When I started my business 12 months ago, my head was spinning with excitement and anxiety.
I was excited, because my dream of my own company was coming true. The opportunities! The fun! The creativity! It all sounded like an adventure.
But I was worried too. Would it work out? Was I in over my head thinking I could pull off a business? Perhaps I would succeed if I had luck, or if I was brave like some people said I was.
12 months later it’s time for reflection.
It has been an adventure – that part I got right!
My company has attracted clients, projects and brought in a steady revenue. I think I can say my business has got off the ground!
But it wasn’t because of luck or being brave.
I want to share with you 6 lessons that I learned during my first year as an entrepreneur. I believe they helped my business take off.
While I get that all of my lessons may not work for everyone, and that’s totally fine, I hope I’d be able to encourage those of you thinking of taking the great entrepreneur plunge to jump in and also to help you get your new company flying high.
You definitely don’t need to wait for luck to strike or inner bravery to start a business and do well.
So let’s take a look at how your business could get off the ground.
1. Pick a niche
Whatever your business is selling – writing services, life coaching, digital innovations, you name it – odds are there are competitors selling the same things.
So how to stand out?
If a client has more than one alternative to choose from, they’ll pick the specialist.
Niche’s your area of specialty. You can choose your niche by industry, market, client problem, etc. Ideally your niche’s a combination of something you’re interested in, something you know about (or are willing to learn about) and something you know has well-paying clients. Niche helps you to start building your subject matter expertise and reputation. Not to mention that you’ll attract higher paying clients.
I chose my main niche to be medical device (industry), regulatory affairs (profession) and the new EU medical device regulation (market and client problem). I picked it, because I’m interested and experienced in the medical device regulatory stuff and I knew there were many industry players looking for external help because of the new regulation. It turned out to be a great choice, as I found lots of projects and clients with it during my first year as an entrepreneur.
My advice for you would be to take some time to think about what niche would suit you and your business. Are there for example any new developments, trends or market gaps in the areas that interest you, and could you tap into those?
2. Make a plan
As a budding entrepreneur you may be tempted to set the ball rolling on impulse.
Sure, I get that you need to seize opportunities if you want to get ahead. But when you’re first starting out, I recommend doing some planning before taking the big step.
Because a business plan helps you minimise risks. If you just start, how do you know, for example, where your company is headed, when is a good time to quit your day job and become a full-time entrepreneur, where do you get clients, or how much money you need for the first year?
In addition, if you want to apply for business funding, such as a start-up grant in Finland, you need to submit a business plan. The grant provides a small but steady income during the first year when money can be tight.
Drafting a business plan helped me to evaluate whether I was serious about my business owner dreams. Having a few trusted people go over it and give me feedback helped me to realise my strengths and weaknesses as an entrepreneur and iron out typical first-time small business owner pitfalls. Plus I was able to secure the first-year start-up grant which supported me while I got my company off the ground.
There is no need to go overboard with your plan. Try to see it as a chance to better understand what you’re doing and where you’re going, before it becomes costly to fix what you didn’t know.
3. Accept the administrative side
My biggest fear before launching my business was that will I be able to handle the administrative obligations that come with being an entrepreneur. I’m referring to business accounting, insurance, funding and finances, invoicing and taxes.
I’ll be the first to admit that there was a steep learning curve. Misunderstandings and new lessons every day, especially at the beginning. But you know, once I accepted that the red tape goes with the entrepreneur territory, and I dipped my toe in the water, it started to become more manageable.
I was able to focus more on running the business when I acknowledged that I won’t be an expert on all administrative things but I can learn about them, and that there are real experts who I can turn to and even outsource some things. I think it was one of the things that made it easier for the new company to take off.
So don’t let the bureaucracy intimidate you. Don’t make it an excuse that “I’m not fit to be an entrepreneur”. You can understand it – you will understand it. You don’t need to become a tax or accounting expert to run a business (rather, talk to the real experts who can help you). You’ll do fine with a general understanding.
4. Manage your money
Starting a business and running it are not free. There are lots of overhead and operating expenses that start running as soon as you start your company. The expenses depend on the type of company you have, whether you need for example to rent office space, have permit or license to do business, or even just have a membership of a business organisation to keep up your professional skills.
Take into account that it may take some time for you to get client work. Depending on the payment terms you’re using (and the client), it may also take time for you to get the money from your client to your bank account.
If you run out of funds, it can put a cold sweat on your forehead. No one wants their business to create debt.
So before starting out, while still having a full-time job, I’d recommend putting some money aside, if possible. If that’s not an option, apply for a business loan or a grant. You’ll need capital of some sort to help you pay the bills while your company gets its show on the road. I had some savings and a start-up grant during my first year. They were life-savers until client work picked up.
5. Pay attention to what works for you
Running a business can be all-consuming and even stressful at times. You need to know when to say “no” and when to say “yes”. If you give in too much to others or demand too much from yourself, you’ll burn yourself out. And that’s not good for your company.
I’d cast my vote to a healthy dose of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge means that you know who you are, what are your good and bad sides, how you like to work, what you need to feel comfortable, what are your boundaries, what stresses you and how much risk-taking you can handle. You see yourself honestly and with kindness.
When you have good self-knowledge, you can make sensible decisions about your company and ultimately about you too. You know when to call it a day. You know when it’s OK to continue powering through. You’re able to set boundaries that make you feel safe and comfortable.
Self-knowledge is just as important as technical and business skills to run a successful company.
Personally, listening to myself is what led me to start my own company. Getting my business off the ground – while having a peace of mind and my feet on the ground – was largely thanks to knowing what my strengths are and what works for me. And I know I’m not perfect and I know that I’ve limitations. The magic is knowing your way around them.
Think about what works for you, and try to build from there.
6. Take care of your well-being
This is pretty similar to what I talked about above, but it goes deeper.
You’re probably super excited about your new business and want to do everything you can to make it successful. Please remember not to exhaust yourself. Take breaks. Take even a holiday every once in a while. If you don’t, you’ll risk wearing yourself out and then who’s going to take care of your company?
Investing in your well-being will become your biggest return on investment. Trust me.
Whenever I’ve been stressing over something or it’s one of those days when nothing seems to go right, I always make sure I give myself a break. After a walk in fresh air or watching my favourite TV show, I’ve more energy and a clearer head to do my work better.
But to be honest, I’m only human. I could focus more on my well-being (goal for next year maybe?). Simple things like working late nights and weekends less, and working out more.
So I hope you take care of your health, my dear reader, and let yourself enjoy life outside work too!
Below is a photo that sums up one of my well-being highlights the past year. I re-started my old hobby – playing football – after a 30-year break (now you must think I’m like 60). But anyway, a retired footballer making a comeback put a smile on my face for the whole summer.
So how was your first year?
Well, those were some of the lessons I learned as a newbie entrepreneur that helped my business take off.
How about you, how was your first entrepreneur year? Or are you still thinking about whether running a business is for you? I want to hear about it, so leave a comment below. Also if you have any entrepreneur questions, feel free to contact me – I’m happy to give tips.
All the best to your business!