The following is adapted from First Dollar Feeling: Stories from the Trenches of Small Business – now available for pre-order on Amazon.
This week, I hit a milestone. It’s one that only about 50% of U.S. small businesses achieve. This week, my business celebrated its 5th anniversary. The agency operates under a different name and a brand “facelift” now – but it’s still here. More importantly, it has grown.
My idea started with just me, and that was great – I made money, enjoyed working with my clients, and got to be creative. But it wasn’t quite right.
Today, it looks different. My day to day is different – and it feels like it happened almost overnight. Now, I have multiple employees, vendors, and subcontractors all over the United States. I have three different divisions under the same umbrella, all in various stages of growth. It’s exciting, overwhelming, and terrifying all at the same time.
My business has taken on a life of its own – and it’s wonderful. It has grown into something far beyond my original vision. As I’ve learned to open myself up to new ideas and opportunities – my team and I have accomplished amazing things at a relatively young business age.
To celebrate this milestone, I’m pulling back the curtain and giving a behind-the-scenes look at what I’ve learned along the way.
Define What Success Looks Like for You & Your Business
It is so easy to get roped into everyone else’s view of success. You think you have to hit a specific annual revenue or have a certain number of employees or clients to be considered “successful.” The reality is that the only definition of success that matters when opening a business is your own.
When you get down to it, what is your goal? Are you looking to provide a sustainable income for your family? Do you want to reach $5 million in revenue in your first three years? Do you want to serve your local community, or do you want to be an internationally known brand?
Each of these goals is different, but each of them is valid. If you try to push yourself to reach a definition of success that doesn’t fit your actual goal, you will lose steam fast. You’re probably not going to make it – and, if you do, you’re not likely to find the joy in your work.
For me, I got so frustrated with my career outlook as a military spouse and a mom – I wanted to help other military spouses in the same boat. So, I have had two primary goals in business. I gauge success for the agency based on how many military spouses and veterans we place in sustainable work situations. For my personal entrepreneurial goals, generating the income to fully support our family debt-free after my husband’s military retirement is why I do what I do.
Everything else is gravy.
I spent years fighting that gnawing feeling that I had to operate like everyone else. And I almost quit because of it. I became so burned out because I was putting in 100 hours or more a week to grow a business that wasn’t feeding what I wanted or what my family needed. It wasn’t until I was honest with myself about why I started this process that I truly came into my own as an entrepreneur.
So, I shifted the model, opened the door to new talent, and focused on my strengths. Then, things started happening. Now, I have the freedom to make the necessary moves to reach my goals – and take my team with me.
There is power in that freedom.
Constructive Criticism & Haters: Learn the Difference
Your business is your baby. Like, it’s just as much work as having an actual baby.
Trust me, I know – I have two (babies) and multiple businesses.
So, just like your baby, it makes sense that when someone tries to tell you anything that they don’t like about your business – you may get a wee bit defensive. This feeling is normal. However, some criticism can help you grow your business more effectively. The key is learning to distinguish between which complaints are legitimate concerns and those that are just rantings from your friendly neighborhood Negative Nancy/Negative Ned.
If you have a customer leave you, or a prospect turns you down – being open to the reason why can help you make your business better. You have to be receptive to hearing something negative about your business. I’ve learned just as much from lost deals as I have from clients who have been with me for five years.
Take the information into account, review it, and do a little research to see what happened. Then, decide what you can fix for the next client or lead. If you can objectively review criticism, it’s relatively easy to distinguish between a real issue and someone who wants to complain.
Remember that you’re human, and you own a business operated by humans – so mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. You’re going to bring on the wrong employee or the wrong client at some point in your business. You or one of your employees may not communicate properly, and vital tasks may slip through the cracks. You may not be tracking your cash flow properly and be unable to pay your vendors for a month. These core pillars of business management take some trial and error to learn. If you’re not willing to identify the holes in your foundation, eventually, it’ll collapse out from under you.
Remember, constructive criticism is not a personal attack – it’s an opportunity to make your business stronger.
You Don’t Have to Take on Debt to Succeed
Do you know the phrase “keeping up with the Jones’”? It applies to business life too.
This concept hearkens back to the need to define success on your terms. If you are continually trying to reach a goal that doesn’t fit your real motivation, you may be tempted to grow before you’re ready. Usually, in business, that leads to cash flow issues. And, cash flow issues lead to debt. Ironically, debt tends to lead to more cash flow issues because your monthly overhead goes up with every credit card swipe. It’s a vicious cycle. Don’t fall for it.
I struggled with this in my first couple of years in business. I knew I had a solid business plan and that the company would grow. I assumed that a significant influx of cash through a business loan would lead to exponential growth. Fortunately, I stopped and processed that concept before rushing into debt.
I run a service-based business – a marketing/PR agency – and we grow based on the number of clients we can manage. As I bring on more clients, my overhead goes up because I have to hire more help to service each of those clients properly. So, rather than take on debt to employ several people and run a bunch of advertising to get the clients I need to pay for all of these things – I chose to grow slowly. Painfully slowly at times, but forward motion at any speed is still progress.
I moved to the Profit First model and began to set aside savings to pay for the things that would help me reach my goals. I was able to pay for a new website, a software stack, and multiple employees just from the savings of my business profits – no debt. If I did not have the money in cash, I did not make the purchase. Now, I operate with minimal overhead, I never have to sweat making payroll, and I’m even able to run a scholarship program for my employees.
When COVID hit, I had an established disaster savings fund from using the Profit First model. Like many other small businesses, we didn’t see any of the PPP money – or any support money at all. Like thousands of others, my business was on its own to survive. If I had chosen to take on debt rather than adopting a lean business model, we might have had to shut our doors. Now, I know we’ll recover. It’s been a rough year. We’ve had many months where we’ve only broken even – more so than any year in business so far. But, I’ve been able to sustain my business, take care of my employees, and not take on any debt. For me, that’s a success.
My point in all of this is to encourage any fledgling entrepreneur to dare to be different. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking to you have run before you’ve learned to crawl. Grow slowly – you’ll be much more stable and have more freedom to build the life you want.
Growing Your Business Means Growing Your People
There’s a lot of talk about business culture; it has almost lost its meaning through the buzzword haze. But it does matter. When you create a culture of employee growth, your people tend to be more willing to stick around. Employees are selfish, and rightfully so – if they cannot further their career, they will move on. They have to think about their own goals.
Entrepreneurship and employee development are two very different skillsets. You need both if your goal is to scale your business.
For my business, a culture of growth meant empowering every employee to work in different aspects of the company. I maintain an open-door policy and frequently receive requests for training or experience in new marketing or sales areas from various team members – and I try to facilitate as we have new opportunities. As the employee grows in that skillset, they can take on more responsibility in that area. From a managerial standpoint, that makes a “promote from within” environment easy to build naturally.
Honestly, I don’t want to be always on call for my business – and most entrepreneurs dream of a life of balance and freedom that comes with being your own boss. In the early years, that’s a bit of a fallacy. Right now, long hours and stress are the nature of the beast. By the time I pen an essay celebrating my 10th year in business, I’d like to have a team of executives and partners who have helped me build the agency playing a much larger role in running the company. It takes work and consistent investment in each employee to create that winning team.
To the Next Five Years
The last five years have felt like five decades and a whirlwind all at the same time – small business ownership will do that to you. I am grateful above all for the support of my family, team, clients, mentors, and colleagues along the way. I won’t say I couldn’t have reached this point on my own, but Lord knows it wouldn’t have been this graceful.
More importantly, it wouldn’t have been this rewarding.