9 lessons I have learned about running a business

Just over three years ago my job was made redundant. I was on maternity leave and got a call to go into the office. That there were redundancies wasn’t wholly unexpected, but I was shocked when I was taken into a room and warned I was about to hear my job no longer existed.

I was given the opportunity to apply for an alternative position, but with a baby and a toddler to look after it was time to face up to the fact that the career I had built over 15 years no longer worked for me. I loved being a journalist, it was all I had wanted to do since I was a teenager. There’s nothing like chasing a story and seeing it on the front page. But while the  world of newspapers was changing, so was mine. Breaking news doesn’t make way for the school run, and deadlines don’t shift because you’re trying to settle a child to sleep. It was time to go out and try something new.

Printing press rolling by Bank Phrom
It just so happened that the same week I had started a social media training course to keep my skills up to date while on maternity leave. It was a six month programme working with a business. Armed with a redundancy cheque and an online support network of women who had also gone through the course, I decided to take my chances in the world of self-employment. I launched my first business in January 2017.

What followed was probably a classic example of how not to run a business:

Spending money on software I didn’t really need – check!

Not charging enough to make ends meet each month – check!

Waiting around in the hope work might magically come my way – check!

Against the odds, I celebrated three years in business this week. To be honest, I didn’t really keep a note but Facebook resurfaced the post I wrote when I started.

I’ve learned a lot over the past 3 years, including that people a little further on than you can shortcut your learning process. In that spirit, here are 9 things I have learned from three years in business. This is the advice I wish I had taken when I started out. (Some people might have tried to tell me a few of these things and I wasn’t in the right place to listen, particularly in relation to the 4th one!)

1. Being busy isn’t good

When I started working for myself, I filled my days with busy tasks. I built a website, created accounts on every social media platform and spent several hours a week keeping them updated, I wrote articles, I read the latest updates on my industry, and I went networking. None of these things were bad things to do but I was pinging around as if I was in a pinball machine.

I had no time to take a longer view. I didn’t assess what activities were working well in terms of finding clients.

Being busy feels good. You must be doing well because you haven’t got any time to do anything else. But being busy stops you doing things which could have more impact. It also stops you having time to enjoy things outside of work. I still find myself working some evenings and weekends. One of my goals for this year is to stop that and only do activities which fit into my overall strategy.

A photo of someone logging on to Twitter on their phone

2. Don't panic

Whenever I have done something which I later regret, it’s usually because I’m in a panic. That expensive course which was absolutely going to teach me the ONE THING. I panicked. Spending money on promotional material despite not doing any market research. I panicked. Every time I panicked instead of listening to my intuition, I spent money or time on something that didn’t lead to clients.

Here’s the funny thing: over time I found that opportunities turned up. And they turned up because of the slow and steady actions I took. It might feel in the early days as if no-one sees you or knows what you do but that steady drip, drip, of small actions adds up. Decide where you are going to show up and focus on that. Most people lurk but that doesn’t mean they haven’t seen you, whether that’s online or at a face-to-face event.

3. Take action

It’s said that a goal without a plan is just a wish. I’ve just started reading Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and it begins with the story of Edwin C Barnes who wanted to become Thomas Edison’s business partner. Barnes didn’t just dream about ‘wouldn’t it be great if one day when I’ve done x, y, z, Edison noticed me?’. He got on a train and went to see Edison. When Edison said no, he worked for him and looked for opportunities to show the value he could bring to him. His dream became a reality.

He did it by taking action. The times when everything went quiet were when I didn’t act. I didn’t call. I didn’t go to events. I didn’t tell people how they can work with me. When I went to a conference or spoke in front of an audience, or created an event, I gained momentum.

Take the leap. The worst anyone can do is say no, and even then, it might not be forever, as Barnes found out. I wrote that line to remind myself to do this. Seth Godin says ‘start before you’re ready’. What you’re doing might not be perfect. Don’t put barriers in front of yourself and tell yourself you can’t do something ‘because x’. You can.

A photo of a lightbulb. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

4. Go to conferences and events

Online business is amazing isn’t it? I love being able to run a business from my living room. No commute, plenty of coffee, and I no longer have to trek over to Tesco for a sandwich at lunchtime.

I’m also an introvert and when I started out, all I did to market myself was social media. Now, don’t get me wrong, social media is great. It should be part of your business and it remains part of mine. But it’s easy to believe you’re busy and taking action while not building the relationships you need for your business.

Janet Murray refers to only doing online marketing and never approaching people directly as ‘spending too much time in the cold room’. If you have built up a thriving community of fans then yes, you’re going to generate business from your online activities. But when you’re just starting out it can take months, or even years to build up an engaged following who are interested in what you are doing and will cheerlead for you, or even better, buy from you.

Get out and go to events. Even better, go to conferences. I probably didn’t want to hear this when I started my business. Meeting people? Conversations with strangers? Yikes! But over the past 15 months I have been to quite a few conferences. I’ve met great people who also run their own business, who I can talk to about what that’s like. And those conversations have helped me get better at saying what I do and how it benefits my customers. I’ve also learned a whole load of useful things from speakers on the stage from sales techniques to improving my mindset.

I’ve also been able to watch those speakers. I’ve studied how they move around on stage, how they talk to people, and how they structure their talks then I’ve used that to improve my own presentations. Conferences have been the best investment I have made in my business so far.

Pick ones with speakers you really want to hear. You’ll immediately be in a room with people you have something in common with when you get talking over coffee.

Social media is valuable, it can help your business. But you don’t need to be the person doing it. Outsource it to an expert. Create time to do things you need to do.

5. Keep it simple

I can do all things – for all people. That’s how I started out. Any time someone suggested something new, I said yes. And then I added it to a very long list of offers on my website. I felt like I should be able to do every aspect of an agency which employed 10 people: all types of writing, all the social media platforms, I could do anything you might put under the heading of ‘comms’.

I didn’t know what my message was. No-one else did either! It’s easy to think you need several different offers and this for that kind of person and something else for someone who might be from another area. Keep it simple. Pick a thing. Tell everyone you do the thing. You’ll be known as the person who does that thing and people will talk to you about it. My thing is business storytelling

6. Other people don’t know what you’re trying to achieve with your business

I confess I copied this headline from a LinkedIn post Janine Coombes shared a few months ago. It is so true. There are various things I’ve done because somebody said I ‘should’. Or they thought there would be a market for it. Some of these have come from well-meaning people trying to help me out. Others have come from fab business people I followed when I didn’t really know what I was doing. They made a suggestion to a group or in an article and I blindly assumed this was something I must do.

Other people don’t know your business. They don’t know what makes your heart sing. And they don’t know what resources you have. One size does not fit all and it’s easy to be swayed by the glint of shiny things.

One of the quirks of my business is that it is designed around my children. I work three days a week, within school hours. I have limited time. If something takes a whole day to create for my business, it’s not appropriate for me to do that at the moment.

Keep things simple and take the right actions for you. That might mean doing things differently to others around you. It can feel scary but that’s ok.

7. Know your numbers

This one sounds ridiculously simple but I’ve nearly gone out of business a couple of times because I didn’t get a handle on cash flow. I would regularly take almost all the money I brought in to my business straight out again to live on. Despite working out what my rates should be, I still undercharged people. In my head I was earning one thing, in reality I was nowhere near. How much money do you need to earn to create the life you want? How much money does your business need to run? How much of a buffer do you want to create to get you through the moments when the rollercoaster plunges downwards? Or to take a new opportunity that comes your way? Be clear about how much revenue you need to generate, and set your prices accordingly.

8. Create savings pots

One of the best things I have done in my personal life is get a Monzo account. I created ‘pots’, separate accounts where I can save for Christmas, holidays, and anything else which can create an unexpected expense. It’s revolutionised how I handle my personal finances.

This year, I’m going to do the same thing for my business. When an annual membership is up for renewal, the payment will be ready. When I need to invest in a new piece of kit, I’ll know it’s budgeted for. It’s part of knowing my numbers, making sure my cash flow doesn’t run dry, and being able to grow my business. It will also stop me getting shiny object syndrome. If I want to invest in something, I can see if I can afford to lose the cost if it doesn’t bring me the value I expect. 

New business bank accounts like Starling and Tide enable you to create accounts where you can put money aside for a particular purpose, such as tax, marketing, or new office equipment.

Cash spilling out of a jar. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

9. Find business buddies who will move you forward

You need a support network. A circle of people who you can talk business with and can give you sound advice. Within that network you need at least one person who will act as an accountability buddy. You tell them what actions you are aiming to take over the next week or month and they do the same for you. Then you check in with each other with words of encouragement and helpful suggestions to get the work done.

Finding people to collaborate with and encourage has been one of the many joys of running my own business. By going to events and conferences, I’ve met other people who get this crazy world of business. Business is not the cut-throat world people portray it as. Most people I have met want to help and enjoy talking to other people about what’s worked for them – and steer you away from potential pitfalls.

Thank you to Lenka and Jemima who have been my business buddies since my first business was a few months old. 

A photo of Jemima Willcox (l), Lenka Koppova (c), and me.

I still have a lot to learn about running a business. Perhaps the most helpful thing I’ve realised over the past 3 years is that even people who have been in business 10, 20, or 40 years still encounter new situations. That feeling of being out of your comfort zone is part of doing it. 

What’s been your most helpful business lesson so far? Let me know in the comments.

Picture of Rachel Extance

Rachel Extance

Award-winning journalist and blogger. I help service-based business owners communicate who they are, what they do, and why. If you struggle to talk about yourself on your website or your content marketing, get in touch with me.

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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. The Story Cave Ltd disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.