10 Things I Wish I Knew When Starting My Business
What advice would you give yourself way back when you were first starting your business?
This was the question recently asked of me when I was jamming out recording a podcast with Brit Kolo of Marketing in Yoga Pants. And it got me thinking.
I didn’t grow up knowing any entrepreneurs. I lived in the DC area, where most of my friends’ parents worked for the government and members of my own family had been in their positions for decades.
Even now, many of my friends are not entrepreneurs. To learn what I know has required a lot of self teaching and mastery. I’ve enrolled in online courses, bought all of the top-selling personal development books, and hired a coach to lead me through the unknowns.
When I started my first business—as a wedding planner—back in 2012, I knew nothing about running a self-sufficient business. I just knew I had the skills to help people.
Since then I’ve changed day jobs multiple times, gone part-time at work and part-time in my business, shifted back to a full-time job, closed my first business and started a second. Through all of this I’ve had some of the highest highs of my life and some of the lowest lows. I’ve questioned my worth and wondered if I would ever be profitable. And while I feel much more established now, the feelings of impatience, frustration, and want that I had (pretty much constantly) when I started my business have become old friends that show up at the least convenient times.
This post is as much for me as it is for you. In reminding myself about the important lessons I’ve learned along the way, I hope you’ll take away just one thing that will help you get past a barrier you’ve been facing in your own business.
These are the things I know now that I hope will help you where you are today—no matter if you’re just starting out or a seasoned entrepreneur.
1. PEOPLE CAN’T HIRE YOU IF THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DO.
The entire first two years of running my own business I led a double life. At work I was an international development program officer and during the evenings and weekends I was wedding planner extraordinaire. No one at my day job knew I had a side hustle and I made very sure that my brides didn’t think they were coming second to another job.
This effect rolled over into my personal life as well. My friends and family kind of knew what I was doing, but they certainly didn’t take it as seriously as working at Johns Hopkins. I often felt like they treated it as a silly little project I was doing to keep myself busy.
So I stayed quiet about my business to avoid blows to my ego. I didn’t promote my services through my network. I didn’t ask friends to refer their friends to me. And you know what was even worse than not having friends and family cheer me on? I was losing out on a lot of business.
Most entrepreneurs get their first clients from their friends, family, or colleagues. The people in your network already know, like, and trust you. And if you tell them you can help them, they’re probably going to believe you!
Bottom line: don’t be ashamed or scared to promote yourself. If you believe in your idea enough to start a business around it, your friends and family deserve to know about it. Marketing yourself and making sales doesn’t have to only happen the hard way.
2. BE OKAY WITH WHERE YOU ARE RIGHT NOW, WHILE ALSO SETTING THE INTENTION FOR WHERE YOU WANT TO BE IN THE FUTURE.
Patience: not one of my strong suits.
When I decide I want something to happen, I want it to happen now. The truth is building a business takes time. Don’t believe people that say they made a six-figure business in 6 months. It didn’t start and end that way in just that amount of time.
You can (and should) celebrate the wins you have at each stage and still be determined to make it bigger.
I’ve found that each time I’ve set a goal and reached it, I’ve set my next goal even higher. This incremental goal setting has taken me further than I ever could have imagined when I first started my business. If you’re only defining success as having a six- or seven-figure business you’re missing out.
Think about all of the things that are incredibly wonderful about where you are in business right now. Maybe you can manage everything without having to outsource, meaning all of the profit flows right back to you. Or maybe you do have a team and that means you can focus on doing all the things you love without spending time teaching other how to do.
Tease out what makes this time wonderful while also feeling good about wanting more.
3. HIRE OUT THE THINGS THAT DRAIN YOU.
I’m going to be honest here, I struggle with a lot of aspects of running a business. I don’t love bookkeeping, the word “funnel” makes my head spin, and translating all of my ideas to actual marketing content gives me anxiety.
The best decision I’ve made is hiring people to do the things I don’t enjoy doing.
Even though this has cost me money, it’s freed up my energy to be creative and do the things only I can do in my business. Don’t ever feel guilty about this. You’re no more of an entrepreneur if you hire out everything than if you hire out nothing. Your most valuable asset is time and the only way to make more of that is to get some help.
4. SETTING BOUNDARIES WILL PREVENT BURNOUT AND RESENTMENT.
I’ll never forget the feedback one of my clients gave me in her off-boarding survey a few years back. When asked what could be improved about the service she said:
The only other thing I want to mention is don't be afraid to use your out-of-office reply! I followed up on a few emails I sent when you were away and didn't realize you were still away. No hard feelings!
Yikes. My client was actually asking me to set better boundaries. She actually admitted that she was fine with it, but if she didn’t know I was away, she couldn’t set her own expectations for turnaround time. I’m sure at the time I was also annoyed that I had to take time away from vacation to work. But I didn’t actually have to! All I had to do was train myself to feel good about my on- and off-time.
Do this now.
5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO STAND OUT. IT’S WHAT WILL DRAW PEOPLE TO YOU.
When we venture into a new area of business the normal thing to do is compare ourselves to what others are doing. And while that’s important for getting a sense of the market for your product or service, it can also lead to a lot of self doubt.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge. She says:
“Figure out what makes you different from everybody else right now. There will always be 20 other people doing the exact same thing you do. Whatever it is, figure out what sets you apart and make that your core focus.”
It doesn’t matter if someone else offers the same thing you offer. It doesn’t matter if they’ve written a blog post on the same topic. No one has and can say it just like you.
6. STICKER SHOCK HAPPENS AT $10 AND $10,000.
We’ve all had those situations when we’re about to pitch something at a price we’ve never pitched. Or we have the client who we don’t think can afford our services but we really want to work with them. So at the last minute we lowball ourselves.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is to never make assumptions about a clients’ money situation.
You are the one that sets your price; don’t fear the reaction you’ll get when you share that with your prospects. When people don’t know what something costs—only that they want it—there will always be fear that they can’t afford it. So the initial reaction is almost always surprise.
This happens at almost every price point. And guess what? The reaction is typically not about the actual dollar and cents amount.
So feel confident in your pitches. Don’t back down at the last minute because you’re guessing how the prospective client will react. You’ll constantly be surprised.
7. YOU DON’T HAVE TO REINVENT THE WHEEL TO BE VALUABLE.
This may or may not relate to you, but as I’ve raised my price I’ve felt the pressure to have to sell something my clients can’t do themselves. To be valuable, I’ve thought, you have to do something your customer doesn’t know how or can’t do.
That story has made business infinitely more difficult for me because people don’t just buy what they can’t do.
People buy what they don’t have time to do. They buy when they don’t want to do something. And they buy when they know someone else is better at it than them.
If you hire a house cleaner it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to use a vacuum. Most likely you’d just rather not.
Don’t overcomplicate your sell. Instead get laser focused on how you can get a result for your customer that is better, faster, and less stressful than if they did it on their own.
8. UNDERSTAND THE VALUE YOU BRING, THROUGH YOUR CLIENTS’ EYES.
It’s hard to see your brand from your customers’ perspective. We’re too close to our business and process to truly see how we’re different than others. Even if we know we’re doing it better than our competitors, explaining to that tends to be a struggle.
You have to ask your customers for feedback. And I don’t just mean sending out a survey after you finish working with them.
When they give you a compliment or share an “aha” moment, don’t just thank them and move on. Pause and try to understand what’s behind their comments. Your goal is to map out how working with you has changed their life or business. What are the specific things that are beneficial to them? What are you helping them to achieve that they couldn’t do on their own?
When I started my first business, I was so focused on convincing people to hire me because I was the most economic option out there. I could have charged more if I better understood how I was solving their problems and making their lives easier, but I was too scared to ask.
Happy clients love talking about why they’re happy. Think of it as allowing your clients to reach others who are struggling with the same thing…and telling them how they can get it solved! It’s not just self-serving or self-promotional. So get over those negative thoughts now!
9. YOU CAN’T BE BUSY AND CREATIVE AT THE SAME TIME.
No matter how stretched for time you feel, you must force yourself to step away from your desk. I’d encourage you now to start recognizing what makes you feel energized when you’re facing burnout or exhaustion.
It may be meditation. It may be going to a coffee shop to be around others. It may be preparing a home-cooked meal.
For me, when I’m feeling drained I know I have to get outdoors and move. I take the dog out or just walk around the block. I know I have to physically move myself out of my office and away from the screen.
Every time, without fail, I feel less anxious and more calm when I do so. And this is the state when new ideas flow.
Find your thing and practice it. Then when you feel the well drying up, remind yourself of what you need to be doing rather than trying to push through.
10. WHAT BROUGHT YOU SUCCESS IN YOUR DAY JOB WON’T TRANSLATE TO SUCCESS AS AN ENTREPRENEUR.
Academia and nonprofit work conditioned me to believe that if I just worked harder I’d get better results. Working nights and weekends was celebrated. That made you a “team player” Talking about how stressed out I was made me feel part of the club. And never having enough time was a perfectly fine excuse.
But as an entrepreneur, this mental model isn’t what has brought me success. In fact, it’s been the biggest block between me and my goals.
Working yourself to the bone isn’t what clients want to see. They want to see that it can be easy. You are their model. Model it well.