Find the patterns. Your life path and experiences are unique to you. And they’ve brought you to a place where only you can stand. What themes repeat themselves? What lessons have you learned? And where do all the pieces overlap? Those are important places you should look at more closely.

Once you’ve done some deep self-reflection, write down your discoveries. Highlight the words and phrases that you value. That makes your heart sing. Then go back and elaborate on what they mean to you.

This is the beginning of your own manifesto! Keep working at it — it’s actually never done. You will most definitely add to it as your life changes and you come to new realizations.

And writing this down is the starting point for aligning your business (or work) with your personal values. For sussing out the gray areas between you and your brand.

Until those two agree with each other, you’ll always feel a little disconnected with where you are. And the Universe will continue to show you that disconnection via Your Wrong People.

The trick is to pay attention to those feelings that something’s not quite right — don’t wait until you get eaten by a bear. I promise you: being eaten by a bear is the least fun you’ll ever have.