Are you thinking about starting a business? Are you a business owner? Do you work for someone else and thinking about business? Either way, these lessons may be beneficial for you. I’ve spent almost two decades in a corporate career. I’ve spent the last 10 years running businesses. Now I take you behind the scenes, as I deep dive into some learnings I’ve gained that span all business types.
Lesson one: If you have an idea or a passion/hobby that you want to take to the next level, start and momentum will guide you.
10 years ago, I had a simple idea. To start a business. So that I could become my own boss and take control of who I worked with and what I worked on. I didn’t have much direction or a clear vision at the time. All I knew was that I enjoyed project work, event planning, and felt that I was good at problem-solving.
I decided to start a business. I had to start somewhere. This might sound like a bad idea to some. The truth is that I had to start somewhere. You can never be fully prepared for starting your own business! Looking back, it was all trial-and-error, but it was exactly what I needed, I started.
Starting a business usually involves, completing market research. Identify your value proposition. Or creating a business model canvas. The first thing I did was to have a website created. Definitely not the most useful first step. Creating my website was very important to help me visualise my business. Besides I was working with a student who offered to do it for free! As a first-time business owner, everything is about bootstrapping!
I didn’t expect to have all the answers (and I did not). Though what I did do is use a key Agile principle: incremental and iterative innovation. I was rolling out new changes to the business in an iterative way. This taught me that a humble start gathers small momentum. That guides you, and if you’re following your passion, you’ll be able to figure out what it is that you want to do.
When I first started in business 10 years ago to where I am today, my business has completely changed. My first business went nowhere fast. I had to evolve completely. So, lesson number one is to start and then let momentum guide you.
Lesson two: secure a mentor.
One of the first things I did beyond creating a website was securing a mentor. You have some great mentors and coaches out there. Yet, a saturated market also means it’s filled with people that can provide you genuine value. Others that cannot. This makes it challenging to find the right mentor.
One way to find a mentor is by looking at someone within your network that inspires you. Someone with a career path that excites you. You could look for government support such as small business mentoring services. This is useful when funds are low. I was very lucky. I found a fantastic mentor who has now been with me for the full 10 years of my entrepreneurship journey!
Securing a mentor is someone to bounce ideas off. It’s someone to help guide you as they have been in your shoes. I would not recommend choosing a mentor that hasn’t got proven results behind them. Don’t go with any mentor. Do your research and make sure you find the right one. So, lesson number two is securing a mentor that will see you through on your journey and help guide it in the right way.
Lesson three: do your research.
Doing your research is critical. If your business is to go anywhere, the most important skill is to listen to your customers. Then adjust/pivot your offerings. If you don’t have a product that the market needs, you won’t sell it. If you do not market it well, your solution may go nowhere! So, take the time to learn about marketing, sales, and the merging of the two in the modern age.
I started by taking lessons from corporate and helping small businesses. Knowing what I know now, small businesses can not afford big business consulting. They are not going to be able to afford the services of a consultant who has worked in big businesses. Thus, I had to nip this idea in the bud.
The world is your oyster and there’s plenty of information out there. I’ve learned a lot of what I know in business today from doing research. Researching, training, self-guided videos, and mentoring. So, number three is doing your research.
Lesson four: don’t use money as an excuse.
If you have a passion and an idea, don’t use not having money as an excuse. There is always a way around it. Whether you apply for government grants. Borrow money from family or friends. Or find a partner. As long as there is a market and your idea is scalable, the funding will come.
Further, always know your numbers. I was not very good at mathematics in high school, and I knew that one of my weakest points was numbers. That meant, if I wanted to be fiscally responsible, I had to learn. I had to take the time to develop a process, system, and team around me that support my numbers. Hired the right staff. I also track and manage my own project budgets. That way I can ensure that we are always delivering under budget for clients.
As a small business, every single dollar counts. Contrast this to corporate budgets and you’ll find that money’s spent like it’s running out of fashion!
So, lesson four is to know your numbers. Invest it wisely, and know exactly where every dollar is so you can build a scalable business.
Lesson five: hire well and hire for culture.
These days, everywhere you look. People are talking about culture, particularly with rising working-from-home trends. Before we can think about how to grow our team, we need to understand what the culture we desire actually is. Why? Because when you go to hire people, you hire people with two thinking hats on.
- HAT 1: …the what they will do.
- HAT 2: …the how they will do it.
You want your teams to understand what they need to do. The “what” is their roles and responsibilities and the expertise they bring to the table.
More importantly, is the “how” associated with your culture. What are the behaviors, mindset, and principles? What will your teams do to create the right culture? Do you expect it to be collaborative? Are you expecting them to bring in creativity? How do you make sure that when you bring new people, you are building a great culture from the start?
Creating a strong non-toxic culture is a difficult thing to do. I’ve seen this in large businesses. Where I’ve tried to unpack a negative culture. I’ve also been in many organisations where I have experienced bullying firsthand. What is scarier is that I didn’t find this surprising! This behavior was recurring in several teams and was thus ingrained into the culture. So, lesson five is that hiring for culture is a critical success factor in creating a strong business.
Lesson six: always be branding.
I have learned is that my personal brand is more important than the business brand of my business. Businesses come and go. You only get one reputation. The impression you give, your online presence is your brand.
Building credibility and trust are vital. What is more important is learning how to keep this gained credibility and trust. For example, you may be working in a corporate environment today but intend to start a business. This doesn’t mean that you neglect the relationships you have built. Many of your first customers may be past colleagues. Lesson six is learning to build long-term trust and credibility, it’s your brand.
Lesson seven: cherish every relationship and always be networking.
As a woman, I find some networking opportunities are more difficult than others. It is unlikely that I will take a group of male executives on a golfing outing, weekend away, or dinner. I do not feel comfortable doing so and with reason. I have found it to be challenging, unlike some of my male consulting counterparts. Networking and building strong relationships are key to growing your business. It may be the most important soft skill that anyone could learn.
Instead, I have attended many networking events. Organised coffees, lunches and took part in group gatherings. I have grown my networking circle. It includes mentors, colleagues, family, and friends. Respecting every relationship allowed me to build strong connections.
Have a tracking system or spreadsheet to remember all the people you’ve met along the way. Now I document information about people I meet. Their skills and experience, where we met, and how we could do something together. I wish I did this 10 years ago! Lesson seven is treating networking like your side hustle.
Lesson eight: say what you will do and do what you say.
It is no secret that keeping your promises builds trust and credibility. It’s important to make sure to maintain that trust. You are not only sticking to your word but also not burning bridges along the way.
During the last six months, I have been doing a lot of recruitment work for clients. One thing I have found striking is seeing how many candidates have been burning bridges. For example, I have seen several candidates apply for a job, sign a contract, and leave within weeks. The market is hot right now with more available work than applicants, but it will change. So, lesson eight is simple: keep your promises!
Lesson nine: partner, but make sure it’s a win-win relationship.
The more you grow, the more people want to partner with you. But you have to be careful. Unfortunately, in many instances, a partnership is not always a partnership. It’s sometimes about how your brand or business can help them achieve their goals. Or companies trying to convince you to sell their product/service to your network. All the effort for a percentage of sales. A lot of time it undervalues the effort required. This is not a partnership. This is a transactional relationship. It doesn’t benefit you equally. To me, a partnership is a win-win situation that meets both your goals and priorities. If your goals are not aligned, you’re not going to have a successful partnership.
Further, don’t believe everything you hear. During my career, I have heard so many false stories from people that do not deliver or mean what they say. Or prospective clients that promise you the world but end up ghosting you. So, don’t partner before you understand what partnership means.
More so, understand your value and worth. Even if you’re starting out. You may not have much leverage, do not let people take advantage of you. One way to make sure that the partnerships are of high quality is to create a partnership framework. A framework with criteria and questions that will get to the bottom of their motivations. So, lesson nine is that like you would qualify your sales, qualify your partnerships.
Lesson ten: stop and smell the roses.
Lesson ten is short and sweet. When you’re starting out, and even sometimes when you’ve been in business for a while, there is no one to pat you on the back. You have to do it for yourself. There is no one to give you applause if you secure a piece of work. There is no one there to champion and guide you to celebrate those achievements. So, you must remember to do them for yourself. Whichever way you celebrate, don’t let it fall on your priority list because you have other things to do. So, lesson ten is appreciating the work you do for yourself and others.