Celebrating 21 years - lessons learnt along the way
I can’t believe that it is 21 years since this business was started. What was originally a lifestyle choice around family life, all those years ago, turned into a full on portfolio career, with some memorable challenges along the way.
Such a milestone shouldn’t go without reflection and a degree of celebration. I have therefore taken the liberty of distilling down my key experiences and learning points along the way. You never know, this just might prove useful if you are also thinking of setting sail.
Without doubt, running my own business has been liberating, fun and has provided a real sense of accomplishment. However, it has also, at times, been somewhat daunting, requiring significant multi-tasking and adaptability.
Chart Your Course
‘Knowledge is power’. Sir Francis Bacon.
Don’t just sail off into the unknown. You have to establish your starting point, as well as having an idea of the direction that you wish to take. Your own early research can therefore help prevent a costly mistake, as well as determining your initial success. How much do you know about your product/service, the market you are going to operate in, what competition there will be? How can you be different? And is this something that your customers really want and need?
Even some initial investigation in a well-stocked business library, via the internet, reading media articles or talking to other businesses/customers out in the field, will provide context for your idea, before you decide to fully run with it. And don’t forget to take regular compass bearings along the way to ensure that you are still on course.
‘I have had the good fortune to witness numerous entrepreneurs at work over the years. Most have been thirsty to find out more about their marketplace and competitive environment. I’ve also seen people walk away from a particular risky adventure, or adapt their business model to best fit the market. Either way, they felt more informed and more confident as a result’.
‘Richard Branson is reported to have started his first business (a magazine) at 16, for the equivalent of £100 in those days. He proved that you don’t need lots of money to start out. In today’s connected world, the digital era has significantly reduced the cost of launching and selling products online’.
Find Your Sea-Legs
‘Once you make a decision, the Universe conspires to make it happen’. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Making the decision to embark upon your new business may be the hardest thing that you will ever do. It is likely that you will come up with umpteen excuses why you can’t do it and it may seem as though there is always something holding you back, when faced with the unknown. All understandable. However, I have seen many people feel as though a weight has actually been lifted from their shoulders when they eventually decide to go for it – after months of careful research and planning of course and also a measure of saving to tide them over. Some may run their new venture part-time before they decide to completely embrace it, in order to test the waters and to decide if this is really for them.
I really do believe that you start to see opportunities once you open your mind to other possibilities and that gathers momentum to drive you forward and succeed. Everyone’s attitude to risk varies and you have to find your own comfort zone.
‘Being in a marketing management role that I loved, within a multinational chemical company, I really had to do some serious cross-examination over the prospect of starting my own business. I wanted independence, absolute flexibility and the opportunity to focus on specific areas of work that I loved, but was also fearful of losing the comfort blanket which we have perhaps become accustomed to in corporate life. Everyone needs a catalyst to drive them on to do something they really long to do at heart, no matter how scary. With me, it was the requirement to blend work with family life, coupled with the desire to embark upon something completely different’.
Know The Ropes
‘The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work’. Vince Lombardi
It goes without saying that determination may not be enough. It’s also fair to say that most businesses will benefit in advance from having knowledge, skills and experience in their chosen product/service area. However, there are still examples of people starting out with just a broad business idea, perhaps with little idea of how to acquire the necessary skills. That must certainly make for an interesting journey, where the business and the person grow in tandem, but not for the faint-hearted.
Building trust with your target audience, whoever that is, by demonstrating your credentials, is essential and it is likely to ensure that you get recommended time and time again. Show your commitment by going the extra mile to offer a quality product/service and excellent customer service and continue to promote your track record, so that people are likely to want to do business with you. That also means asking for referrals from happy clients.
My motto for approaching new clients and keeping in touch with existing ones has always been ‘be persistent, but don’t be a pest’. Keeping in regular contact can actually result in you calling at exactly the right time, when that company needs you to provide a solution to a burning issue, or they might even have been badly let down by someone else.
‘I am a great believer in putting in the hours. My own experience is that it took time in the first couple of years to build trust and to nurture some vital relationships. That involved a lot of networking in different forums. However, it is really worth making that time. As it happens, I am still working with many of the same contacts with whom I started this journey and I really do consider them to be friends.’
Raise Your Flag
‘Products are made in a factory but brands are created in the mind’. Walter Landor
Having a clear identity for your product or service, as well as being consistent in your communication, is vital. I would even go as far as to say that having a real sense of your company values can act as a differentiator. People are more likely to do business with a brand that has proven itself to be reliable, but also one whose purpose they understand and can perhaps identify with. If they share similar values, it will encourage loyalty, but this still has to be earned on an ongoing basis. For many businesses, that may mean adding social value through CSR, or helping the planet, or it may be as simple as being prompt to respond to enquiries, fully considering all angles of a brief and perhaps challenging where required and, importantly, actively helping to solve problems as a true partner.
Identities do of course go way beyond graphics (although there are numerous examples of instantly recognisable symbols, from the Apple icon to the Nike tick and the Audi interlocking circles). Knowing what a brand stands for, its mission, is equally important. In the words of Simon Sinek, ‘People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it’.
‘Whilst I am not in the same league as the examples given, I still think it is important to be clear on your approach, whatever the size of your business. As a smaller scale example, my company name was adopted in 1998 and I recall wishing to develop a name which captured the essence of what I do… both ’freelance’ and a ‘marketeer’. It is simple, but it is also descriptive and memorable. Whilst the name has stayed the same, the visual presentation has had a refresh, in order to move with the times, as has the website (now on Gen 3). However my values have remained consistent throughout this time and I am delighted to have many loyal customers.’
Focus On Your Horizon
‘I'm not afraid of storms…I'm learning how to sail my ship.’ Louisa May Alcott
The journey may not always be easy and we may be occasionally blown off course, given external factors. However, it is those same challenges that enable us to refocus, to analyse what works and what doesn’t and perhaps to plot another course. This can therefore be a time to revisit what makes your business different, what can provide competitive advantage and where to concentrate your activities in the future. Whilst you might have to temporarily drop your anchor and take on fresh supplies, or develop your skills to navigate new waters, it really is about lifelong learning, in order to be able to adapt.
‘My business has experienced two major Recessions and uncertain political and economic times, not least with the sheer uncertainty of the current Brexit situation. Whilst there have undoubtedly been some interesting times, where I have seen some of my key sectors declining and others rising, this has also led to a period of adjustment. This has in fact spurred me on to seek out new markets, to develop other services and to make new contacts, both in UK and overseas. Challenge can therefore be truly refreshing for a business.'
Enjoy The Journey
‘Don’t forget to admire the view along the way.’ Anon.
Gen Z and Gen Y millennials are said to be more entrepreneurial, more confident in starting their own business and more willing to achieve a better work-life balance. That may augur well for a whole raft of innovative ideas and start-ups.
Running your own business can bring a great deal of enjoyment and a chance to control your own destiny (as well as avoiding that Monday morning feeling). It may also lead to opportunities to help others, who are just starting out, as a potential mentor. Being very hands on in your business however, which many smaller organisations simply have to be, may also mean that you need to take time to appreciate how far you have actually come, the challenges that you have faced along the way and the course that you have taken. By ensuring that you still enjoy what you are doing, you can remain enthusiastic about your business. And enthusiasm always sells.
‘And I have to say that I am fortunate to still very much enjoy what I am doing, 21 years on, and so very thankful to the people and businesses that I have met along the way, most of whom I am still in contact with today. A few have retired or moved on. So keep on forging relationships, ready for the next challenge, but always keep enjoying what you do.’
Since all businesses have their own specific requirements, this article should not be read as one to one business advice.