When I set out on the roller coaster that is running my own business in December last year I was determined not to be a statistic. I can’t remember the statistic (and for once, Google wasn’t that helpful) but a large proportion of small businesses apparently fail within their first year.
Now, I’m not one for jinxing things, but I’m just three short months away from that golden landmark for my business and (I’m crossing my fingers here) it looks like we’re going to be okay.
Perhaps I’m lucky that my business is effectively a service, so I don’t have large amounts of stock to buy and store, nor do I have expensive overheads like a flash office or a water cooler. But I’d also like to think that some of that success is down to my skills and my sheer hard work.
I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learnt so far and have come up with two lists – what you definitely need to run a business, and what you definitely don’t. I’m taking it for granted you have a viable business idea and have done some market research. After that, here’s what I reckon you’ll be in need of.
Things you need to run a business
- Grim determination. The grit-your-teeth-and-get-on-with-it kind. There will be times when this is all that will get you through, although hopefully it won’t always be that hard
- A smartphone. Having access to your emails is expected as a bare minimum these days. I’ve even sent high resolution images to a journalist off my phone because I have a Dropbox app which syncs to my laptop, meaning I had access to the client’s pictures even though I was out. Oh, and you’ll need it as a phone too!
- A website. Not necessarily the all-singing-all-dancing kind, but a professional-looking one that customers can use to reassure themselves you are legitimate as well as finding out more about you, what you offer and how to get in touch
- A network. Certainly when you’re selling services or anything business-to-business it pays to get out and meet people. You can do as much or as little networking as you want (or can afford!) and although online networking such as on Twitter is useful, nothing beats meeting people face to face and starting to build a relationship
- An office. You don’t have to rent one, it’s really just a space to work. I have a client who ran her successful online business from her kitchen table for more than two years and mine is the spare bedroom (I’m still coveting a sign that says, “Mummy’s office. Shhhhh!” for the door). You just need somewhere to keep your work-related stuff and a place to sit comfortably with your laptop. I’ve found it’s also nice to be able to literally leave work and not have any reminders lying around in the evenings. It helps me to switch off
- The support of those closest to you. This has been absolutely essential for me. From doing more than his share of making meals and housework and helping me brainstorm ideas, to picking me up when it feels like a slog, I really don’t think I’d have got this far without my husband’s unending support. And our parents have contributed too, with words of wisdom and occasional childcare that helps me make a meeting or meet a deadline
- Business cards. Despite knowing one MD who successfully got through his first six years in business without them, I do think these are a must-have. I don’t go anywhere without mine (I gave one to another mum from my daughter’s class and she referred some work to me) and neither does my husband. He also handed out the card that landed me a decent contract. Go for professional ones though. They don’t have to be expensive and leave a lasting impression
- Flexibility. I’ve discovered that I love to write almost more than I love to work with the media. So I’m going to do more of that. I’ve registered a new domain name to take advantage of my awards writing specialism and am talking more about copywriting when I’m out networking. It’s my business and what I do isn’t written in stone, so why not?
- Good advice. Make sure you have an accountant and a lawyer that you can both trust and afford. They need to have your interests at heart and you need to get on well with them. You never know when you might need them.
- An understanding of the difference between vanity and sanity. Otherwise known as turnover and profit. Knowing my numbers has never been more important, and as a words girl, that’s been a pretty big challenge.
Things you definitely don’t need to run a business
- A flash car. You might need a car to get to see clients (although I know some people who run their business successfully without one) but you don’t need a flash one. Think A to B, not Audi to BMW
- A rented office. There are so many options for places to hold meetings these days – coffee in a hotel, rent an office by the hour or just the local cafe. Having an office just so you can meet clients is probably an extravagance. If you have staff that’s another thing, but if it’s just you then you can probably manage without renting something permanently. If you feel you need a base, or some company, you could always try a hot-desking package where you buy so many hours office time a month and generally work in a room with others doing the same
- Tonnes of charisma or a “big” personality. Don’t feel under pressure to charm the socks off everyone you meet. You just have to be yourself and have a clear proposition that you can explain and be enthusiastic about. You don’t have to be the world’s best networker or even particularly outgoing. Plenty of shy, introverted or quiet people run their own successful businesses
- To talk negatively. Be that about a former client, competitor or someone you met. People will form an opinion of you and if you’re rubbishing someone else, it’s not likely to be a good one. Save your energy for positive things
- A collection of LinkedIn connections that you never use. If you use them, that’s a different matter, but there’s no shame in having a small group of connections that you regularly interact with. It’s much more effective than hundreds who barely remember where they met you
- To waste time on things you can easily and cheaply outsource. There’s a plethora of low-cost services out there from PAs who will manage your diary, mailing lists and travel arrangements to book keepers who will do you a monthly profit and loss. If things are taking up your valuable time, outsource them so you are free to concentrate on the stuff that earns you money
- An imposter. You know that voice in your head that occasionally pops up and says that you can’t do it? The technical term for this is an imposter and you don’t need to listen to it. You just need to identify that’s what it is and then put it back in its box
- 20,000 Twitter followers. You’re looking for relevance and engagement, not volume
- To live and breathe it. Although you’re a business owner, you’re also an individual. You need to ensure you take care of you – personally, socially, emotionally and physically – or you won’t be able to run your business
- All the latest gadgets. You need the basics – laptop or computer, mobile, a notepad, a nice pen – but you probably don’t need an iPad, GPS or any of the other technology we’re made to believe are must-haves for the successful professional
Don’t be afraid to change
In my last blog, Learning to walk before I can run I wrote about setting some targets for myself and the business. I have a target which is the number of new companies I want to have worked with, either on a project or retained basis. I set the target about six months ago and I’m currently one client away from meeting it. That gives me an enormous sense of achievement and now I want to push on and see how much I can beat it by.
Many of my other targets related directly to the PR side of my business. I also wrote about being asked to do more writing and now I’ve decided that this is the aspect I’d like to focus on most. After all, it’s my business, so I can make money whichever way I decide, it’s one of the perks. So I need to tweak those targets.
The ultimate one for me was to have something published in a magazine with my name on it. As a PR I write press releases for clients which often get published almost word-for-word but I’m never credited as the author. To write an article for a magazine and for the world to know I wrote it is a big dream.
I thought it would be a long way off, but I took a step closer recently. Earlier in the summer I started a personal blog about our family camping adventures. It was a just a bit of writing practise really. I figured I write blogs for clients all the time so I should be able to do one for myself. The bonus is, I’ve been really enjoying it and the blog was the final thing that prompted me to look for more writing work.
Then last week I was approached out of the blue by a magazine editor who wanted to print one of my blogs and asked if I’d pitch some feature ideas to him. I was blown away. It turns out he’d seen my blog on Twitter (oh, the power of social media) and had been following it. So a small step that I took to help me towards a new business model might just have helped me reach my ultimate goal. I’d better revise that one too then.
I plan to work pretty hard this next few months so that I can have some time with the family over Christmas. I’m still getting used to the idea that I can deliver a few big projects then ease off a little, so I’m going to make a concerted effort not to feel guilty about doing housework or, gasp, something for myself, while the children are at school.
And as the first anniversary of my business approaches on 1 December I’ll be doing some planning for next year and evaluating my progress against the goals I set.
I’d love to hear your suggestions about what you do and don’t need to run a business.
As I said at the start of this blog series, I’m by no means an expert, I’m just sharing what has worked for me and what I learn along the way.