In December 2015, amidst a move from Los Angeles to Austin, I opened up my own shop. Back then, I was a marketing expert with a lot of hustle and little experience running my own business.
A year-and-a-half later, I’m still a marketer, and I still hustle – but now I have a small team that is at least as smart as I am and systems in place to make sure things run smoothly for us and our clients.
The marketing part? That stuff I always knew, and I’ve only gotten better. The running a business part? That came with a lot of on-the-job training, and most of it happened in those first 12 months.
As I look back on that time, I realize that I learned five key lessons that made me grow in leaps and bounds in a short period of time. It wasn’t always graceful ...
... but damn it, I’m better off because of it.
1. Embrace the fear and the uncertainty and channel it into something positive
Maybe you’ve done business somewhere, taken a look at how the business was run, and thought to yourself, “Jeez, I could do better than this.”
I’ve probably done that before. After going ahead and doing it, I learned that it was a little harder than it looked.
The services themselves, no problem. Working with clients? Most of them are awesome. The accounting? I’m kind of a dork, so I legitimately enjoyed that new responsibility.
No, the thing that challenged me the most was the psychological side of things. At any moment, I could lose a big client and a third of my income along with it. I could hire someone to do a job, and maybe they wouldn’t perform. I could struggle to find enough business for me to afford dog food for Stella.
You see, I came from a background where I had a stable job and wasn’t worried about where my next paycheck was coming from. The transition from that predictable lifestyle to an unpredictable one left me worrying – a lot.
It wasn’t possible to live in that state permanently, so I had to adjust. I pulled my head out of my ass and did one important thing: I embraced the fear and channeled into something better.
You see, instead of viewing things as chaos, I made myself look at it as an adventure. I accepted the ups and downs as part of the trip.
As I got months under my belt, I also built the confidence that I could weather any kind of storm. If something didn’t work out, I was always able to bounce back.
It’s like a boxer who’s a little worried about getting hit. How would I respond? Would I drop like a stone? Well, turns out I can take a punch and keep coming forward. I didn’t know that about myself, but I learned it – and it helped any anxiety just melt away.
2. Hustle is the most important thing
People will tell you a million things that you need to have. Organization. A huge advertising budget. Funding.
Honestly, all you really need to get started is a lot of hustle. If you’re willing to get after it, if you’re willing to hear the word “no” a lot and keep moving forward, then you’re already 50 percent of the way there.
Yes, you absolutely need to be selling something that people want. I was lucky in that I had that going in. But, I’ve seen a lot of people with great ideas fail – not because they didn’t have what people wanted, but because they didn’t fight their way through.
3. But hustle has its limits. That’s where systems come into place.
While hustle is going to get you off the ground, and it’s going to keep advancing you forward, you’ll start to break down if you don’t develop some key systems.
Think of systems like a recipe. You figure out the best way to do something, so you write it down so you can do it the best way every single time.
Too often in my early going, I found myself trying to reinvent the wheel. Thankfully, I read the book The E-Myth Revisited, which helped me name those nagging issues.
From there, I was able to systematize nearly everything I was doing. Every service got a recipe. Every process neatly fit into software like FreshBooks for accounting, Asana for project management, Hootsuite for social media management, and Cyfe for reporting.
As I brought people on, it got a million times easier for them to understand how we did things – because I designed the process to make sense to a new person.
Too often, small businesses take an “Ask Karen how that works” approach to doing things. No one really knows how the parts of the business fit together, and everyone has their own way of doing things that doesn’t fully mesh with the other parts.
By designing the processes from the ground up, I was able to create something that could sustain itself and produce loads more work with the same amount of effort.
4. Listen to the experts. Then see what actually works for you.
Too often I’ve seen people keep doing the same thing and getting subpar results.
When you ask them why they haven’t tried something else, they reply with, “This is what all the experts say to do. I’m doing the right thing.”
Look, I’ll be the first to say that I’m a HUGE fan of learning and using what’s out there. Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come from learning why the experts are doing and doing that.
But often times, that only gets you halfway there. You see, your situation is always going to be unique. No one has the exact same problems as you do.
So, what I found is that you take what you learn, try it out, and then see how it works. In many cases, I’ve had to develop or modify ideas to make them work for me and my business.
In some cases, the common knowledge or expert wisdom simply doesn’t work for you. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. Just keep trying new ideas until you get the result that you want.
Remember that it’s not up to the experts to solve your problems. It’s up to you. Listen, read, get smarter – but ultimately make sure you’re getting the results that you want.
5. You can’t be everything to everyone. That’s why you need to know what you want.
I’ve found it useful to ask myself, at least once a month, why I started this business.
You see, I laid out my reasons and goals when I first started, and I check in monthly to make sure I’m living up to the expectations I had for myself. I do it to make sure that I’m achieving what I set out to do.
I’ve seen it before with other companies. Perhaps once upon a time, they were really into what they were doing, but they’ve strayed from that. It doesn’t happen overnight, though. It’s incremental. You don’t SEE your hair grow. One day, you just wake up and see that you need a haircut.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t evolve. Always evolve. Keep advancing your products and services and processes and always look for a better way.
But keep in mind your values. Remember what you love about this. And make sure you’re happy with where you are and where you’re heading.