I remember the day well. July 14, 2009 — less than one year after I set up my first real business, I quit.
Nine months earlier, I’d set up my design and digital business by recruiting a developer and investing in some office space in the town’s new Digital Media Centre. In doing so, I was taking the small amount of savings that I’d been able to put aside during the last three-and-a-half years as a digital product consultant for the UK’s Ministry of Defence, National Health Service and others, and betting them on a service-based business that grew out of a hobby.
My reasons were both simplistic and somewhat clichéd, to say the least. I wanted to do work that I enjoyed doing, and in doing so, deliver design and web projects that delighted my customers. But after less than a year, before even the first set of accounts were close to being a reality, I’d had enough. Sure, I was able to work when I wanted. I didn’t have a boss telling me what to do and how to do it. I had a nice office and was proud to go there every morning. The problem wasn’t any of these standard entrepreneurial ideals. The problem was that I’d become disenchanted, after such a short amount of time, with what I had been sold on by the books and the success stories of the people I knew who had started their own businesses.
On July 14, 2009, I returned to the office after a two-week road-trip around Europe with some friends. That trip afforded me the time to really dig deep into exactly why I was feeling so low about such a young business. This was also the day that I gave the developer I’d hired his four weeks notice, handed the keys of the office back to the landlord and decided to wrap up the business as it was.
I had honest, open chats with my clients and told them exactly what I was doing, why I was doing it and how I was going to make sure their projects were either completed well or supported continually after the fact. Thankfully, they were all amiable to it and understood my reasoning. In fact, many of these clients continue to work with me today in the second agency that I formed later that same year, albeit with a very different structure.
You read that right. Later that same year, I formed another design and digital agency, this time with some co-founders and some very distinct differences based on the lessons I learned the first time around.
It is these lessons — that I believe cannot only be applied to any service-based business, but also to any entrepreneur’s life — that I’d like to share with you.
1. Being your own boss doesn’t quite work out, unless you force the point.
Despite theoretically being your own boss, what you actually find yourself doing is reporting to a range of people. You resolve to work when you want, but ultimately end up being accountable for your output, and sometimes your presence, to those who hold the purse strings.
As a service-based startup, this is particularly difficult as you often start with no clients. Those first clients become your sole focus, allowing you to deliver 150 percent every time and answer every call or email very quickly and in-depth.
As you grow and acquire more clients, it becomes increasingly difficult to give that client the same instant service they’ve become accustomed to, and with each new client comes the associated pressure of acquiring what amounts to a new boss — a new reporting line that must be fulfilled.
Back in 2009, there were only two of us. Since then, I’ve gone on to found businesses that employ teams of amazing people, have investors and that create products for end-users to take apart. Each of these parties is effectively a stakeholder in your business, and with each layer thereof, comes this added layer of accountability. The only way to manage this is to force the point — be ruthless.
The lesson is a simple, yet powerful, one that can be applied throughout your business life — You cannot simply go where the money is, whether that is a lifeline in the form of an investor or one of those early clients who wants a discount against the promise of lots more work to come down the line. We all have proverbial boss figures in our business life. Don’t set out to remove those, but afford yourself the luxury of working with those that you really can do great work with. This time, you get to choose your boss.
2. Long hours, the badge of honor.
I’ve read the same books as you. The inspirational tales of startup founders working for 48 hours solid to deliver a product on time. While inspiring and justified, there’s a real danger of simply working for the sake of working, especially as a new entrepreneur. You have been told it’s what you are supposed to do.
I have been in this scenario myself — working crazy hours in the pursuit of a deadline. But I have learned the difference between pounding a keyboard for hours and actually being effective in the business. Working long hours certainly isn’t a bad thing, if your output remains both high quality and consistent. But too often we lose sight of those measures and the hours become a badge of honor that we wear to the social occasions that we attend. Our stock answer to any query of how things are going turns into an explanation of how busy you are.
The lesson here is not that you need to push against working long hours or that you need to strive to be productive 24/7. The lesson is that finding a work-life balance that allows both sides of your life to take what it needs, when it needs it, is the only true way to maintain both clarity and sanity during the early days of your business.
3. “Value first, money second” is great. Until you have no money.
I am a big, big advocate of becoming valuable and providing solutions to an audience of people before trying to exploit them for the sake of sales. I truly believe that we must all earn the right to sell to our customers, either through amazing products that are fully justified or through selling services that genuinely improve the lives of our clients and customers.
As an early stage entrepreneur, where is that line? When do we begin to sell that which we give away so readily to provide value? Particularly in service-based businesses, there is a never-ending stream of customers who need a favor. In return, they offer you more work later.
Providing value and giving your saleable skills away are two entirely different things, and learning the distinction between the two can not only help you avoid early failure, but also give your business a solid foundation for years to come. Consider the point of not chasing the money from the first lesson. It’s very easy to believe that by doing favors for customers, you are buying goodwill that can be exchanged for contracts or remuneration later. Yet in doing so, what you are actually doing is building your business upon cracked foundations and compounding the problem. You are allowing people who become used to receiving favors from you to form your customer base, leaving yourself wide open to strong feelings of frustration as all of your hard work is often for naught.
Of course, we all must help people out from time to time; that is simply the way of the world. Yet we must also be seen to sell. We must be seen to run a business that is willing to help, but is also there to actually survive and thrive as a functioning, profitable company.
Be very clear on what delivering value looks like to you. And stick to that. Everything else is a product.
4. Say “yes” and then figure it out later.
I have always been a proponent of the Branson way of thinking. Actually, I didn’t come across this (paraphrased) quote until much later in my career, but looking at my path to being a founder, I had always approached scenarios with this kind of attitude. I’d very often take on projects knowing that personally, I couldn’t deliver them. But I also knew that my skills are in communication, ideation and the management of delivering projects and products, and not in building them completely myself. I always knew that I could pull a high quality team together to deliver a job well for a client. This attitude, without a doubt, will serve you well but if you aren’t cautious, it can also become burdensome and force you to lose focus on your own mission.
When you set up your first business it can be tough to stay true to the ideals, visions and brand or personal parameters that you set for yourself. Remember, went in business generally to do the kind of work that you want to do, for the people with whom you want to do it for.
Maintaining this “say yes, figure it out later” attitude with a cavalier approach will only serve to dilute your focus as you edge further and further away from your core goals, just to maintain healthy client relationships and deliver upon what you promised. In the early days, this feels fine. After all, it does bring cash into the bank. But it’s more of the wrong money, and when coupled with the long hours that you will likely have to work to deliver projects, this can easily result, at best, in a short path to frustration and, at worst, the realization that in 12 months time, you have inadvertently taken your business in a direction that feels all wrong. You didn’t sign up for this. What happened to the dream projects?
Falling into the yes trap will sap your time and cause you to experience the huge highs of cashflow thrills followed by the huge lows of having your attention forced into work that you simply don’t like.
The lesson is clear — an open mind breeds opportunity, so maintain a yes attitude, but do so with a strategic ilk and the confidence to say no to work that doesn’t fit your overall vision.
5. Define your own hustle.
The word hustle is a frustration, at times. The sentiment behind it — making things happen for yourself and your business, not taking no for an answer and simply grinding out the results you want to see — are admirable and vital to a successful operation. But just like many an entrepreneurial buzzword before it, “hustle” can leave you in a mess quickly, if not completely understood.
In your business, particularly your first business, it’s very easy to hustle and take actions that simply do not matter. In fact, it’s important to understand exactly what kind of category your actions fall into. I categorize all actions using a “Triple I” principle that I put together a few years ago to make sure personal effectiveness in my businesses is continually maintained.
The three “I”s are as follows:
It’s vital to understand and categorize every single thing that you do during your working day, slotting each task into one of the above categories. Each category holds an important role in your business.
Working backwards, integral tasks are those that keep your business ticking — invoicing, phone calls and emailing. Interesting tasks are those that keep you engaged and happy as a founder — reading, research or simply heading out to the gym at a time that traditionally isn’t allowed. Important tasks are the tasks that really move the needle. They are the tasks that really make the difference in your business — marketing, sales and customer retention work.
You must understand your own version of these tasks and ensure that your day is weighted accordingly, placing the important tasks during the part of the day where you are most effective, and the interesting tasks during the part of the day when you simply aren’t as productive.
Understanding is the mother of success.
To succeed at anything, you must first understand it. You and your business are no different. Each of the issues presented in the lessons above, in isolation, aren’t stoppers for you. They’re simply five things that, if not curbed, kept in check and continually measured, can come together to form a cloud of disenchantment and ultimately, unhappiness at your own company.
I learned that the hard way. You don’t have to.