Running a small business can be an incredibly rewarding journey. Nothing beats the feeling when you’re a new start-up with a great idea and a fire in your belly that makes you feel you are all set to conquer the world! Whilst there are many hurdles you will face initially from getting a solid business plan in place to working out how to reach the market on a boot-strapped budget, there are some things you only find out once you’re on the go.
I didn’t choose entrepreneurship. I never had a sudden flash of Alan Sugar esk inspiration with big dreams of being very important with many leather-bound books and an apartment that smells of rich mahogany. In actual-fact, I was mid-way through a University Course, well on my way to chasing dreams of being a University Lecturer, when, in the midst of a quiet patch, I helped get the family business on board the relatively new social media sphere and developed quite a fondness for networking and connecting online! I finished the University course to have a degree under my belt and on the day I left University I founded my social media marketing business. And the rest they say, is history.
I never went to business school, never got an experienced business mentor to take me under his (or her!) wing, not even a quick look through one of those Guides for Dummies Books – no, my stubborn nature gave me the mindset that I will learn about building and marketing a business while building and marketing a business. And that’s exactly what I did, learning each of these following things the hard way.
Your Family and Friends Won’t Get it
If I had a pound for everyone who has told me to quit what I’m doing or go and get a real job… I wouldn’t have spent today training, crafting content and chasing invoices. Rather, I would have spent it on a Yacht in Barbados having my sun tan cream massaged in by Tom Hardy.
When you have your own business it’s more than likely some if not all of the following have happened; Your dad will think you made a mistake and constantly remind you of it, your best friend will not stop bringing up statistics of failing UK businesses they’ve seen on “Can’t Pay We’ll Take it Away” on Channel 5. And quite frankly the rest your family will never actually understand what you do and/or even care, in fact, they will all still be sulking at the fact that they can no longer put you in a ‘box’ when people ask what you do for a living. But listen, so what at the end of the day. You should be proud of yourself as most people daydream that they had the guts to go out into the unknown and start their own business, but you actually did it. Whether your business succeeds or fails, you should be so pleased with yourself as most people don’t have the stomach to ride the roller coaster that is running your own business!
Everyone Will Have an Opinion, but You Don’t Have to Take it.
I have my own way of doing things and I’m sure many others will have their opinions about it and prefer to do things a different way. But I have specific ways of doing things for a reason, because I want to do it that way. Whilst I am open to advice and modifying my routine should a better opportunity present itself, I never take someone’s advice that I don’t agree with just to be nice or because they think they know better. No one knows you better than yourself, so if you have a way of doing things that means you do the best job you can for your clients then stick to it. Everyone will have some advice for you just like when you decide to buy your first car, or when you buy a house or have a baby, you’ll find that when you start a business that everyone’s suddenly an expert. Take all of this ‘advice’ with a pinch of salt. Advice from anyone other than someone who does in fact run a successful business is just that: advice.
Not Everyone Will Want to Work With You… But That’s Fine
You will always get someone who no matter how much time, energy and evidence you present, they will just not ‘get’ what you’re offering or simply want to go with another person that’s cheaper, a different gender or less/more [Insert your own adjective here]. But that’s fine, because there will always be those who do want your help. You can waste a lot of your own time trying to convince someone or you can instead learn when is the time to stop and instead direct your time into connecting with people who are serious about using your services. It’s also important to note that being your own boss also grants you the benefit of being able to choose who YOU work with. Gut instinct say no when you meet? Then don’t work with them. Just don’t fancy the job? Then don’t take it. I’ve had many a time where I’ve turned down work because I don’t like the MD, don’t like the business ethos or simply don’t have the time to do the work well. And you know what, that’s fine. Because I said it is!
You Need to Get Over Being Modest (Well, When You Are First Starting up!)
Owning your own business means it is up to you to be proactive to get the money coming in. Therefore, you need to really market yourself in the beginning to get the initial interest of prospective clients in your business. This means getting over your fears of talking about yourself in front of people, sending sales emails and – dare I say it! – picking up the phone and calling folk! Without fail, if you believe you are the best thing since sliced bread for the business you are pitching too, then you need to speak confidently about yourself and your business and really try to sell yourself to give them a compelling reason to choose you over your competitors. I personally hate talking on the phone, and wouldn’t even dream to cold call, but when I see that phone ringing and know it may be a potential customer, you can bet your bottom dollar I answer because if I don’t then they will just hang up and call a competitor instead.
You Will be Surprised by the People Who are Willing to Help you…or Not Help You
Forming and developing a business is a daunting, disheartening, stressful task but there can be on hand lots of helpful advice in the form of friends, family, online forums or other personal networks, so you don’t have to go it alone. Work on the philosophy that someone can’t help if they don’t know what the problem is, so always ask if you need help. Especially when it comes to financial help, pride soon goes way out the window if you are a cash strapped business… yes it’s embarrassing, yes you will feel like crap for asking, but you have to think what the alternative is if you don’t. Asking your parents/friend or other family remember for a loan suddenly doesn’t seem as bad as being out on your arse on the streets if you couldn’t make the rent! Trust me, everyone has to have help some time or another whether you are 20 years in business or 2 minutes. I’ve had to beg, borrow (never stole of course!) to keep my business going at times. You may well find however that those you wanted to help you won’t or those you never thought of asking do help, either way learn from those surprises and use those lessons to guide your future requests for assistance.
You Really Need to Follow up With Everyone you Meet
This one is a valuable lesson! It is one thing to meet a person and ask for their card but it’s another thing to actually follow-up with that person. Always, and I mean always, make it a point to follow-up with everyone you meet and drive new connections and networks, if you take someone’s card and do not take the time to follow-up with them then your networking effort is completely lost. Networking is so important for new businesses to drive growth, so make sure you are taking advantage of all the connections you meet. I’m not saying ring them up straight-away and unleash your sales spiel. After a day or so, say something as simple as “Hi [Insert Name], it was really lovely to meet you at [Insert venue/function you met at] the other day. I’d love to speak to you over coffee about some of the things we spoke about [Insert more detail as needed]. Let me know when is best for you. Kind regards have a lovely week, [Insert Name]. The benefits of this are three-fold – 1. It shows you are a professional that is serious about connecting, 2. It sets you apart from competitors and 3. It just may lead to some business for you.
No Matter What They Say, Always Lower Your Offering and Not Your Rates.
When you’re starting out you’re probably going to have to do some work that is below your pay grade to get experience and initial testimonials. However after you’ve established yourself and understand your rate within the industry, stick to it. If you have a client that questions your proposal, don’t lower your rates, simply lower your offering. If they don’t want to pay what you charge then simply ask, “OK, what don’t you want to do?” which just lowers the number of services you’ll provide and not your rate.
To be hypocritical for a second here, I’m the biggest softy when it comes to businesses I want to work with and will always accommodate budgets and go the extra mile if I genuinely love the people in the business. It’s not uncommon for me to work to a lower budget for a genuine business. However ‘genuine’ is the key factor here as there are many and I mean loads of people out there who are ruthless and just after paying peanuts for work, it is through time and experience that you will learn to tell these types from a mile away. Stay strong and don’t be bullied by their tactics. Remember it’s up to you to take on the work or not and if you don’t feel comfortable then give it a miss. Chances are if they are after the moon on a stick for next to nothing, they are not going to be a particularly nice client to work with anyway. So save yourself the hassle and just say no thank you!
You Don’t Have to Take on Every Job
You might feel, especially at the beginning, that you have to take on anything and everything that comes your way to establish yourself and get some much-needed income. Don’t be tempted to do this as this way of working will only come round and bite you on the bum later – whether that be in the form of an angry spouse asking why you are never home as you’ve taken on so much work or a company chasing bills that you haven’t paid as you have taken on too much work for so little money. The best advice here is to be clear that as you are building a brand, you need to make sure that you only take on work that aligns with your brand values and the image you want to create for your business. For instance, in my case I love start-ups and small/micro business and can’t stand large faceless corporations. As such, I only take on work from those smaller ones. I will never be rich as they don’t have huge budgets, but I will be happy with the work I’m doing and that is ultimately what it’s all about. Yes, I could double my income by working with large businesses but I would be unhappy, and in that instance I’ve always said I would be better off going being unhappy in a ‘regular’ job somewhere – where it’s 9-5 and I’m guaranteed a regular income!
The main point here is that you are allowed to turn jobs down. There’s no doubt that along the way it will be tough and sometimes an opportunity may present itself that may not be what you want to do, and as tempting as it might be to grab the opportunity, be it through someone’s suggestion or your own financial worry, this is when you need to be balanced in your focus. Being too scattered and grabbing whatever work comes your way can compromise your reputation, focus and your passion. Ultimately, your work has to sit well with your core values, not significantly infringe on other work enough to interfere with quality, and it must never negatively impact on your personal life. Easier said than done I know!
Don’t be disheartened by turning down work or thinking you will be suddenly blacklisted from that client. Instead turn yourself into a helpful pillar of the business community by recommending one of your peers or a trusted source who you know can do the work. Everyone’s a winner in that scenario!
The Incredible Highs and Lows
This was the biggest surprise for me. You expect tough times and you expect happier times too, but no one ever tells you exactly how intense the emotional roller coaster of owning a business can be. You can often find yourself at the extreme ends of the emotional scale, from being so happy you are fit to burst, to feeling so miserable that you can’t possibly see the light at the end of the tunnel.
We’ve all been there unfortunately, my worst times have seen me hooked up to a heart monitor in hospital with stress, my whole life savings dwindled as not one client paid their invoices for 3 months, right through to happier times such as when I published my book, to landing an amazing client that I love, to having all aforementioned clients suddenly pay their overdue invoices on the same day. I had that much money go in my bank that day, I actually had a call from Barclays asking what the hell was going on and if I would like to see my investment opportunities!
The key thing here is having a strong support network behind you who you can turn to during these emotional extremes. Be it your partner, another business owner you talk to or your friend group. Just please don’t keep it bottled up when you are going through the bad times as that can lead to mental illness issues that are difficult to get out of. So if you have no one to turn to or talk to then talk to me, my inbox is always open and I will ALWAYS get back to you firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Will Have to Work. Hard.
Showing up to work is not enough. There really are no shortcuts, no one-size fits all master plan for world domination. You will need to put in the hard graft yourself to see results. Unpredictable hours, unforeseen circumstances, nightmare clients, chasing invoices and no sales for months, these are all contributing factors that make running your own business a very hard job indeed. You will have to be the owner of many ‘hats’ – HR Hat, Accountant Hat, Problem Solver Hat, not to mention your actual Job Title Hat! You will have to be everyone and everything to get your business running smoothly.
The key is to be prepared for this stress and hardship by having a realistic plan in mind to make sure you’re ready to deal with any eventuality. But just like the old boxing quote “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” after the first year into your business I bet you a tenner you will feel like you’ve gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. Leaving you asking “what the bloody hell happened?” The answer to this my friend is, nothing happened, it’s called owning your own business.
Don’t be disheartened If things don’t go to plan for you, every business operates under different circumstances. The plan that made your competitor a roaring success might not work for you, you just have to find your own path to success. The only worthwhile advice here is to say live in your potential customers’ heads as this is the key to success. Learn their wants, needs and tailor your marketing and indeed business ethos around making them believe your product/service is simply one they can’t live without it! Keep it in your mind that just because you have started out a business with what you think is a brilliant product/service, no one owes you their money or attention. It’s up to you to show them why you are worth it!
It’s Completely Normal to Change Direction
The business you start with might not necessarily be the one you end up with and that’s perfectly acceptable, common even. You are allowed to change your mind. It may sound like something from a David Attenborough series, but you need to see your business as a living entity that molds and adapts to the environment to ensure its own survival. In the beginning if you’re smart you will have done a business plan, the wonderful, reassuring bit of paper that shows the journey your business will take. But lets face it, it’s hard to know what it’s really like to work in the industry until you’re slap bang in the middle of it and running a business. It’s right there and then when you soon learn what you need to change. Sometimes the answer is not much and sometimes the answer is almost everything. But at least you know then and you can act on the information in front of you to make your business better. So don’t spend too much time worrying about that first logo or holding off a launch until the stationary is just right, you can change these things at any point and it really is no biggie.
Everything is Your Problem
Fairly obvious but it still doesn’t make it any less important to know that when shit hits the fan in any aspect of your business, it is up to you to deal with. Whether it’s something you never saw coming or something you had an incline towards happening but just hoped for the best that it didn’t. There’s no preparing you for this added stress, especially if you have come straight from paid employment where any big problem that’s arisen in the work place was met with you slyly backing away muttering “not my problem, not paid enough to deal with that.”
Even if you don’t have a document with written specifications on what to do, make sure you have a rough idea of where to go for help and advice if something does go a bit wrong. Better safe than sorry as they say.
It Will Take Longer Than You Think
We’ve all seen the documentaries highlighting the overnight success stories and most of us convince ourselves that’s going to be us. But the truth is being an ‘overnight success’ is one of two things;
- Luck – yes the stars aligned and it actually was an overnight success.
- 99% of the time an overnight success is actually made from “over ‘many’ night” success! Where for months or years they wanted to quit, doubted themselves but kept going and going until one day everything clicked and someone says wow you’re an overnight success!
Sometimes you may think that there is just never going to be an end to the countless things on your business to do list before you make it, the important thing is to keep at it, stay consistent and continue to do your best work on every job and you will be rewarded. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not a resounding success after two weeks, two months or even two years… you will get there, but you have to be patient. (That is such a clique and always gets a roll of the eyes … but its true!)
My God it’s Unpredictable
Being in business is an unpredictable thing, there will be times where you have no clue whether you’re coming or going… never knowing what’s going to happen next. A bit like when all those people are on that boat in Willy Wonka (Yes, as the business owner you are the slightly weird captain of this crazy boat). But listen, channel your inner Buddha and realize that there are just some things that are out of your control. You can have a plan for every little thing but sometimes things happen that you never saw coming. Deal with it by learning to grow a thick skin and take a “roll with the punches” kind of attitude. Being a cool, laid back and adaptable individual means that when a problem happens instead of screaming and thinking it’s the end of the world, you will instead take a deep breath and say right shit happens, how can I fix it.
You Will Constantly Doubt Yourself
Ask any business owner “how’s business?” and you’ll usually get the same answer, “it’s great thanks!” Pre-business ownership, I simply thought oh great that’s wonderful for you! But now I’m older and wiser and a business owner myself, I hear this answer and I take it to mean anything from “things are actually pretty good”, “They are not great but I’m ashamed to really say that”, right through to “I don’t really know if I’ll be open next month.”
Whether you want to avoid a conversation about it, are ashamed by what you think are your failures or you are in a mental rut, it’s much easier to tell your friends and family that “things are going well” rather than tell the truth that you just barely made enough money last month to pay your bills.
Externally to people, they will see you have the fancy phone and the snazzy suit and an aura of super confidence about you, but what they don’t know is that on the inside you are constantly shitting a brick and always having the nagging doubt in your mind that’s asking “do I really know what I’m doing?” It always hits me when I see a post on social media that’s really clever and I think damn why didn’t I think of that. That small niggle is then enough to open the floodgates to doubting anything and everything else in my business.
I’m getting better with it now though as I’ve convinced myself that doubting yourself is healthy in business as it keeps you on your toes and ensures that you never get too complacent about yourself or your business… nagging doubt forces you to up your game as it where, which is a great thing for your business!
It has been a bit of a warts ‘n’ all list, but lets face it, despite all of the above, all you small business owners know you wouldn’t give this up for the world!
Seriously, despite all the realities of small business ownership, the pay-offs of working for yourself are incredible!
When you are self-employed I swear it’s like magic. Yes there’s no boss to blame when shit hits the fan, but there’s also no boss to hold you back from creating this wonderful business on your own terms. That feeling when someone loves something you have created that much they are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to own it, gives you a validation like no other.
You get to do every part of the business how you want to and it’s a giddy feeling to comprehend the idea that you make up your own rules. You get to be YOU every day! Want to take a day off mid-week to go to the lakes to avoid the weekend queues, you can do it! Can’t be arsed to work today – do it and catch up later! Want to have a garish bright orange chicken as your business logo -do it! No one is going to say no to you… because you make the rules in your business!
If you can take the plunge into small business ownership, then I say do it. Life’s too short so grab the opportunity with both hands!
My top tip would just be to have a nice bit of cash to fall back on in your first year, as nothing stifles creativity and decision-making when you are worried about the bills! But other than that, you go do your thing.