Our fifth birthday is this year. That just blows my mind.
To some companies, that’s a blip in their history. To us, it’s a huge milestone. The reality is I didn’t plan on being a business owner. I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t want employees. I definitely didn’t want the liability of a long-term office lease. I’d be just fine working as a freelancer, thank you very much. Or so I told myself. But the Nashville market was hot, I had to grow to avoid turning down projects and here we are almost five years later. When I first started out, numerous people told me that if I could make it five years, apparently my chances for long-term success increased exponentially.
It’s been full of extreme highs, the lowest of lows and everything in between. I’ve cried (a lot), I’ve laughed (even more) and I’ve learned more about myself these past five years than in the previous 29. And while it is difficult to pinpoint just a handful of lessons – because, quite frankly, I make a lot of mistakes and each one provides learning opportunities and a greater self-awareness – here are the ones I’d offer to aspiring business owners.
Surround yourself with people who get it. Other business owners have been critical to my sanity. Not everyone knows the pressure of making payroll or trying to figure out the right thing to do versus the affordable thing to do when it comes to employee health care benefits or how the heck to try and take a maternity leave and still run a company. Those are the people you want in your corner. There are organizations for business of all levels. I participated in the EO Catalyst program early on and still meet monthly with some of the other business owners from that group. Depending on the day, the people in my forum are my sounding board, my cheerleaders, my reality check or sometimes my happy hour buddies. It’s been inspiring to watch their businesses take off. As my company has grown, I’ve also joined the Women Presidents Organization, where I’m able to tap into the advice and expertise of a group of truly amazing women running multi-million dollar businesses. Find a group and plug in. You will inevitably hit tough times as a business owner and I firmly believe the support of others who have been there can be the difference between fighting through and coming out stronger on the other side or giving up.
Hire people smarter than yourself. Being a lifelong learner is critical to running a successful business. I want to be surrounded by people with skills and natural abilities that I might not have. If I’m the smartest person in the room, who will I learn from? Set your ego aside, figure out your weak spots and hire people who can make you better. This is especially important in my business. I’m not selling widgets. I’m selling our time and expertise. I personally only have a finite amount of hours, so I need really smart people to a.) do the things I am not good at so I can spend my time working on the things I can do well and b.) handle projects and clients that I am not involved in, increasing our capacity for additional revenue.
Reward success. The job’s not done once you hire those smart people. You need to make them stay. The top talent could walk out today and get other jobs, especially in a strong market. Pay people what they are worth. Teach your team that compensation is directly tied to the value they bring to the company and then reward them for growth. In my experience, being generous with profit sharing has only caused our revenue to grow.
Know your ideal client – and the value that you bring. Early on, I thought we had to be the perfect fit for every client and we had to win every single account. We had to recognize that not every client is going to be a great fit. Until we learned that, we weren’t able to do really great work for those who were a good fit. By working with just anyone who knocks on the door and not paying attention to red flags, you aren’t setting yourself up for success.
Sometimes you just need a donkey. Or puppies. Or tacos. Or whatever it is that lightens the mood and reminds you not to take yourself too seriously. Life gets busy, work gets stressful and even the most functional team can wear on each other’s nerves. Have fun. While the resulting visit from the landlord was slightly awkward, one of my all-time favorite days was sneaking a live donkey into our office to film an invitation to our Cinco de Mayo party.
It’s funny – while I never wanted to be a business owner (let someone else sign the rent checks!), after five years I can’t imagine having it any other way. I’m most grateful to my family and friends for their constant grace as I try to balance mom life and work life, my team for showing up every day and making me look awesome (even after that one time I was in Hawaii and forgot to run payroll) and my tribe of other business owners for their support.
Oh, and we’re obviously going to have a party. Stay tuned.