After almost 20 years of “career” jobs, I finally ventured out on my own in the middle of 2006. I’d thought about such a move for many years, but did not feel ready – until late 2005, when it dawned on me that the ONLY way I was ever going to have a tailor-made opportunity to harness my strengths and run in my desires was to…well, tailor-make it myself. No-one else was going to do it for me – an employer’s agenda will always trump my ideals.
So, what are the lessons I’ve learned thus far? Here are 10:
1. Have a clear, yet flexible vision. Know what it is you are pursuing, make sure that you can articulate it to others…but be aware that the market may, as you start to promote what you’re doing, point you in some different directions. These variations on your dream may, in fact, be the most lucrative course. My initial business model – providing high-level consultative sales expertise for my provider network, while also providing fee-based consulting service for my client base – is meeting clear market needs. But I’ve already seen a couple of new, complementary avenues open up that are variations on the theme. I like to plan and anticipate and map out EVERYthing – these months have convinced me that I am not, in fact, in charge of the universe, and sometimes a new direction comes from an unexpected direction! Be ready to evolve. And when you brand yourself or your business, build in some flexibility, so that if your business changes, you don’t have to completely re-brand.
2. Act. This lesson flows from 1. above. If you have 80% of your offering/message/direction mapped out, grab it by the horns and get out there. The other 20% probably won’t show up until you’re rubbing shoulders with your target market, and starting to make noise. It is more important to show your face than to have everything in place. Once I knew I was going into business for myself, I drew up a list of everything that I figured had to be done, and just did it. Yes, I had to reprint my business cards a few months into it once my message was refined (and once I decided to add a landline and not just live off my cell #), and this past week, I’ve gone through a new round of re-branding. But by now I’ve already gotten the ball rolling. Cards are cheap. Delay is expensive.
3. Network. A lot. Believe that your professional colleagues want to see you succeed, and don’t hesitate to ask them to help. I send out a regular stream of e-mails and cards, and make lots of phone calls to those who will provide support and referrals – the most valuable business development resource of all. If you haven’t built up goodwill over the years, and don’t have a real or virtual Rolodex of cheerleaders, you’re probably sunk as far as succeeding in your own (or any) business. On the dark days – when nothing seems to be happening – I take comfort in the fact that I can rehearse the names and faces of many people who are actively wanting to see me succeed. Ultimately, when starting up, it’s Brand You. Show up and make connections!
4. Help others. Give of what you have – your time, your knowledge, your connections. When you help others with their needs, they will go to extraordinary lengths to help you. I’ve been able to help people make connections with others (including potential employers) and find needed resources with no financial return expected – but I fully expect that this commitment to help my clients and partners and other colleagues will not be in vain. For some of my partners, I’ve “given away” my business and marketing expertise to help them refine their approach – and I know that, in return, there is tremendous loyalty built up over time.
5. Take full advantage of cheap and free communications. One of my first acts was to launch a blog (using WordPress), and write articles of interest (granted, not everyone is a writer – I happen to thoroughly enjoy working with words). Then, very inexpensively, I began a weekly e-newsletter using Constant Contact (the “Friday Collection”) which goes out to my target audience with news, resources, and links – and, with continual repetition of my business identity. I invested the grand sum of $50.00 to have a “caricature” made of my face, which now appears on the newsletter and on all my e-mails. Each of these initiatives has been a tremendous success, with very little invested except some time and creativity. Free press releases, announcements in trade magazines, posts on other blogs – the methods for gaining exposure are legion, and increasingly, free. It doesn’t cost much anymore to effectively brand yourself and your business – esp. important for small companies, start-ups, and consultants.
6. Be an expert. You have to have some area of expertise for people to pay attention to your signal, over the level of background noise. Be sure that what you do, or offer, is narrow and specialized enough that you are not an also-ran. And demonstrate the trappings of expertise by writing articles, doing book and conference reviews, and interviewing thought-leaders – all tactics I’ve employed on my blogs. Read the Ries/Trout classic book on “Positioning” as you try to figure out your platform of expertise in the market.
7. Take great care in establishing your brand identity. Your logo, tagline, and message to the market are your best foot forward – unless people can quickly grasp who you are and what you do, and have something memorable to hang it all on, you’ll have trouble maintaining traction. It goes without saying – but I’ll say it anyway – that you’ll need to research available names according to URLs available on the internet, and also look into trademarks. It took me many weeks to settle on “Impactiviti” (and, later, “StickyFigure”), “clean” words, which I could essentially own. Be sure that you have a talented graphic designer help you create the logo – there are even on-line services for this now, which will help develop a logo for a fixed price.
8. Join. Be part of professional organizations, go to local meetings, volunteer your time. Be involved, and help get your clients involved. Consider professional networking platforms, such as LinkedIn. Starting a new business can be lonely – help stave off the danger of isolation-induced discouragement by getting side-by-side with others.
9. Target your best opportunities for initial business. It’s probably not the “world at large.” More likely, it is clients you already know and have worked with. While you want to get your message out to the broader marketplace, your first business is probably going to come from those with whom you have a track record. My wiring has always been to try to reach everyone – it’s a discipline for me to focus on a handful of my closest colleagues. But, of course, it is the people I’ve already cultivated over time that are most open to hear from me; both clients, and others who can provide referrals.
10. Don’t be afraid to be plain, transparent, and open. People respect authenticity. No, you cannot do everything – if someone asks you about something that is “to the side” of your sweet spot, as tempting as it might be to grasp at any business, simply admit that it’s not in your repertoire but see if you can find another resource. Ask people for help – I often have run ideas past a handful of my partners and clients, before they go “out” to the public, for input and critique – and have found great responsiveness as I allow them a transparent look into my thought processes.
11. And now, a bonus entry – be fully prepared to fail. Now, by this I don’t mean give in to pessimism, or be guilty of bad planning. It just may be that your business idea simply won’t fly – and that won’t be the end of the world. Count the cost up front, run a “worst-case scenario” exercise, and launch the business without desperation – there is a serenity that comes from having already considered the “what if” possibilities. I am quite convinced that other doors will open if this one closes, and it is easier to be patient when you’ve planned for the possibility (likelihood!) that revenue may not come as quickly as you’d like. The greater failure would be not trying – and many entrepreneurs did not hit the target the first time out.
And, finally, here’s a lively and helpful on-line video presentation by Guy Kawasaki (former evangelist for Apple, now a writer on entrepreneurship) on starting up a business. Guy’s blog is also a great resource. Recommended!