My first year in business – lessons learned and mistakes made
I can’t believe that a year has already passed since formally (and nervously) registering my export and language consultancy HW Language Services with HMRC in November 2016. I don’t mind admitting that it has been a very steep learning curve; several mistakes have been made along the way including ordering the wrong Office 365 business software, purchasing several, expensive istock copyright images and deciding afterwards that the images were not quite right for the new website as well as changing the strapline on the new logo the day before the new website was launched.
I am, however, pleased to report that despite the mistakes I have also learnt many lessons and met very supportive and talented people along the way. In this blog I have decided to list the top 10 things that I have learnt which have had a very positive impact on my first year running my own business. For many of you, these may seem like very obvious rules to run a business by, but for me they have helped to shape this experience of setting up a business and creating a foundation and structure for a successful future.
- Seek expert support from outside the business – as a self-confessed control freak this was a challenge for me. After all, with almost 25 years of international sales and marketing experience under my belt surely running an export and foreign language consultancy would be “more of the same”, wouldn’t it? Er, no.
I sought out advice from specialists regarding the operational aspects of launching and hosting a corporate website, graphic design for the brand logo and business cards, a mentor to exchange ideas with. I also received financial advice concerning tax and national insurance for startup SMEs. Along the way I have learnt a lot about each of these specialist areas and going forward will still refer to specialists but maybe for fewer services as my confidence and capabilities grow.
- Networking – my entire career in international sales and marketing has involved networking and stakeholder engagement. I believe that anyone can network; the challenge is devoting time to those networks which will yield results ie not going to every AGM, awards dinner, women’s event to tell the world about your new business. Note to self, many networkers you encounter aren’t actually there because they want to be and a number of them won’t be actively listening to you either. For a small business in particular it is imperative to identify events where the costs of travel, tickets and accommodation, as well as my time, need to be justifiable – otherwise it’s just an expensive “free lunch”
- Don’t try to run before you can walk – export sales and marketing is a huge focus area across many industries and locations. There was, therefore, the temptation to target as many businesses and trade associations as possible and evangelise about the benefits of commissioning my company’s services to help them enter new overseas territories. On a more realistic note, I have found that it has been useful to focus on 2 or 3 key sectors and offer a very tailored, attentive approach which I am happy to say, for one client has yielded a 20% Germany turnover increase in 9 months. This has helped to build up company profile and reputation which in turn is helping me to win new clients. Happy Days.
- Be selective and insist on the best – an example of this was the design and delivery of the company logo and business cards. These separate elements are marketing messages to prospective clients and associates that create a perception of the business. When I received the first submissions of them I had nagging doubts and rejected them. Neither supplier was particularly pleased, as you might expect, but on reflection the follow up designs were perfect and I knew it was right to be so insistent. Don’t settle for “good enough”
- Go digital – whatever your view on digital technology; positive or negative; businesses can’t afford to ignore the cost-effectiveness of having an online presence. In the last year I have undertaken a lot of training regarding social media, website analytics, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, website blogging and e-newsletters. I am still honing the skill of effectively blending online and offline engagement and imagine that this will continue to evolve as new technologies come along. Surprisingly, I find it interesting to measure responses and identify media content preferences to help me plan future campaigns – I certainly wouldn’t have said that a year ago!
- Time to think – I have changed the way I work as a result of running my own business. I allocate myself time away from my phone and laptop and sit with a piece of paper (and sometimes a calculator) to organise my thoughts. Having a mentor has also really helped with this. When we meet we discuss ideas and I then refine these ideas into strategies and activity plans. When you are a full time employee thinking time is possibly judged as a bit of a skive, but I would highly recommend it to anyone brimming over with ideas and opportunities as a way to brainstorm with yourself and then also with others.
- Friends and family feedback – before the website was launched the business, especially for French, German and Russian language training, was promoted via a Facebook business page. This proved to be a really viable way to test-run ideas and communication. I regularly requested feedback from friends and family regarding brand identity, the website design and articles which they liked and shared to help raise the business profile. It was particularly helpful in finalising the website navigation and being able to interpret web statistics and insights. Use your network, in my experience they enjoy being asked and offer great ideas.
- Allocate time for business operational stuff – as well as my thinking time I also make sure that time is set aside for business stuff – keeping expenses and any HMRC returns up to date, prospective client meetings, analysis of marketing communications and market research. A year ago I thought that running my business would be predominantly delivering services to clients and working with associates. In actual fact it is much more varied than that requiring a really disciplined approach to keeping things on-track and ensuring that there will be a steady flow of projects in the pipeline and the tax man is happy.
- Trust your instincts – as soon as my business had an online presence I knew that there was an increased chance of receiving rogue enquiries. Sure enough, I have had a couple of enquiries for language training where the enquirer didn’t even request references just availability dates to start business French lessons and my bank details. This will be an ongoing challenge I imagine but one which I think all of us face daily.
- Be sure to enjoy it – I am really enjoying running my own business. That is not to say that I haven’t worked weekends and devoted time to building up the business, preparing marketing communications and following up leads, but I have learnt to reserve time for family, sports, relaxation and socialising otherwise I have sort of missed the whole point.