This post is written in response to a question from a good friend. Not his exact question mind you, just my take on it.
The question? If I had to start my business again, what would I do differently?
My business first opened its doors in June of 2012. A little over two years later, with the business yielding a basic income, I made the decision to quit my full-time job as the Operations Manager in an engineering firm. I make it sound simple, it really wasn’t. In reality “inevitable” is more of the word I would use to describe the decision to resign from my well-paid job.
What made this decision easier? My business – empowering authors through creating and publishing eBooks on Amazon – had already been operational for more than two years before I quit my job. This buffer meant I had two things in my favour; a modicum of confidence in the business’s ability to generate an income, as well as money in the bank.
Since resigning all those years back, time has crept slowly by (as any new entrepreneur can attest to.) And so, almost 4 years down the line, I find myself behind the keyboard putting the finishing touches to this article. Let’s take an honest look at what I would do differently if I had to start this business again from scratch.
#1 Create, build and shape a vision for my business before finding customers
What I did
I accidentally started my business. Phrased differently, I had very little deliberate intention to start a successful publishing business. After initially discovering that authors needed help creating and publishing eBooks online, I built a simple Joomla website that advertised these self-publishing services (www.myebook.co.za). The marketing efforts consisted almost solely of ploughing money into Google AdWords to rank well within the search results. Surprisingly enough, customers then started – cautiously – walking through the door.
Was I ready for the business to gain momentum? Not really.
Without an inspiring vision to get me out of bed each morning, the business eventually started to stagnate. I found myself feeling drained by long days spent behind a keyboard. Where was the excitement that should be felt when building a new business? The business, like any newborn child, consumed enormous quantities of my time and before long also began eating into my savings.
During these trying times I was painfully aware of the lack of a guiding vision. I needed a plan bigger than simply monitoring the inbox.
Keywords of Feeling
- Feeling lost.
- Uninspired and demotivated.
What I should have done
Running a business is something that should be done deliberately. Each decision taken should be measured against an overall vision. This vision – or dream – is what will keep you warm on those lonely nights when money is tight and customers seem as angry as hell. This is almost always why starting a business for the wrong reasons will haunt you.
Key questions to shape your vision
If no-one or nothing could stop you, what would you build?
To further test and refine your business idea, lets borrow a concept from the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. Jim referred to something called the Hedgehog Concept. This concept was essentially a litmus test helping businesses better understand whether or not to proceed in a new venture.
The Hedgehog Concept
- What do you have a passion for?
- What could you be the best in the world at? (be brutally honest with yourself here)
- Can this venture truly be profitable?
Recommended reads for those looking to uncover their Hedgehog Concept
- War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action by Simon Sinek
#2 Plan, Plan, Plan
What I did
Once the excitement of starting my business had died down and the memory of pats on the back from friends and family had faded. The lack of a clear plan to anchor me caused the goal posts – set each day -to drift. The new plan? Get through as many customer-emails as possible. When the business was still in infancy this could be done with a bit of time to spare for the more fun things. (Skyrim!) As you can guess however, once the business started attracting more interest this meant my day was increasingly dedicated to working, with little to no time left for the fun stuff.
See where this was headed?
As months flew by the business started wearing me out. The stress caused by allowing customers to dictate my day meant that I became less effective at the simple things. Customer service suffered. I suffered. I was edging nearer to the precipice of burnout.
Depending on your personality, you handle stress differently. You might explode at something trivial one seemingly random day. You might decide to shut the business down, returning to employment. You might take to hiding, burying yourself underneath a collection of bad habits such as drinking, overeating or watching the Kardashians.
Me? I internalise stress. Strong, silent and frustrated. Cos that’s what guys are expected to do right? Come hell or high water I would always show up the next day at the office, staring slack-jawed at the monitor. Expecting my stoic presence to alter the reality that I was allowing my customers to plan my day.
I gradually become less and less effective within the business. Without a vision and without a plan to guide me I stumbled wearily through each new day. Enter the messy tangle of burnout. There is nothing attractive about the sickening and suffocating feeling that burnout inspires.
- Resenting not only the business but sometimes the very customers who helped me pay the bills.
What I should have done
I have always struggled when asked to visualise my idyllic future. When asked why they started a business, many new entrepreneurs would be tempted answer the proverbial “Million Dollars”. Unfortunately, as a South African this would mean more than 12 Million Rand – Our local currency. Beside our shitty currency, this answer – a bucket load of money – has never excited me.
Instead, I calculated a few simple numbers.
- What I would like to earn as a salary. Not just my salary but what I would like to pay those people working for me.
- I love travel. How much would two trips overseas cost me in total each year? (Note: These would be working holidays.)
- How much would it cost to have the office space I envisioned?
- What about the table tennis table in the foyer.
- Don’t forget about the perennially-flowing coffee fountain.
Once I had the list of actual “stuff” I would need to “Make business fun again” I could then work backwards. Adding the various amounts required for each item I could then deconstruct the additional income required per month to realise my overall vision. This total was then divided into the average profit earned from each customer.
The result? I knew that I needed at least 6 additional customers each month in order to give the business the overhaul it needed. More importantly, this additional income would also enable me to enjoy the quality of life that I needed. With this monthly target in mind I could now plan a few longer terms goals that would need to be met in order for my business to find those 6 new customers.
These improvements included things like;
- An overhaul of our dusty website to better reflect our brand.
- Fixing systems within my business that were required too much manual intervention.
- An aggressive marketing drive to reach deeper into our market.
Having trouble reaching your targets?
- Don’t stop once you have the long-term vision and goals. Divide the large goals into smaller and more reachable targets per month, per week and per day.
- Stick to these daily-tasks religiously. Life will try and distract you.
- Hold daily and weekly review sessions to gauge your success or lack thereof. If you get distracted, don’t give-up. Rather plan for how to accommodate these distractions better in the future.
- Find an accountability-buddy to help you stick to your goals.
Simple hacks to achieving your goals
- Do not go to bed before you have written – by hand – the main goals for the following day. Keep this list short, ideally less than 5 items.
- To help you keep track of your targets, consider using a platform such as Trello to flesh out the steps needed to reach each goal.
Recommended read for those who looking to master the small business model
# 3 Partnership
What I did
My business idea was born in my study late one evening. It took 2 years for the business to leave that study.
Whilst the idea for the business was busy incubating within me, it felt so delicate, so fragile, that I kept it away from those around me. I was loath to share the idea for the business with friends and family. Would they understand my reasons for wanting to start the business or would they just create more doubt?
“So how is your little book business thing going?”
This statement – asked innocently enough around a braai one afternoon – evoked two reactions; firstly, I wanted to punch my friend in the face. Fuck you. That little book business was my life. Secondly, it confirmed what I was already thinking – I needed different friends. Friends that I could share the journey of starting my new business with. My circle of friends at the time were all gainfully employed and as a result I really did not have someone close to me in whom I could share the fear I felt at the prospect of leaving what was a well-paying job.
This feeling of uncertainty meant that it would be years before I was confident enough to start allowing another person to be part of the business.
No entrepreneur is an island. Think you can truly create a global business on your own? Nope, that is called being a freelancer. Allowing others into your business is the only way to create an environment fun enough to excite you out of bed each morning. This is also the only way to objectively review decisions and ultimately build something bigger and better than you could ever built on your own.
The fine print? They must be the right people. The shitty part; you only learn this lesson after working with loads of the wrong people.
By the time others were allowed in, I had already been at the helm of the business for more than two years. Every inch of the business was being held together by the sheer force of my determination. As you can guess, I was juggling too many balls. Who needs a social life anyway right?
This meant that those people who I eventually hired to help me were not able to share in the excitement of growing a business alongside me. Instead they found themselves being barked at by a grumpy entrepreneur. This meant the doors of partnership was never fully open for others. I had some growing up to do before I was ready I was truly ready to partner.
The hilarious part of this self-imposed isolation is that I am a person who is powered by my connections to other people. This meant that I was a “people person” trying to build a business, alone. Ironic.
How it felt building a business alone?
Zero energy. Zero excitement. I felt most excited when I was sharing the business and it’s potential with partners I met in the later years.
What I should have done
The best memories in life are those shared with those around you. Business is no different. Choose who you decide to share your business idea with carefully. Pay attention when you find someone who gets as excited as you do. Can’t find someone who feels like a good fit? Start looking to meet new people travelling in the same circles as you want to.
I found the easiest way to meet interesting people already in business (or wanting to be) was by exploring the popular (and free) platform – MeetUp.com
Using Meetup I was able to regularly take part in exciting and inspiring conversations that stretched my cranial cavities. Through Meetup I have been challenged and been introduced to opposing points of views that I later embraced. I have met partners and mentors, simply by attending the right groups and asking the right questions. Sign up now and book that first Meetup.
You made it to the end!
I really hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you did, let me know via the comments at the bottom of the post. You might not know it but these comments are fuel to a blogger, inspiring us to start writing the next post 😊