I started my own business.
I often find myself beginning sentences with “If I knew then what I know now…”
You don’t know what you don’t know, right? And, in business, as in life, you could spend forever trying to find out everything you don’t know before you take action. In reality, this is simply not possible.
As an entrepreneur you need to find that tipping point — that place where you know just enough to get going but are prepared to accept the fact that you’ll never know everything and you are never going to stop learning.
I’ve written down a few things that I wish I knew before I started my professional life — having said that, I needed to go through these experiences whilst being a business owner so that I could actually learn these lessons for myself.
1. You’re going to lose a lot of money before you make any.
Seems running out of money is indeed “a thing” with most start-ups, no matter how careful you are with cash flow. Revenue takes a little while to gain momentum and you’ve always got money going out before money starts coming in. Just keeping your head above water can be a huge challenge. Like many start-ups, I bootstrapped DoodleDirect and it was not a comfortable ride, negative bank balances were commonplace for the first fifteen months but it has certainly been worth it.
The Lesson: Don’t panic — just be prepared to keep the plates spinning when money inevitably gets tight. Be patient, prioritise your outgoings and negotiate longer payment terms with the suppliers who might be able to give you some wiggle room to improve cash flow. Remember that if your customers are also businesses, the larger the organisation the longer it usually takes to get paid (which is ridiculous, but as a small fish in a big pond you’re going to need to prepare for it!)
2. You absolutely need to know your purpose.
I’ve started a few businesses in the past without really drilling down on my purpose — surprise, surprise they didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. DoodleDirect was a slightly different beast as I didn’t set out to build a business in visual communications initially, but as the business developed I realised that the only way to continue growing was to put a proper strategy in place and to do that I needed to know my purpose.
The Lesson: Focus on your core purpose — the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ve written another blog post on this here but in a nutshell having a purpose will guide your strategy and enable you to grow, allowing you to pursue opportunities and equally, not pursue opportunities. Steve Jobs used to say “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do,” i.e. recognising you can’t be all things to all people, focusing on your purpose and being great at it!
Making time to think about “purpose” and “strategy” does feel like something you can put on the backburner as you’re fully focused on starting and running your business operationally, but try not to — these really are important fundamentals.
3. You can’t compare yourself to everyone.
“Ohhh look, the Snapchat guy is like 25 years old and worth $1.8 billion — I’ve been running my business for 2 years and I’m drawing a salary equivalent to minimum wage…” or “…hey, here’s an article on the lifestyle habits of successful entrepreneurs, if I want to be successful and have an easy life I have to do what they do!” — sound familiar? You can dig yourself into a very useless place if you allow thoughts like these to take over. Business is a difficult game, and comparing yourself to others may seem like an easy way to benchmark your results and predict your success but it is a total waste of emotional energy. It’s something we all do, in our personal lives as well as business — but we must train ourselves to stay on our own paths towards our own goals.
The Lesson: It’s going to take as long as it takes. Your idea of success may be very different to their idea of success and your route to get there will be equally as diverse. If you don’t want to wake up at 4am to drink Wheatgrass and ginger juice and start your yoga, even though that’s what other successful entrepreneurs do, don’t do it. If Jenny from the block looks like she’s made an easy success of her business, maybe she has, maybe she hasn’t — who cares? You’re on your own journey, with your own wins, your own milestones. Success means something different to everyone.
Do it your way and be proud of your achievements, even if they take a bit longer and it feels like you have to work a bit harder.
4. You need to be strong in your beliefs and values.
It’s that old adage — “stand for something or fall for anything” and it’s true. If you don’t have a strong sense of identity as a business it can be easy to find yourself doing things that compromise your integrity, which will be damaging for your business in the long run. Your values are the things that are important to you, and I promise you they will help to keep you happy in business every day.
At DoodleDirect we don’t pitch for our clients and we don’t do speculative work (i.e. samples produced without charge delivered to a client to compare to other providers in the hope they’ll choose you) — this approach was something I decided quite late on and has probably cost us revenue, but I wholeheartedly stand by this and I feel my business is in a much better place for it…I’ve certainly got things to say on this matter, so watch out for that blog in the near future!
The Lesson: Figure out what matters to you personally and as a business owner then stick to it, even if it means having to say “No”. Don’t let anyone or anything compromise your values, the moment you do it’s a slippery slope down.
5. Everything in your business is evolving — change is inevitable.
The world is moving faster than ever and in a few months, your business might well look quite different to what it looks like now, or what you envisaged it would look like when you started. Rapid digital advances, along with the underlying feeling of economic uncertainty means you need to keep on top of what’s happening in your industry, as well as paying attention to opportunities that may enhance or expand the business. Put simply, remember that what makes you money now might not be what makes you money tomorrow — be prepared to switch lanes.
The Lesson: Keep up or be left in the dust. Find ways to learn everything you can about your industry and where it’s heading so you can make the best decisions possible for your business. Stay nimble.
6. As the business grows, you can’t do it all on your own.
People have been telling me this for years, but naturally I’m a “do it yourself and know it’s done right” kinda person. When starting a business as a one (wo)man band you do get to wear all hats (from book-keeper to PR manager to packaging and shipping to customer services) as your funds are limited — and it’s easy to think you can continue doing things this way as you know how best to get it done. But life doesn’t work like that, and with us being mere mortals something has to give.
The Lesson: Delegation (or outsourcing) is difficult, but necessary if you want your business to grow. The business will deteriorate if you don’t have the right people in the right places at the right time. Sometimes you’re not the right person, even though it’s your business, and that’s okay. Find good people and let them do what they are good at! Bring on great people, that you enjoy working with, that share your values and above all, take your time, if you’re not sure, don’t make that hire!
7. No one knows what they’re doing.
No-one. Seriously. No-one.
From Fortune 500 CEO’s to freelancers padding around their living room in their jammies, and everything in between. Everyone is waking up every morning and putting a brave face on to tackle their challenges for the day, business-focused or otherwise. Often it feels like you’re the only one struggling to get this right, but actually, you’re in the majority. As an entrepreneur, there’s little in the way of stability/consistency, as soon as you fix one leak another pipe bursts — that’s just the way it is, at every level of business.
The Lesson: Accept that you’re always going to face challenges and you’re rarely going to know how to fix the problems straight off the bat. Take each day as it comes and tackle every issue as best you can, and know that everyone else is blagging this just like you are!
8. It can be lonely, this business malarkey
As an entrepreneur, you’re usually risking everything for a dream that no-one sees but you, that’s just how it works. Whilst you might have some support from family and friends, few people *truly* understand what you’re doing. It’s for this reason, that you will need to prioritise your daily activity so you can be as productive as possible and still enjoy time with family, friends, yourself! It sounds super clinical, but it’s the norm as an entrepreneur. You’ll constantly find yourself running on a time deficit, so make every single minute of your working day count.
The Lesson: Chin up lads and lasses, this is a solitary march and that’s okay. Plus, loneliness is subjective as you can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Devote any time you do have after family and business to the few who lift you up and value those connections. That’s where the real popularity is.
9. You’re going to lose motivation, and you’re going to want to quit.
Starting a business is exciting, the moment when you finally decide to take the plunge is exhilarating — but that feeling doesn’t last forever. Best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin refers to this as “The Dip” — it’s the period of time between starting something new and finally fulfilling the dream — and it’s drab…and long…and painful. It’s the time when you most want to give up, in fact, many people do give up at this point. But, The Dip isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s a little like “survival of the fittest”, and if you can indeed survive The Dip you’re sure to come out on top and way ahead of your competitors.
The Lesson: During The Dip, you’re going to open your eyes every morning and think “today is the day I quit” — it’s a very natural reaction to the stress and strain of this leg of the entrepreneurial journey. The trick is to just make it to the end of that day without quitting, then repeat. One step at a time, one day at a time, until you summit the mountain. My mum always used to say “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel…and it’s not an oncoming train”, and she was right. Keep on keepin’ on.
10. Invest more in yourself
You’re likely to put this at the bottom of your list of priorities but as a business owner, your biggest investment should actually be in yourself. Personal as well as professional growth will determine your quality of life now and in the future. You have to be firing on all cylinders and it’s very easy to forget that you are at the centre of this particular world.
The Lesson: Advance your education — the school of hard knocks counts. Make time to read — everything. Go to seminars and workshops, even if they’re awful you’ll learn something — probably along the lines of how not to do it. Get quality sleep — quantity is less important. Ask Questions. Listen to your gut and trust your intuition. Choose happy. Eat kale for quality nutrition…and gateaux to balance it out. Know your worth and be courageous. Exercise daily — even if that’s just walking around the block. Be the best version of you so you can run the best version of your business.
These are just some of the things I’d tell younger me before I began my own business — what’s the best piece of career advice you’d give younger you?
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