My start-up journey | Starting from Scratch
I was extremely excited about my start-up journey. All the opportunities that laid ahead: meeting new people, helping businesses achieve their goals, coaching, mentoring business leaders, helping families in similar positions to myself (families with young children and especially those with children with special needs) and making some money along the way. I started my own consultancy four years ago with no clients. The journey so far has been exciting, encouraging and worthwhile though not entirely smooth as you might expect.
Building My Network
I was not new to networking as I was fortunate enough to have networked in my previous roles. At the beginning of my start-up journey, I still networked amongst like-minded professionals with similar experiences and backgrounds to myself. This was great for knowledge sharing and for encouragement but not necessarily for generating leads or winning new business. People were in similar boats; looking to expand their client base, looking for referrals and checking out the competition. I had to step out of my comfort zone! I had to start going to new networking opportunities – networking with potential clients: CEOs, Finance Directors, Accountants, Solicitors etc. I needed to make myself known. I had done all the initial stuff – built a website, business cards, perfected my elevator pitch (or so I thought) – ready for business.
I was new to most of the networking groups I started visiting trying to grow the business. I enjoyed the buzz that networking brings… talking about my business and my offering, finding potential clients, finding people to collaborate with, expanding my network… and oh, the all-important follow-up coffee meetings. I learnt very quickly that ‘let’s meet for coffee’ meant meeting for coffee with no pastries, sandwiches, biscuits or cakes! Ok… I can do that! I started to build a whole new network very quickly and to explore ways that we can work together or refer each other to our clients or potential clients.
Networking in the right environment with the right people is good for business and business growth as the people you are networking with maybe clients, potential clients or a powerful sales force. Learn to choose appropriate networks that will enhance your business potential and support your vision for your business.
No Man is an Island
Everyone needs support: whether you are starting off, you are experienced, expanding or winding down. I was fortunate to know some people I could talk to in confidence about my business ideas and direction and to ask for their advice. I also found myself acting in a similar capacity as a mentor and coach to others. How much do you rely on other people’s goodwill when you start your business? If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford the services of a business coach, then this probably is not much of an issue. However, if you have very limited or no budget, how do you go about building this all-important network of support that you need to be able to succeed?
I needed to be mindful of the fact that I could not rely too much on the generosity of others. I needed to be more independent. People could spare you an hour here and there but at the end of the day, they also have their lives to lead and their businesses to run. As a business owner, you need to be mindful of how much validation you need from others before pursuing your vision. You need to be able to believe in your vision and go for it. You also ought to be prudent enough to reflect on your path – what is going well? What’s not going so well? What do you need to change? You have to be prepared to be able to reinvent yourself (your business) if need be.
The Product or Service Offering
Clarity around your product or service offering helps define your product or service. It helps you understand how you are helping your customers solve their problems – your value proposition. You need to believe in your offering: your product or service, for others to believe in it and in you. You should be able to deliver on your promise. You should be able to make a difference. You should be memorable. In a crowded marketplace, your offering should stand out.
I get a lot of thrill from winning business and even more excited when working with clients and delivering on my promise to them. Client satisfaction is at the centre of what I do.
I felt as though I had lit a candle and hidden it under a bed. I still needed to put myself out there! Shout about my services, network more, find new clients, contact businesses, market on the internet, social media etc. I knew what I ought to do; yet still, business development and marketing were areas I needed to get better at. Personally, I do not like asking people for favours. I am always offering help and advice to people. ‘It’s not you, it’s business. You are not asking, you are providing a service. I knew that but for some reason, I still struggled to shout out about my services to businesses and people. I would pick up the phone when acting in the capacity as a volunteer for a charity and approach people and businesses but still dreaded doing that for my business. It was time to take positive action – Promote! Promote! Promote!
Referrals are a good way to get your business known. Referrals through your network, clients, friends and family. It is good to have a marketing plan to help promote your business. There are so many avenues to explore including social media, advertising, partnership etc. Work out what works for your business and use it to promote your business.
One of the interesting aspects of meeting the competition is that they are always ready to check you out! Are you a threat to their business? Are you after their customers? For me, competition came from all angles! I was not just focused on one area – I had expertise and experience in several areas that I could support businesses with. The challenge was not just getting the elevator pitch right but also to assure competitors that we could collaborate. I am a firm believer in collaboration but it is not always an easy sell.
In some networks, there is only one of each profession – one solicitor, one accountant, one HR consultant etc, but in most cases, you are up against other consultants or businesses providing similar services to yourself. How do you get yourself noticed? How do you stand out from the crowd?
Pricing can be challenging as it is almost impossible to know how much your competitors are charging or quoting for their work. For me, it is about knowing your worth and the value that you bring to your clients.
Your prices should reflect your level of expertise, knowledge, skills and the amount of effort required for you to prepare, research and deliver that piece of quality work or project to your client.
Pro Bono Work
At the start, I offered my services on a pro bono basis. This gave me some satisfaction as I was ‘still working’ and making a difference but it did not help with paying the bills. I still do and will continue to do charitable and voluntary work. You need to get the balance between paid and unpaid work right. You should be able to charge for your services. You need to work with a business model which enables you to do what you love.
It is important to ensure that you get paid for the work you do by your clients. The excitement of finally getting clients and working on paid projects meant that in some instances, I did the work but did not get paid for it. As a start-up, that can be very discouraging. It can knock your confidence back a great deal! It is essential that you do upfront due diligence to ensure that your clients will be able to pay you once you do the work; you need to invoice the clients on time and if necessary, know when to cut your losses.
How Well Is Your Business Doing
One of the questions I got asked a lot by everyone, both business and non-business associates was this: how is business? I always tried to tell it as it was. Oh, I am looking for more customers or not got much going on at present or thinking about taking on interim contracts or even looking at going back to work full time.
I asked the same question and most people’s responses baffled me. They were all doing well. Business was booming, they were very busy, they were doing much better than the year before… Was I the only one who was struggling to find customers? The only business that was not busy? The only one who did not have a great network where referrals flowed all the time?
There is ‘faking it till you make it’. But how far do you go? Do you just tell people business is great and if you say it often enough, it will be great? Maybe, no one wants to hear that you or your business is not doing so well. Maybe, people are just interested in success stories.
The journey has been fun but challenging. If I could go back in time, I would do it all over again but do certain things differently the second time around.
Here is to a successful future.