I never intended to run my own business, and in all honesty, if I had thought about it too much and planned it, I am not sure that I would have done it. As Mark Twain so delicately put it, “If you have to eat a live frog, don’t look at it for too long!” I guess it is like becoming a mother, really – for hundreds of thousands of years, women have been peddling the myth of new-born bliss to their daughters when, in reality, the first few months are generally a fog of panic, uncertainty and the dawning realization that you have just given up a bit of an easy life to be at the mercy of this permanently hungry, screaming infant.
The idea of having your own business sounds wonderful, working whenever you feel like it, not being accountable to a boss, earning as much as you like and being permanently creative. The reality (certainly in the early stages) is that you work longer hours than you ever have done, you have traded in one boss for several bosses (your customers) and money can take a fair while to pour in, so creativity is often on the back shelf as you respond to what the clients want in order to be able to pay the mortgage!
Having said all that, and now entering my 28th year since I founded my own business, there are definitely more benefits than there are downsides, and whilst it has been a total rollercoaster, I wouldn’t swap it for any job in the world. What do I mean by rollercoaster? Imagine spending 25 years building up a business, having coveted long-term partnerships with prestige clients, having a healthy balance sheet with money building up in reserves for your pension and the biggest forward order book for that year that you have ever seen – and losing everything.
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it but that is what happened in March 2020 when COVID hit – as a face-to-face training company, we never anticipated anything like that happening and of course, all of our work was canceled. It was incredibly tough, emotional, exhausting, and frightening but we battled through, reinvented ourselves, and 2 years later are back on track. Hopefully, no one thinking of starting a business now will ever be hit with anything like that, but it is one of the perils of owning your own company – you are your own protection.
So, if you are thinking about starting your own business, here are some of the lessons I have learned over the years:
Choose your business partner carefully
Often in the early stages of starting a business, you meet people who want to do the same thing as you, you develop some synergy and start to wonder whether you could be a business partner. This sometimes stems from the fact that you don’t sufficiently believe in yourself, so sometimes, when you meet someone who suggests going into a partnership, you jump too quickly. Business partners can be amazing, but if you are going into a partnership, consider having a trial period first (certainly before you become a limited company). At the very least have some significant conversations about values, working styles, strengths that you bring, weaknesses and any other issues that might impact on the success of the business.
Stick to what you are really good at
When you go it alone, you have to remember that you are CEO, CTO, CMO, CFO and all other board members, certainly in the early stages. Think carefully about where your capabilities lie, and if you are not very organised and not very financially savvy, then consider outsourcing these areas. No matter how good you are at your trade or craft, if you don’t invoice regularly, submit tax returns, and pay VAT, you will get yourself into hot water quite quickly, both with cash flow and the tax office.
Likewise with marketing, particularly if you are in the field of consulting (or like our organisation, training), you have to be constantly marketing to bring in future business, even when you are crazily busy fulfilling your latest contract. Some people are brilliant at their role but not so good at selling so do you need other people to bring in new leads for you? And as for social media – you can spend a long time yourself doing a mediocre job or outsource to an expert who can really promote your business well. It is important to think about all of these roles early and get them set up before you are too busy to source the right people.
Consider your business model early
It is really important to have a vision of where you want to be in 5/10 years and set this out clearly. Are you looking for fast growth or to just provide yourself with a decent income in a way that allows you to design your lifestyle? If you are looking for fast growth, then you will need to consider how to ensure that the business is not all about you – if your clients are buying you, then the saleable value is greatly reduced without you in the business. If you want to sell eventually, you need a business model that can operate without you at the helm which means resourcing good people early.
Trust your intuition
When you start your own business, it is tempting to work with any client who asks you to do something. But often your intuition will tell you that they are not a good fit for your business. It could be anything to do with boundaries, expectations, or working styles. There is often a feeling early on that you will not be able to satisfy them or that they will constantly want more discounts than you can afford to offer. Try and weigh up how many other clients you could successfully be managing for the same cost and be strong in kindly suggesting another organisation might be a better fit for them.
Get your pricing right
This is possibly one of the trickiest areas for anyone running their own business – how do you get the balance between outpricing yourself and being reassuringly expensive? We were once given feedback that we didn’t get a contract because the price we quoted was so much less than other bidders that they didn’t think we would be able to deliver it for that price.
We have also been given feedback on many tenders that we didn’t get because our prices were too high. Sometimes we have been willing to reduce our price on promised volume that has not materialised. It was hammered into me very early that ‘turnover is vanity, profit is sanity’ and so I have learned to keep a very watchful eye on the profit margins.
Network, Network, Network
People do business with people they like, and you are far more likely to sell to people who have time to get to know you. Often when you have your own business, you can feel you are too busy to network, but those meetings can often lead you to your biggest contracts. So, build it in as an important activity, whether digitally or in person.
Build your best team
Surround yourself with great people – in a small business, there is no room for passengers. Be clear on your expectations, involve them in decisions wherever you can, reward them well and if they are not delivering, manage it early. Sometimes these decisions can be really tough, but if you want your business to survive, you need to be courageous.
Be clear on your boundaries
There is no question about it, running your own business can take over your life if you allow it to. I love my job with a passion, and I don’t believe in home/work-life balance. That suggests that there is a right or wrong combination, and there isn’t; it is what is right for you.
You may be at a time in your life when you can dedicate long hours to the business, which is fine but be careful it doesn’t lead to burnout. If you have a young family, then you will never get those years back, so even if you can’t devote a lot of time to them, ensure the time you do spend is done mindfully and be incredibly present rather than constantly being on your phone. Children have no idea of the amount of time you spend with them, but they do remember whether they had your full attention!
Owning my own business has been the most incredible journey for me, after nearly 28 years, I still love every moment of it, I am still constantly learning, and the business is still growing. Hopefully, some of these lessons will help you follow your dreams, accelerate your business and have a life by design.