10 Lessons About Starting a Business

Sometimes you find yourself with a well-thought-out plan with heaps of research to back it up. Other times you basically wing it. I’d like to say the former is how I decided to launch my own company but I’d be lying. While that might sound like something horrible to admit given the context of this blog entry, I am not actually suggesting that “hope” or “luck” take the place of a well-thought business plan. What I mean is that I think it’s more accurate to say that the idea of starting my own company was more of an “a-ha moment” than a 10-year plan. Once the commitment to the concept was made, I did go through a rigorous process of preparing and launching Grey Matter Marketing. Over the past six years, there have been bright spots and dark ones. That comes with the territory so you have to have the stomach for it, but the following are some lessons for starting a business that will help you get off on the right foot.

  1. Have a vision

    One of the most important aspects of running a successful business is to have a clear vision of “who” you want to be. What do you want to be known for in the marketplace? What kind of clients do you want to work with? What level of service do you want to provide? What core values do you have the highest regard for? By answering these and other similar type questions, you will gain insight into the direction you can, and should, take your business. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be passionate about it.

  2. Don’t do it alone

    Even if you’re starting out with one employee—yourself, it’s very helpful to find someone you trust and respect to help guide you in your planning and execution. I’ve been amazed by how generous people can be with their time and expertise. Look for someone who is objective and outside of your business you can rely on for nitty gritty business advice and to hold you accountable to getting results. Too often, we think we have to have all the answers and are the only people who can really get things done. An outsider can also be the voice of reason when we fall in love with our own ideas, which is dangerous.

  3. Get cash flowing ASAP

    Since cash flow is the lifeblood of business, you need to find ways to jump-start it immediately. How do you do that? Get customers first: try to line up some opportunities before you formally open your doors for business. Get creative with billing or payments. You can ask for deposits on work up-front, with balances due on delivery. You can have a 15-day term for payments. You can see if vendors will accept deferred payments with a slight “bonus” for their patience.

  4. Understand the legal and tax implications

    Ask an expert before you make the decision to launch your own business so you understand fully the steps, requirements, costs and timing. This is not a case where ignorance is a defense. It’s more complicated and expensive to fix a mess afterwards. So find out if your business needs to be registered, how you will handle payroll taxes, what type of legal structure best serves you, etc.

  5. Create boundaries

    I came from an intense corporate setting where I was routinely logging 60-75 hour weeks. While I loved what I was doing, I didn’t love my life, mainly because I didn’t have one. I live in arguably one of the most beautiful places in the US yet I didn’t get to see it, experience it, or enjoy it because there was always more work to be done. While I managed to keep that pace up for several years, I knew it was unsustainable and certainly not representative of the lifestyle I wanted. When I first launched my company, I had a home office and recognized the need to have a defined workday and try my best to adhere to that schedule. Every morning I get up and get dressed for the business day and aim to start my day at “the office” at 8 a.m. This means not sitting at my desk in my pajamas until noon, which would be comfortable but doesn’t feel authentic to me. In the same vein, I try to leave “the office” no later than 6 pm. Of course there are days when I’m eating dinner at my desk, where I’ve been parked for 12 hours, but those are the exceptions now. I also try to get out of the house daily whether it’s for a spin class or lunch. I need a change in scenery, I need to be around people, and I need a mental break.

  6. Act the part

    If you want to be a successful business executive, you need to act like one. That means having professional business cards, a business email address, and professional attire, to name just a few requirements. Your reputation as a professional will be built upon your best 1000 days or ruined with your 10 worst. So if you’re having a bad day, one where you might act rude or say something damaging, take a personal health day. Also, be punctual for calls and meetings. People’s time is valuable. Act like you respect theirs. Remember reputation is built on respect.

  7. Know who you are

    One of the most important aspects of running any type of business is to know whom your market is. You can’t be all things to all people (contrary to what some would like to believe). The clearer you are on what you offer and who you’re targeting, the easier it will be to focus your efforts on reaching those individuals and/or companies. A narrow focus is a good thing. Own that space. It’s also critical to know why you’re different than a competitor. If there is no distinction, why should someone choose you? Make sure they know what they’ll be missing if they don’t.

  8. Get your team on board

    Firstly, find (and keep!) great people. Without this you’re screwed. Secondly, make sure your team knows what’s going on and is aligned with your vision. It will be very difficult to achieve your long-term goals without this. Whether you’re dealing with new team members or veterans, everyone must be willing to be a part of the plan. When they are, you will have a much greater chance for success. Additionally, be open to ideas from your team. Not only do they have great ideas but it also makes them feel more vested in the business outcomes.

  9. Learn new math

    Over-estimate expenses and under-estimate revenue. Expect the timeline to close projects to be longer and conversion rates of new business to be lower. Being conservative in your numbers doesn’t mean you’re willing to accept those numbers, it just means you’re arming yourself with information you can work with and work over. It means you can gauge the kinds of efforts and activities you will need to put into sales and marketing to achieve the numbers you want.

  10. Business development comes with the job

    This is not rocket science. The less time you spend on new business development, the less money you generate. Finding time for business development is imperative for your company’s survival. You simply must set aside a certain number of hours each week to do this. Create a plan around targets and strategies to reach them and block out time in your schedule for new business development. But don’t confuse activity with achievement.

Armed with the right strategies up front, you can cut the time it will take you to successfully get to your ultimate destination—wherever that may be for you and your business.

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