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When I first launched my technology PR business in 1998, you could say I was an accidental entrepreneur. Having moved countries without a job, I decided to become self-employed and launched a consulting business from home.
Stats from the infographic below from Visa Business show I was the perfect candidate:
- 58% of new entrepreneurship activity is from the services industry
- 69% of businesses start from the home
- 72% of home-based businesses are operated by women
However, I also know that many businesses fail in the first five years. Having outlasted that milestone I wanted to share with you 15 crucial lessons I’ve learned about building a business – some I stumbled upon, some turned out to be lucky guesses and some were hard-earned lessons I’d like to save you from.
1. Find the best “door” to open for clients
Pick one thing and do it really well so that it makes it easier for people to refer clients to you. The best “door” to my services has always been helping a client get publicity. And yet my team and I have provided websites, created ads, blogs, logos, tradeshow booths, videos – work that could have gone to creative, branding and marketing specialists. When a client already knows, likes and trusts you, they want to keep working with you. But first you have to get them in the door.
2. Create a believable one-liner
Don’t make something up because you won’t be able to say it with real conviction. Instead, ask your clients for feedback. Someone recently told me: “that article you placed attracted an enormous amount of interest from people wanting to buy our product and invest in our company.” I can now use a real company story in my elevator speech like this: “I work with well-funded startups that need a publicity campaign to launch their product or attract new investors, for example…”
3. Only fall for rock star clients
It’s easy to say yes to anyone who will open their wallets to you. However, not every company that wants to work with you is right for you. Find your rock star clients that are a dream to work with, because working with that really exciting company that can’t pay will just lead to unpaid bills, hassle and heartache. Say no and trust that the right client does show up because when they do, that’s when work… doesn’t feel like work.
4. Court a blue-chip client
That first client is always the toughest, but it gets easier and more lucrative from there. When we wanted to enter a new niche a couple of years ago, we made concessions to win a blue-chip client. That client has since referred several companies our way, making all that effort and “loss leader” project more than worthwhile.
5. Make it easy to get raving testimonials
People are busy and won’t give you a testimonial if you don’t ask them! Make it easy by telling them exactly what you want: “Thanks so much John, it would really mean a lot to me if I could use what you said in your email below on my website,” or “Jessica, would you mind saying the same thing publicly on LinkedIn?” and then go a step further to make sure it happens.
6. You’ll need protection from the beginning
You don’t need to incorporate right away; you don’t need a lawyer on retainer, but at the very least, have a lawyer draft and review your contracts. Even the best of business relationships can go sour, and it’s good to have things in black and white for when they do. Only three times in 15 years have I had to dust off a contract to remind a client or contractor the terms we signed up for, but without a contract in place that would have been three times too many.
7. Keep up with technology
As the infographic below shows, freedom is one of the top reasons entrepreneurs start their business. These days you can easily start an online business with just two or three things: a laptop and/or smartphone and an internet connection. Everything else is accessible through technology. Whether it’s getting paid online, transferring documents, collaborating with peers or finding new business through social networks, if you keep up to date with major trends, you’ll see opportunities pop up everywhere.
8. Don’t obsess over competitors
There’s nothing we’ve done for clients that hasn’t been done before and yet we keep clients for years (we have two clients that have worked with us for 12 years). You can’t be everything to everyone and others will come in to pick up the pieces of the market that you are not addressing well. Don’t worry about it. Put your head down and focus on addressing your most profitable clients. Find a way to continue evolving your offer according to what your current and future clients will want.
9. Hire smarter than you
No matter how much experience you may have, there is always someone with higher-level skills in a particular area. Stay humble and realize that you will never know everything and rather than “faking it till you make it,” outsource what you don’t know to give your customer or client a better experience. They’ll keep coming back for more.
10. Work harder by thinking more and doing less
I’ve written blog posts in my head, or gained clarity on a problem while taking my kids for a walk or running on a treadmill. The benefits, as you can imagine, impact my health and happiness as well. Sitting at your desk all day is not a badge of honor to be proud of. Get up and take time to think. You’ll be amazed at how this can translate to a better and more productive workflow.
11. Surround yourself with cheerleaders
There are times you’ll want to throw in the towel so find a group of like-minded individuals and form a business “support” group. It could be a mastermind where you each have a unique specialty, or a group with complementary skills that can share the cost of expensive resources, or simply a group you can openly share your challenges and successes with. Don’t underestimate the power of having a group of people invested in your success (or calling you on your BS).
12. Always have options
If you have one big client that could make or break your business, you’re probably over-servicing them, or giving them what they want (versus what they need), because you’re afraid to lose them. Don’t get in a situation where you are so dependent on anything or anyone where you feel it’s your only opportunity. The best decisions you’ll make are when you feel you have options.
13. Accept that you will make mistakes
There’s nothing more gut-wrenching than having to admit to someone paying you that you’ve made a mistake. However, I can’t think of a single instance when things were so irreparable that it caused me to lose a client. Admit your mistake, give your customers a plan for how you will make it better and chances are everyone will move on. Forgive yourself quickly but learn the lesson.
14. The 20 hour rule
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” popularized the rule that the key to success in any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. That’s daunting for most of us. I prefer to embrace the 20 hour rule from Josh Kaufman – the toughest part of learning anything is adopting a mindset to learning and the first 20 hours. I know that in such a fast paced world, entrepreneurs have to learn practical knowledge and new skills all the time. You don’t need to be an expert; you just need to know enough to make a good decision.
15. Pick your business partner like you’d pick a spouse
I’m grateful that this is not only my 15th year in business, but also my 15th year of marriage. There are striking similarities in my relationship with my business partner and my husband. My business partner Elizabeth lives in another country, but in 15 years of business we have struggled together, challenged each other, celebrated successes and cried on each other’s shoulders. We wouldn’t be where we are without each other. So pick your business partner carefully and think about whether you would like to grow old with them and have them in your life forever. Because you’re heading towards a business and the relationships that will be around for the long term, right?
Elena is founder of a technology PR agency that works with startups to billion-dollar companies. She is passionate about helping marketers and small business owners with practical publicity strategies.
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