I’m preparing to talk to some aspiring entrepreneurs to share my journey. It’s challenging to figure out how to distill my 4+ year entrepreneurial journey into 75 minutes. Which lessons will be most important for these students to hear? Which of my stories will be most memorable? What can I share that will make a difference?
Here are a few of my key lessons:
Think to a future bigger than right now. I still remember the day I began to think of a business larger than just me. Sitting across from a friend at Starbucks, I felt a deep sense that the business I dreamed of building would include others. I believe that God prompted me to consider how my business could be a blessing for others, even before I had fully formed it. What motivates me most now and sustains me through the ups and downs is that my work is bigger than the set of services we deliver to clients; it’s about relationships and people and creating opportunities for them: for our authors, to reach wider audiences with their messages and for our team, to do meaningful work in a flexible way.
Your first ideas are probably not your best ideas. Building a business is discovery-driven. In 2011, I thought I would create some products about social media, sell them, and make money that way. I soon found that without an established business brand and reputation, I probably wouldn’t sell many information products. In early 2012, I thought I would form a solo business and consult with clients, sharing my ideas and strategies, possibly as a side gig to my steady job. What I discovered is that authors needed help implementing and executing strategy. As I served clients, I discovered what they needed/ wanted and created solutions to serve them.
Build your network before you need it. I entered the leadership blogging world in 2009 with no business agenda. I wanted to write and share great content. I wanted to learn from others and build relationships. Through my desire to learn and connect, I met a lot of amazing people. Many of them helped me find my way as a blogger and encouraged my journey. I had a chance to give, help, and promote others. By the time I started my business, I had formed strong connections; people knew me and wanted to help me succeed.
If it’s scary and lonely, you’re probably on the right track. This quote from Whitney Johnson has encouraged me on more than one occasion. Building a business can be both scary and lonely. Scary because building a business means getting comfortable with risk. Lonely because even if you have a team, no one can truly understand what your role as the founder requires.
Hire for character and values, not skills. I’ve hired some amazing people and I’ve hired some people who didn’t work out. While skills are important, and important to consider, a person’s fit with company culture is far more important. Take time to vett people very carefully before hiring them and invest time in figuring out what questions you can ask that will help you see how a person aligns to your company’s values. Early on, I outlined 6 core values for our organization. When I interview people, I ask questions related to the values. Also related to hiring: trust your intuition. If you have a nagging feeling about someone, pay attention to it!
Focused, consistent effort makes a difference. If I am successful, it’s because I work hard every day and create repeatable disciplines for myself and my team. I show up. I do the work. I show up again.
Setbacks are inevitable. Earlier this year, I got really concerned because we experienced a slow down. Rather than take it as a normal occurrence in the business, I let anxiety and worry creep in. We scaled back some expenses, regrouped, and rebounded. After several years in a row of growth, I had expected this to be our first down year. As we come to the end of the year, we’ll actually match or exceed last year’s revenue. Big lesson for me? Breathe. Ups and downs are normal.
Be ridiculously in charge. If something exists in your company, it’s because you created it or you allowed it. When I find myself frustrated with something in my company, I remember this lesson from Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries for Leaders. I started this company, and I lead my team. If something happens that I don’t like, I need to ask myself if I created the situation, or if I allowed it. If I created it, I can choose to shift and create something else. If I allowed it, I can set new boundaries and expectations for the future.
Invest in coaching and other professional guidance. Throughout the development of my business, I’ve had several coaches, both paid and unpaid, guiding and encouraging me in various areas. I’ve hired accountants to consult with me on pricing strategy and costing, and I’ve sought the advice of attorneys in structuring client and contractor agreements. Our attorneys also acquired trademarks for my businesses. These professionals have added expertise that I don’t have, helping me develop needed business acumen, often just in time.
Decide how to measure success. I am convinced that there are far more important measures than the bottom line: how much you give (money, but also encouragement, inspiration, and value), the people’s lives you make better, the opportunities you create, the joy you experience, the meaning you make. While I want to create a sustainable business that creates profit, I don’t desire profit only for the sake of profit, but also for the difference that profit can make for my family and the families of my team.