Celebrating one year in business: 5 more lessons from my start-up year

6th November 2016

One year on from leaving the corporate world and starting my own business as a B2B marketing consultant, I’ve been looking back, celebrating my accomplishments and reflecting on all I’ve discovered about myself as well as about starting a business. In my last blog, I wrote about the first 5 of 10 key lessons I’ve learned in my first year:

  1. Do what you love
  2. Have clarity of purpose
  3. Do the research
  4. Be pragmatic, have a plan
  5. Build relationships before you need them

In this blog, I look at my final 5 lessons.

Building a business: lessons 6-10 from my start-up year:

Grand-opening-2

  1. Never, ever drop your fees

This is the best piece of advice I received for my business, full stop.  It came from one of my mentors (lesson #10). They told me that you can discount your fees for volume work, a longer-term or on-going project, or other appropriate reasons, but absolutely make sure your customer understands you are discounting for this specific reason, for this specific project.

Because once you drop your fees, it is impossible to raise them again. And more importantly, if you’ve done your research and feel confident where you’ve priced yourself, you devalue both yourself and your work by pricing lower than your worth.

One of the joys of working for myself is that I get to work with those who really understand my worth and the value I bring. It’s really hard – especially in those critical first weeks and months when you’re trying to land your first customers – to turn down a job. But remember (lessons #1 and #2) why you went into business on your own in the first place.

I’ll give you 2 contrasting examples:

  • My first week in business I was referred to a company I really wanted to work with, for a project I was quite keen on doing. My proposal was verbally agreed to by telephone (I had discounted for volume work over a period of months) and I submitted the contract for signature. Then, before the contract was signed, the brief started changing, until finally, instead of a project with multiple strands, they wanted a single deliverable – for an even greater discount – with the ‘potential’ for further work. After much thought I politely declined the work, though I did obsess about it for days. Some months later I ran into someone at a networking event who had done work for this same company the previous year. They told me that their experience had been a constant headache of changing briefs and downward pricing pressure, reinforcing my decision to walk away.
  • Fast forward a few months and I had an upcoming spare week in my diary. Again, a referral, yet this time I was only mildly interested in the work. So, I named a price that was actually far above my usual fee for the type of work, thinking that at the least they’d try to negotiate me down. Much to my surprise, they accepted the fee without hesitation, and all of a sudden the work became highly interesting to me!

Even so, it took me a long time to get over the discomfort I felt whenever I put a price on my work. But if you’ve done your due diligence and feel confident about your fees, those who value your expertise and experience will pay for it.

  1. Spend time – and money – on your website

When I was doing my research (lesson #3) I looked at a LOT of websites. And while the agency and larger consultancy websites were (mostly) terrific, the vast majority of independent consultant websites were really quite mediocre, and there were many that I could tell they had done themselves.

Even if you have the skills to create your website, I highly recommend that you spend the time and the money to hire an expert to do it for you. Having an objective third party who is specifically in the business of website development will give you the experience, creativity and fresh eyes you need in order to create a site that draws people in and keeps them there.

Your website is your ‘shop window’; this is where every prospective customer will go before they may even make contact with you. It is critical that your website reflects who you are, what you do, and why you do it.

  1. Be patient: everything takes longer than you think it will

And I mean everything! From getting your website up and running to refining your service offering, from landing that all-important first customer, submitting the proposal to getting the contract signed – even to getting paid – it all takes so much longer than I ever imagined. My first customers actually came pretty quickly, in my first month in business, but I’m certain that only happened because I had already spent a few years laying the foundation (lesson #5) and it was mostly for my basic services, what I call my ‘bread-and-butter’ work (lesson #4). But for the work I was really passionate about, that took much longer.

I remember taking a walk last autumn with one of my mentors in Kew Gardens and talking about this latter work. They told me it would take 6 months to a year to land that first customer. And you know what, I didn’t believe them! I remember clearly thinking, surely not that long. But of course, they were right, it took me 6 months to get my first customer for that premium service.

Finally, a word on invoicing. I used to invoice only when the project was completed. Then one slow payer taught me to invoice half upfront with the balance upon completion. This was followed by an even slower payer, and I now invoice in full upfront. While smaller businesses tend to pay upon receipt of invoice, larger companies are slow payers; they tend to pay net 30 (I have one customer who pays net 45), no matter your terms, even if they signed a contract under your terms.

  1. Be flexible: your customers will come from unexpected places

When I launched my business, I thought I knew exactly where my customers would be coming from. And while some of my customers have come from where I thought they would, it was mostly for my ‘bread-and-butter’ work, which thankfully I love doing (lesson #1). But the work I really wanted to do has come from very unexpected places.

2 examples of the unexpected:

  • Early in the year my cousin (a sculptor) and his wife (a fashion designer) were invited to showcase their work at the launch of an experiential ‘innovation lounge’ in London. They’re from New York and because we didn’t have much time together they invited me to the launch party. And I really didn’t want to go. I just don’t like these kinds of parties and I didn’t think there would be anything or anyone there that could possibly interest me. But I wanted to support my cousins, so I went. And did I ever learn a big lesson. The launch event was also showcasing the latest virtual reality (VR) technology and it was fascinating. But more importantly, I struck up a conversation with someone who turned out to be the CEO of a VR start-up and we ended up talking for over an hour. That conversation led to my very first strategy workshop, and not just a marketing strategy workshop, a business strategy workshop. And I think I learned as much from them as they did from me.
  • As is often the case, that first strategy workshop quickly led to another, again from an unexpected place. I regularly attend B2B marketing networking events (lesson #5), not to develop business, but to keep up-to-date with the latest challenges and ideas in B2B marketing. But I was so energised by this workshop I had just done that I was talking about it to someone I’d gotten to know well and they said it sounded like I could help their company. I thought they were just being polite, but the very next day their managing director rang me to commission the workshop.

What I particularly want to highlight is that both of these prospects came from the technology sector, a sector I wasn’t even targeting. And the point I want to make here is: don’t limit yourself, be open to every opportunity. Be flexible and be willing to adapt what you know in order to create what even your unexpected customers want.

  1. Find a mentor and meet regularly

I have 2 business mentors that I meet with regularly, and I simply could not have accomplished all that I have this past year without them. The advice, support, enthusiasm and encouragement I have received and continue to receive is immeasurable. I’ve had to do so much this past year that is far outside my comfort zone. There’s been a lot I’ve had to learn that had always been done for me in a corporate environment. And for much of it I simply didn’t know where to begin.

These are people who have been there, done that. One is an entrepreneur who has built numerous businesses over the years – through both boom and bust economies – and quite simply, he knows how to make money. The other is a creative thinker who has held senior positions across the private, public and non-profit sectors. One I’ve known for almost 20 years, the other I met more recently. Both give me different perspectives and new ways of thinking; both challenge me and reassure me. And they remain an important part of my journey beyond this first year.

It’s hard to ask busy, successful people for help. But I’ve found that it’s these same people who are the most generous and giving with their time and guidance.

 ‘If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do what you’ve never done’ – Thomas Jefferson

So dream big; you might start small, but make a start. Because building a business is about building dreams. And if you don’t build your own dreams, no one else will.


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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