Five business lessons from five years in business

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Last week Scout celebrated five years in business.

While this may seem like a small milestone, it is a big one for me, as I’ve worked longer in my own business than any other business, and

“According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 60 percent of small businesses cease operating within the first three years of starting.”

Source: HuffPost Australia

I’m also a big believe in celebrating milestones, so recognised this occasion with some top five lists, including my Top Five Favourite Quotes, and Top Five Favourite Songs.

I am wrapping up my #ScoutFive celebrations with this list of the top five business lessons I have learned in five years of business.

Top five business lessons

1. Understand your legals and finances (and have a good accountant and finance/legal advisor)

Before starting Scout Digital Marketing, I had worked for about eight years for other graphic design and digital businesses. A core part of my roles was developing proposals and managing projects, so I had prior experience with terms and conditions, and practical experience with what can go wrong.

Initially I used this experience to coddle together my own terms and conditions, that evolved with further experiences.

I will admit that it was only two years ago I finally sought legal advice and employed a lawyer to develop comprehensive terms and conditions for me. While my lawyer used my existing terms and conditions as a base, he used his experience to fill in the blanks, and consider scenarios that I hadn’t!

Thankfully I haven’t had any horrible experiences either prior or since that have required calling on it, but I am now much more confident that it is there, and wish I had invested in it sooner.

While there are free terms and conditions templates, and other people’s examples available online, I do recommend investing in your own, to ensure all of your specific business scenarios are covered.

Unfortunately I have had a bad experience with financial advise though… and this is one area where I should have trusted my gut (bonus business lesson: trust your instincts) and moved on from them earlier.

Without going in to detail, my issues stemmed from my accountant telling me to not worry about certain things (that it turns out I should have) and them not putting important information in writing, rather delivering it to me verbally (and me not keeping accurate notes).

Everyone is different, but as a small business owner you have a lot to juggle. And a lot to learn in a lot of different areas.

Thankfully I was more persistent with my following accountant, continuing to question them until I understood every what/why/how/when/who and having them send me details via email so I could refer to them at later dates (because lets be honest, I am usually doing reconciliation etc at night or on the weekends).

Yes, finance and legal can be considerable business expenses, but I suggest (and can attest) that not having them can bet more expensive in the long run.

2. Get your systems sorted and review them regularly (but also let them do their thing, so you can do yours)

There will always be a a new tool, system or saas solution that can manage some part of your business for you. And they are incredibly valuable for improving productivity and results.

There will also always be someone to recommend that their tool/system/process is the best, and you HAVE to try it.

Trialling/testing/transferring/implementing systems takes time. And energy.

And YES they are valuable, but there has to be a point where you say: “this is working for me” and just get on with doing your work.

I used to feel pressured to try everything and chop and change, especially working in the digital space with so many digital solutions available. However I am now comfortable with the systems I use, and focus on making improvements within them rather than looking and new solutions.

I try to do a six monthly audit (December/January when quieter, and mid-year if possible) to question whether they are working as they should, if there are any I should change, and often if there are any I can drop (as all those subscriptions add up!)

And if someone recommends one to me, or mentions it in a group, I take a quick look, file for future reference, but keep my focus on doing the work.

I know some solo business owners who still very happily use spreadsheets to manage aspects of their business, and honestly, if it works for you, do it.

Software and systems are like a holy grail. But the most important considerations in business need to be: what makes me most productive AND profitable?

3. Know when to ask for advice, when to listen to others, and when to listen to yourself

In the early days (let’s be honest, my first two to three years of business), I was pretty desperate for everyone to tell me what to do, how to do it better etc.

I then noticed that even when I wasn’t asking, people were still volunteering their advice on what I should be doing.

It can be useful to seek advice, experience and insight from others. However the most important business skill I have learned is to listen to myself (as per above, trust your gut).

Everyone will always have an opinion.

They are not you.

They are not involved in your business.

They do not have to live with the consequences of your decisions and actions.

So do seek and take on board advice when required, but trust your own instincts, and own your actions and results.

4. Learn your niche

It’s a quote I love:

“Everyone is not your customer,” Seth Godin.

It is tempting to try and be everything to everyone, especially in the early days of business where you will take on anything because it means money, and money means survival.

However the problem with taking on anything, is that whatever that “thing” is, is what that customer associates you and your business with. And if that is wide and varied, it can mean a wide, varied, confusing and exhausting service offering.

I’ve done it all. Whatever people ask for, adjusting my services to suit, taking on too much, turning work away, and I am still struggling and learning from it.

But I continue to come back to the importance of having a dedicated service offering and/or audience, and communicating that clearly.

The continued evolution and growth of the digital marketing industry is making it very difficult to keep up to date with all of the new techniques and trends as well, which adds another challenge to remaining on top of your service offering, especially when it needs to service a wide audience.

A couple of useful approaches to determining niches are:

  1. Providing a very specific service/product to a wide audience
  2. Providing a wide variety of services/products to a small audience (e.g. focusing on a specific industry)

Read more: Finding your target audience (and finding the courage to stick to it)

It is also important to listen to the market as well, and adjust as required (without getting caught up in trying to be everything to everyone again), as after all, we are in business.

This is why my business is evolving into providing more small group training courses teaching digital skills, while still maintaining some hands on experience managing the digital marketing for some select clients.

If you can balance doing what people need/want/will pay for, with what you enjoy doing, you are in a good place.

As my dad always used to tell us:

“You can make some of the people happy some of the time, but you can’t make all of the people happy all of the time.”

5. Make time for your own ongoing research, professional development, relaxation and other interests

This final lesson is probably the hardest for me, but an important one I need to keep reminding myself of (including here).

As mentioned above, we are in business to make money, we make money by doing the work, so spending time on non-billable tasks can be challenging.

These are all investments though.

Investing in your own research, trends, professional development etc, all help to keep you, your business, and services/products the best they can be to ensure they attract clients and results.

Investing in your own wellbeing, relaxation, and non-work related tasks helps to keep you refreshed, energetic, enthusiastic and provides a balance that ensures you can still enjoy your “work”, without it taking over and making your exhausted, tired and bitter.

As much as they say:

Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life…

work can be exhausting.

Digital and social media in particular can be draining and lead to mental health concerns.

And simply owning and running a small business can affect our mental health, especially if there are financial issues.

I still struggle with this, but now, I try really hard to:

  1. Leave work at work, “clocking off” at the end of the day.
  2. Making time for my own physical and mental health and wellbeing, even when I think I am “too busy”.
  3. Enjoy other activities, especially non-computer related ones that use other physical and mental skills, like cooking, gardening, learning to crochet etc.

 

I am very proud of the five years that Scout has been in business, of all it has achieved, and grateful for my clients, suppliers and other people who have helped make it happen.

I have learned far more than these five business lessons, and will continue to learn more as I go.

“If you aren’t learning, you aren’t living,” Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

What business lessons have you learned? Let me know in the comments!

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