99 things I learned in the first year of business.

The first year of running your own business is a roller coaster of decisions, ideas, creative bursts, mistakes, networking, more mistakes, the endless back-and-forth of sales and yet more mistakes.

But, sitting in my office, looking back at the journey Lean Content has been on, I feel alright.

I’m not resting on my laurels. Next year I’m cracking on with another book, growing the business and hoping to add more value for my clients. But looking back, I’ve learned a huge amount. Time to share some of that with you good people.

*Disclaimer* this is stuff I’ve learned, from my own mistakes and experiences, when growing a small content marketing agency. If it doesn’t apply to your business, er… sorry.

I’ve sectioned it, so you can find the stuff that applies to you:

1 Business strategy2 Marketing3 Sales and 4 Finances. ?

There’s a list of referrals and further reading at the end, to get you going. ?


1. Business Strategy ?

  • Set a big, fat ambitious goal. Base it on whatever you like. I found revenue, target numbers of clients and projects a useful way to cement mine. Share it with someone, and write it down somewhere you’ll see it regularly.
  • Picture yourself in a years’ time. Imagine where you’re sitting, what you’re doing. What it looks, feels, even smells like. Human brains don’t know the difference between our imagination and a real event, so you’ll be more likely to get there if you start acting like you already made it. ?
  • Write a letter to yourself in a year. Say well done for the stuff you achieved, and the things you overcame. Like the point above, this does the fantastic job of convincing our (frequently negative-bias) brains that we’re capable of doing what we dream of.
  • Spend time thinking about why you do what you do. What gets you out of bed every morning? Why did you decide to set up this business. Write it on a bit of paper, and then hand it to a graphic designer. Get them to make you a nice poster, and whack it on the wall. This bit of advice kept me going on the grey days.
  • Think equally carefully about your skills, and tailor the business to exactly what it is that you’re best at. If you enjoy something, then pivot the value proposition to suit this. You want to be doing the stuff you enjoy as much as possible from now on.
  • Once you’ve got your ‘why’ and your ‘what’ sorted, then thinking about ‘how’ should be done equally carefully. Speak to your colleagues, competitors, people who scaled and sold, people who are starting out, experts, listen to podcasts, attend courses and find out exactly what other people did. Learn from their mistakes. Or in my case, make the same mistakes yourself, then learn all over again.
  • Find out about the Japanese principle of Ikigai – it’s all about building a life that suits your needs and the needs of the marketplace. It’s where I started. ?
  • Once you’ve worked out what you want to focus on, your inner ‘mission’, then you can start building a communityaround that. Get out and network for the first 3-6 months, and learn from those around you.
  • Talk about your business mission with everyone you meet and get feedback early on. You might need to adapt (or pivot) what you do in the first 3-6 months to suit the market needs.
  • Write everything down in a notebook, you’ll need it later. Richard Branson famously keeps a notepad record of everything, and he’s not done too badly.
  • Whether your business is service-based, like mine, or a product-based one, you’ll need to adapt a lot at the beginning. Use the feedback you gather to review your actions at the end of each month, and check in with your original mission. Do you need to adapt? Do you need to change?
  • Find your coach. Or in my case, coaches. Find people you check in regularly with about whatever you need support with. Whether it’s life stuff. Mentor stuff. Business strategy, processes, systems, leadership, whatever. Get help early doors, build a lasting relationship with someone you can work with long term. (Big ❤ to Robin Waite, here).
  • Some people might not like your business idea. Some might tell you it won’t work, you can’t do it or they don’t agree with your thinking. Ignore these people.
  • Don’t be afraid of doing things differently. If your spidey sense tells you something’s off, then listen to that feeling. You might have stumbled on a great new approach.
  • Think about the bits of your business that join up. How does sales intersect with marketing? How will your financial operations intersect with your revenue goals? How can these separate systems talk to each other, preferably via Zapier, so you don’t have to do anything.
  • Choose one afternoon per week to return to strategy and planning. Set this aside, and don’t compromise it. As a leader, it’s your job to think ahead and make new opportunities happen. Sinking in emails isn’t productivity.
  • Think about how you’ll operate your business. How will you on-board new customers? How exactly will you find new customers? How will you find prospects, and nurture them? What are your legal processes? How will your contracts work? How will your products or services be delivered, consistently each time? For every single aspect, write a guide. This might sound crazy if it’s just you, but you’ll need it later.
  • Speak to a legal adviser. Get help on being compliant on privacy and data. Plan ahead for any late payment issue processes. Have a clear HR policy.
  • Write a guide to who you are, what you do, and what you stand for. In the plainest possible English, condense down what your company does, is and wants into a document.
  • Plan 3, 6 and 12 month goals. Break down your big vision into bitesize chunks. Schedule time with yourself, to check you’re on track with this.
  • Work out a process to keep yourself productive. I use a single calendar (Google) and a single to-do list, based on the principles in ‘Getting Things Done.’ This means I rarely waste time on admin.
  • Listen to your early customers. Why did they choose to work with you? These words need to be incorporated into your planning. Find out as much as you can about what your customers see when they look at you, and include this in your brand, your marketing and your sales messaging.
  • Take a step back every week. Regardless of how much you have on, schedule time each week for reflection and relaxation.
  • I went and took pictures of butterflies, but do whatever floats your boat. ?
  • Find other leaders in your age / demographic / geographic area. You’ll need a support network of non-competitors at similar stages. Networking helps with this.







2. Marketing ?

  • Don’t try to market your business from every available online channel. This is a complete waste of your time and resources.
  • You also don’t have to follow the latest marketing trend, just because everyone else is.
  • Your customers hold the answers to the marketing you should be doing instead.
  • Find out your typical customer journey. How do new prospects find out about you? What’s their journey like? Build a marketing process based on this, not guesswork.
  • Social media is not the whole sales process, dummy. Just because you’re tweeting doesn’t mean your prospects will convert.
  • Come up with something your prospects want, that isn’t purchasing from you straight away. This means – think about a next step in the marketing process, after consideration, but before purchase. It might be a questionnaire. It might be an eBook download. It might be a podcast. It might be a free event. But there needs to be something to draw people’s interest, otherwise you’re tweeting into the dark, mate.
  • Plan your bloody content. Don’t you dare just try to do it ‘when you feel like it.’ Pffft.
  • Get help. Don’t try to do all the marketing yourself. You’re the leader, it is your job to do the thinking, but it’s not your job to do all the doing.
  • Do real life stuff to complement the online stuff. You can’t grow a business without something physical, tangible or in person.
  • Your brand identity isn’t going to come straight away. Give it time to breathe, and listen to what people like about your business. You’ll gradually get the picture of what works.
  • Don’t try to do everything all at once. Like strategy, you’re going to plan a half day a week to do marketing, and stick to it.
  • Don’t neglect word-of-mouth marketingDoubletree by Hilton built an entire business using warm cookies, because that’s what got people talking. Think about why people will refer you to others, and amplify this
  • Add value. Offer real, genuine advice in your marketing.
  • Don’t sell directly. In Britain especially, you must go oblique if you want to sell to people. We offer people a book first.
  • Share other people’s successes.
  • Share other industry insights.
  • Share your wins, but also be open about what you struggled with. People like that.
  • Choose the relevant social media and choose how often to share. You don’t need to be ever-present. Your customers aren’t, so you don’t need to be either.
  • Work out a process for lead nurture. What happens when someone wants to find out more? What’s their next step? How do you get notified? What’s your next step? How long do you leave it before you get in touch again? Come up with a simple set of steps, and stick to it. Don’t badger people, but don’t expect sales to fall from the sky.
  • Get a CRM and keep track of how many leads it takes to get a sale. This data is vital for knowing how much you need to keep the wheels of marketing turning, in order to continually drive new business.
  • Join Twitter chats, webinars and watch YouTube videos in your niche. Share your expertise, and upskill yourself constantly. You don’t know everything.
  • Don’t bother with Google Ads. Sorry, but they’re a bloody rip off.
  • Don’t bother with the latest trendiest thing. A bit like fast fashion, it’s terrible and will soon go out of style. Keep it classic.
  • Be honest. Be open. Be humble. The world doesn’t need another Gary Vaynerchuck.





3. Sales ?

  • Sales is an art form. The psychology of how, when and why people buy is worth investigating. ?
  • How you sell is individual to you. It doesn’t have to be cheesy. Just because some idiot in a tight suit says you need to get up at 5am and crush it doesn’t mean that’s true. ?
  • Selling starts with respecting the time it takes your customers to decide to buy stuff. This is almost always treble than the amount of time you’d like.
  • Picking up the phone is never a bad idea, if you’re that way inclined. Nor is networking. Both require the skill of listening and not much else.
  • Listening is selling. ?
  • Read books on sales. There’s loads out there, I liked Alison Edgar’s brilliant book ‘The Secret of Successful Sales’ for the basic tips to get you started. I used ‘The Challenger Sale’ to fine tune my conversations and then worked through the Sandler books to develop a proper process.
  • Get a sales process. How do you sign up a new customer? What’s the process they get in touch, find out more, get an offer, have time to decide, then give their answer? What legal processes do you need to put in place? Could you standardise this?
  • Keep track of sales leads. Use that fancy CRM system I mentioned above to keep an eye on who you should be nudging, because it’s easy to lose track.
  • Attend sales training. Unless you’re a natural seller, go and learn from the experts. Follow a guy on LinkedIn called Benjamin Dennehy, for laughs and tips.
  • Qualify leads. This is a big one. If someone isn’t a good fit to work with, don’t waste your time. Work out your red flags, and pay attention to them early doors.
  • If someone says they don’t have budget, don’t work with them. ?
  • If someone says they need time to think, it’s usually a no. ?
  • If someone says they will come back in 6 months, it’s also a no. ?
  • If someone wants to reschedule meetings endlessly, that’s another no. ?
  • We’re terrible at saying we don’t want to work with people. Make it easy for your prospects to opt out at any stage. Literally tell them, ‘We don’t have to work together if it’s not right for you.‘ It takes the edge off, prevents 7-10 happening and makes everyone feel more at ease.
  • Give people space. Give people time. You won’t sell anything if you’re banging on the door. If someone doesn’t call you back, respect that.
  • Let your prospects make up their own minds. Provide case studies, sales brochures or other sales content to help them make educated decisions. You don’t need to repeatedly ‘check.’ Your prospects are grown-ups, and should be treated accordingly.




4. Finances ?

  • It is enormously, enormously important that you develop a process for getting regular income into your business. Develop standardised payment terms. Think ahead about incoming and outgoing money. Don’t leave it to chance.
  • But, do give yourself a 3 month cushion to start making a profit.
  • Get basic accounting software, and get to grips with it yourself. Lots of smug accountants will insist that you couldn’t possibly do it yourself without them on retainer. They’re wrong.
  • But don’t spend money on extra software unless you have to. Some companies make you feel that their stuff is ‘essential’ when it isn’t. Do your research. Most things in the first year can be done for free, with a little elbow grease.
  • Keep track of expenses, invoices, payments. This stuff isn’t boring, it’s the absolute lifeblood of your business. ?
  • Invoicing and collecting money can be done in a businesslike, robust way. Don’t be afraid to set and enforce fair terms. If someone doesn’t pay, use small claims court if you need to. Call accounts if you need to. But 99% of the time, people have just forgotten and just need a nudge.
  • Get a separate bank account for your business. This might sound like stating the obvious, but it took me ages to pluck up the courage to do it, and it’s made a huge difference to how I feel about money.
  • Don’t be frivolous. Spending money is easier than thinking. The world is full of people who want you to part company with cash for their ‘expert’ advice. Buy a book, read a blog and do the bloody work yourself. Running a business isn’t rocket science.
  • Think strategically about streams of revenue, in line with your customers budgets and your capabilities. Be realistic. Aim to create a decent value proposition that offers (wait for it!) *value* for everyone. But keep that revenue coming.
  • Keep a close eye on your profit and loss. No, this is not something you can mindlessly outsource to someone who isn’t in touch with your vision.
  • Invest wisely. Depending on your character, your marketing budget and your business, you’ll need to invest in yourself. I spent a lot on coaching and networking, because it was what I needed. You might feel differently. But do invest in yourself as you go along. It’s really important.
  • Charge what you’re worth. Charge what you’re worth. Charge what you’re worth. Anyone offering you with a ‘great opportunity’ but no budget, is not offering you anything at all.




Further reading:

Business Strategy ?

Read: Built to Sell because it’s everything you need to create a simple business architecture.

Talk to: Robin Waite because he knows his stuff.

Watch: Marie TV on Youtube she’s inspirational, practical and great for motivation.


Sales ?

Read: You can’t teach a kid to ride a bike in a seminar. The best book I ever read on sales.

Talk to: Benjamin Dennehy has his head screwed on. And so does Alison Edgarof course.

Follow: www.twitter.com/creativemindST because they’re fun and approachable.


Finances ?

Read: Moneybecause it is unbelievably detailed.

Go to: Stupid is the Norm for a blog packed with money-saving ideas.

Follow: www.twitter.com/Savvy_Woman for empowering guidance.


Marketing ?

Read: Lean Content Marketing

Talk to: us! Do a content marketing quiz, get a rating or book 30 minutes to talk about your marketing strategy with me.

Follow: www.twitter.com/leancontent_