A few days ago, I shared that I am coming up on a decade of self employment and have been reflecting on lessons learned along the way. I wrote what I did wrong when I started my business. Now it’s time to highlight the positive.
What I did RIGHT when I started my business:
- I had a good designer make some professional looking business cards while the ink was still drying on my business license. It may seem like a trivial thing to spend money and time designing a nice logo and business card when first in business, but it actually made a big difference for me. My first client was Hewlett-Packard, and they were used to dealing with long-established and well-branded consultants. If I had whipped up a card myself using Microsoft Clip Art and my home printer, I would have looked like an amateur. Mind you, my only form of marketing was personal networking, so a nice business card was an essential tool.
Lesson: Brand matters. Know your target market and make sure your marketing materials reflect what they consider competence, authority and good taste.
- I surrounded myself with great mentors. There is no way that I would have gotten through some of my first assignments without the support and assistance of excellent and experienced mentors. I called them many times before a challenging sales call, meeting or conversation. They gave me excellent advice for ways to approach a problem, as well as the confidence to trust my own instincts. They also talked me down from the wall of despair if I got overwhelmed or frustrated. It is important to note that I also counseled and advised them in parts of their life and business that I had experience with. You must make this relationship reciprocal or else your mentor will get tired of just giving.
Lesson: Look at your current circle of friends, colleagues, managers and former professors. Who do you really respect and admire? Who do you know likes and supports you? Stay in close contact with them, offer help and support and share your plans with them. Those that are meant to be your mentors will fall into the role naturally. Then nurture them with all you’ve got.
- I cared about my clients’ life outside of work. I worked with most of my primary clients for months or years on some really intense projects. I made sure that while I delivered on my professional obligations, I also paid attention to their stress levels and personal concerns. I never pried for personal details, but many clients openly shared what was going on in their professional and personal lives. I was able to offer supportive, objective advice and encouragement. It never got too personal or inappropriate (some things you really shouldn’t know about your clients!), mostly they would share their frustrations about the job. I found that because I treated them as a whole person they felt relaxed and open around me and that made our work together much more fruitful.
Lesson: Do not get so focused on business that you forget someone has a life outside of work. Set clear boundaries so you know what you are comfortable talking about. Do not pry for personal information which is inappropriate, just show you care about their health and well-being.
- I turned away lots of business. For some reason, it has always been easy to turn away business that I knew was either not a good idea or was not the best fit for my skills or experience. There were times when my project load was a little lean and I could have used the extra money, but I still turned the projects down. This is because I have a near violent physical reaction to doing work that I don’t enjoy or believe in. One client thought I was insane to not jump on an opportunity to make hundreds of thousands more a year doing something I was not passionate about. I am glad I didn’t do it, as it would have taken too big of a personal toll. When you hold out for the right business, you tend to get it. (Note: this implies that you have a very good sales and marketing machine at work to make sure you have lots of opportunities. If you just sit back and reject everything without actively going after the work you do want, your accounts will be emptier than the unfortunate Enron retirees.)
Lesson: Be ruthless in defining the kind of people you want to work with and the kind of work you want to do. If anything seems inappropriate, unethical or is not a good fit, run screaming! Go after business you do want with a vengeance.
- I referred a lot of business to others and expected nothing in return. When I came across people I considered smart and effective, I sent lots of business their way. I did it because I knew that they would treat my friends and clients right and it made me feel good to contribute to their success. I never needed anything in return because I got loads of good karma referrals (sometimes from them, sometimes not). I think people are so skeptical these days that everyone wants something that they get a little nervous if you help them with no hidden agenda. Help to change their mind.
Lesson: Become a passionate advocate for those people and businesses you admire and who are doing good work. Trust me that you will get paid in whatever way you need by acting this way. And beware of the "I’ll do this for you IF you do this for me" kind of offers (in our age often in the form of link exchanges) since this is not a sincere referral. Do not EVER do that yourself, as it puts the person on the receiving end in a very awkward place.
- I chose extremely smart, fun and creative partners. I still get a big smile on my face when I think about the incredible fun I had working on some intense projects with a team of external partners. I made sure to choose people who had solid professional and personal ethics, were excellent at what they did, truly enjoyed their work and were not boring lumps on logs to work with. I think I laughed harder with some of my colleagues than I had with girlfriends in Junior High. This made work fun, challenging and invigorating.
Lesson: Be careful who you hire to work with you. Whether they are employees or contractors, make sure you get people who are going to get the job done and be a pleasure to work with.
- I always delivered what I said I would on time and on budget. I won’t say I didn’t pull some very late nights and cut things close, but I never disappointed a client by not following through on my commitment. I always showed up to my engagements early and was prepared to do my job professionally. And the times when I underestimated what it would take to complete a project, I didn’t go back to the client and ask for more money, I just sucked it up and applied the learning to the next project. (There were cases where the client expressly went outside the bounds of the agreed upon deliverables and asked for additional services in which case I did ask for more money.)
Lesson: Be careful how you estimate time lines and fees for your products and make sure you charge the right price. Once you commit to price and deliverables, keep your word.
- I chose work that I loved and was good at. Despite inevitable frustrations and headaches, I have adored most of the work that I have done. I felt passionate about the subject matter and really enjoyed the interactions I had with clients. Some of my best experiences were teaching a multiple-day class or leading an offsite meeting. I got so intensely jazzed when participants learned a new concept or broke through a difficult organizational conflict. I would leave such sessions floating on the ceiling, excited about my life and feeling good about what I had done. When the work started to become uninteresting and frustrating, I changed the focus of my business so that I stayed fresh and engaged.
Lesson: Make sure you do the personal reflection required to choose a business that really suits your passion and skills. Do not just jump on a market opportunity for the money, since that will burn you out very quickly.
- I was a voracious learner. I did my best to immerse myself in the business of my clients and learned as much as I could about it in order to better know how to help them. I learned more than I ever wanted to about switches and routers, garage doors, personal computers, financial services, real estate and insurance. This allowed me to speak the language of my customers and made them trust and respect my advice. I certainly didn’t pretend to know everything about their business, but I researched as much as I could.
Lesson: If you truly want to be of service to your target market, immerse yourself in their world. Read the publications they read, study their problems, memorize their website (OK, at least read the whole thing) take them to lunch and ask them about their business. When you take the time to learn about them, you are demonstrating that what they do is important.
- I never did anything that would embarrass my parents. I didn’t try to blindly shove a corporate initiative down anyone’s throat (that would really annoy my Dad). I didn’t speak disrespectfully or humiliate anyone in a public or private setting (that would devastate my Mom). I didn’t do projects that compromised my ethics (which would disappoint them both). I never got falling down drunk and danced on top of a table in Vegas after a celebratory dinner (I don’t drink and I never thought it was a good idea to get wild and funky with my clients. You would be amazed at how many other drunk people — employees and consultants — I have seen do wild things after hours!)
Lesson: All you have at the end of the day is your personal and professional reputation. People may poke at and criticize you and claim that you are not an ethical person. But all that really matters is what you know to be true in your heart. Don’t disappoint yourself by behaving badly, and if you do, recover as quickly as you can and do better next time.
I am really looking forward to the next decade of my business. Let’s make a date to connect in 2016 and I will tell you the new things I have learned.