Starting and running your own business successfully is hard.
I'm sure you've heard the statistics before that most small businesses fail within 5 years. Many people have a vision of what being their own boss looks like, but that is often not reality. Like having a kid, you may think you know what starting a business will look like, but you won't truly know until you've actually done it. It's much harder than you anticipate, but it's also so much more rewarding than spending your life working for someone else.
I started 3Bug Media 10 years ago. Started out running Google Adwords campaigns for local businesses along with some consulting, and gradually moved into SEO and online training.
Before that, I started an ecommerce store that went nowhere. This was back in 2005, when there was little to no resources available to create a DIY ecommerce store. I was involved in franchising and franchise area development for several years, which was a great learning experience, but I learned I am not suited for franchise life. I have too many of my own ideas and like to try new things and that doesn't go well with working in a franchise system. I've started a second ecommerce business that has been going well for the past several years and I'm getting deeper into digital products and online training, which is what I am most interested in today.
I've had many rocky years as an entrepreneur, which I think back now and understand that most of us do when striking out on our own. But I've also had many awesome years, years I wouldn't trade for anything.
“You can have it all, just not at the same time”. – Oprah Winfrey
I think if you want to be a long-term entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity as there are no certainties and no regular paychecks when working for yourself.
The last few years have been great. It's a nice feeling when you have some balance in your life, even if it's only for a short period of time. See the thing is, work/life balance is a myth. You'll always be swaying back and forth, depending on circumstances. Starting a new business? Your life is mostly work. Just had a kid or someone is sick? Your personal life takes a front seat above everything else. Like Oprah Winfrey said, “You can have it all, just not at the same time”.
Over the years I've learned some personal lessons that have helped me mature into a seasoned business owner and has helped me along when things get crazy, which they always do. I still have a lot planned for the road ahead and still a lot to learn, but I feel like I'm in a place where I'm comfortable with what lies ahead.
Below are some things that have personally helped me along the way.
Spend More Time Planning
I think most business owners fall into this trap. Spending your days putting out fires and just trying to make it until the end of the week, never having time to do real long-term business planning. See, the thing is that if you spend your days knee deep in everyday minutia, then you are not running your business but acting as another employee.
Your job as the owner of the business is to create the long-term plans and the strategies that will help you fulfill your goals. Yes, as a business owner it's hard to get out of the day to day, but eventually, you will have to if you want to see real growth and personal satisfaction from your business.
I found that my days were filled up with “doing stuff”, that I never had time to pull back and think strategically about my business. I always felt like if I am not in the thick of things then I am not doing real “work”. Wrong, so wrong. Now I schedule blocks of time each week where I can just relax and think about my business goals and what I will do to reach them. I also spend several hours a week planning out the weeks ahead and really thinking about what I want to accomplish each week. This long-term and weekly planning time have done wonders when it comes moving ever closer to my goals.
Become More Efficient
I'm a victim of multitasking. Multitasking sounds great in theory but often times makes you less efficient. Listen to a podcast while working out? Great way to multitask. Trying to write a blog post while eating lunch? Terrible idea. Know when you can multitask and when you absolutely shouldn't. Usually, the important stuff requires your full mental focus.
I have also tried to cram way too many items onto my daily to-do list. which leads to lots of half-finished tasks that I end up adding to the next day's to-do list. Don't try and change the world in a day, do things one step at a time and do them consistently.
What I do now is to spend more time deciding what is actually going to go on to my to-do list and if it will help me reach my goals. And when I create my weekly and daily to-do lists, I make sure I add more than adequate time to finish each one. And I only do one at a time, starting with my most important projects in the morning, when I am at my mental best.
Understand You Won't Please Everyone
I'm a pleaser. I didn't think I was but once I started my first business I realized that I hated it when a customer was even slightly displeased with my business. Being a pleaser and a business owner can drive you crazy as you are constantly worried about making sure all of your customers are happy. It works great in the beginning as you are on top of everything, always making sure everyone loves you. But this can quickly take its toll as you realize that you can't please everyone.
I'm not saying that you shouldn't care about your customers, you absolutely have to if you want to be successful. What I am saying is that there will always be some people out there that you will not please no matter what you do for them. And if you keep bending over backways to appease everyone, you'll quickly find yourself stressed out and unhappy. Just look at online reviews today, people will leave a one-star review if it took you longer than an hour to call them back or if you didn't honor a coupon that expired 6 months ago.
The main way I got passed this is really knowing who my ideal customer is and work on pleasing them, not the drive-by, one-off customer who doesn't care about your business. Which is why I recommend that nobody use Groupon, it attracts people who could care less about your business and will only hurt you with poor reviews if you don't bend to their every unreasonable request.
As a business owner, you should love your customers. But you can only love them if you can like them in the first place. Now I focus on working with people that I like and am not afraid to say no when this isn't the case.
No Marketing = No Business
I learned this one early on and most business owners should take note. You need to be constantly marketing your business if you want to remain viable for the long term. Marketing is tricky and measuring results can often be ambiguous at best. But you still have to learn how to do it effectively for your business. It took me a long time to get my marketing right. I did what most business owners do, I dabbled here and dabbled there, but never really spent the time or resources to really figure out how to make any one marketing channel work for me.
I know many business owners who have all but given up on marketing as they can't figure out how to do it right. Some businesses turn to Groupon and similar sites as their main source of marketing because they can't figure it out on their own. Many service professionals like real estate agents and mortgage brokers simply buy all of their leads from 3rd party affiliate sites who do know how to market effectively and generate leads.
Learn how to market your business. Learn how to generate your own leads. If you are always dependant on someone else for such a critical part of your business, then you will pay dearly for it later on down the line. If those sources dry up or become too expensive, which they often do, then what will you do? You need to learn how to catch your own fish.
I was lucky as I stumbled upon Google Adwords around 2007, just when they were starting to become a solid advertising platform. I learned how to use it while there was still little competition and the clicks were cheap. It took me a few years how to figure it out, but it's been a tremendous channel for me ever since. Learning SEO took a few years longer, but between the two of them, I have always been able to generate business for myself and my clients whenever it was needed. Having control over your marketing and lead generation is very empowering as a business owner.
My suggestion is to pick a marketing channel where you think you can find success and then go about mastering it. You have to dive into a marketing channel to really understand if it works for your business and if it's a viable channel for your business. Once you have a marketing channel you can rely on to generate leads and sales, go on and master another one. Even if you decide to hire a marketing company to do this for you, spend the time to learn how it works, it will help you if you ever need to take it over and will help you keep the marketing company you hire on their toes. Delegate, don't abdicate your marketing responsibilities.
You Can't Jump On Every New Idea and Opportunity
Almost every entrepreneur I know suffers from this. Too many ideas and too little time. I have started and stopped so many projects over the years that I've lost count of them. I have literally purchased over 300 domains in my lifetime, all tied to a potential business opportunity I saw. Most of these opportunities never made it past stage one of development, if they were started at all.
While trying new things and putting yourself out there is an important part of entrepreneurial growth, it can also become a real distraction from your real opportunities. I can only imagine what I could have done with the thousands of hours I have spent chasing opportunities that went nowhere. The last few years I realized that I can't drop everything and pursue a new idea every time I get one. I do keep a running log of all my ideas and occasionally revisit the list, but I resist the urge get distracted every shiny new idea that pops up.
My advice is to not ignore your ideas but to also not drop everything as soon as you get one. I write out my ideas on a Google Doc and write out why I think it would work and then save it to revisit sometime in the future. Often when I review my ideas, I see a few really good ideas, but also many silly ones that I would have wasted lots of time pursuing.
I now treat these ideas like a hobby, I set aside an hour or two a week to work on them, purely for the enjoyment of starting something new. If it turns into a viable business opportunity, then that's just gravy for me.
Understand That You Can't Do It All
Another waste of thousands of hours of my time I could have spent doing what I'm good at and growing my business. I remember trying to build my first website myself back in 2006. I used GoDaddy Website Tonight and probably spent about 300 hours building a website that looked like a 5 year created with a box of crayons. I knew nothing about design or coding but insisted it would save me some money by not hiring someone. Yes, I did save some money but had a website that was a total waste of time creating. While I still have a hand in developing my own website projects as I enjoy doing it, I enlist my designer and developer to help me in areas where I am not proficient.
While I think there is real value in learning how to do some things yourself, especially if they are critical components of your business, like marketing, you can also waste tons of time working on things you should not be. As a small business owner, you'll do most things yourself due to budget reasons in the beginning, but you also need to know when it's time to bite the bullet and invest in your business by having someone else do it the right way. Real growth will happen when you can focus your time on building your business.
I have followed a system over the years of where I learn how to do something myself first and then pass it over to someone more qualified than me as soon as I can. This allows that task to get done better than I could have done it and allows me to spend time doing more important things like figuring out the best way to grow my business. Doing it all in the early stages of a business can save you money and help you to grow fast, but will become a detriment as you progress into more mature stages of your business.
Don't Try and Compete
In my first year in business, I remember obsessing over competitors. I would study them relentlessly and keep a close eye on what they were doing at all times. I knew their pricing, their product lines, I even sat outside their stores to take customer counts to try and guess their sales. Do you know what I eventually learned?
You are only in competition with yourself.
Across all of my business ventures, from my first year until today, I learned that almost every single customer I lost was because of something I failed to do or I was unable to do. My business success had nothing to do with my competitors and everything to do with me and how I ran my business. There is more than enough business to go around for everyone, I own a marketing company and there is an endless sea of businesses that need my help. So if I can't get enough business, how can I blame anyone except myself?
It's easy to blame competitors or the economy for your business woes. It takes such a load off your back when you can blame someone else instead of yourself for your business problems.
I have stopped looking at my competitors a long time ago, aside from the occasional look to see what they are offering, but I don't really think about them anymore. If I can do a great job with my marketing and delivering a solid customer experience, then I have everything I need to be a success and no competitor can take that away from me.
Take a Day Off
I always followed the mindset of if I can work a little more and a little harder, I can grow even faster and accomplish more of my goals. This mindset spilled over into working weekends, working on the couch at night while watching TV with my wife, and constantly answering work emails on my phone while I'm out.
It took me a long time to realize that I wasn't being productive, I was just being busy. By 3pm my mind is done with work. If I try and push myself further, I can get a little more done but it takes way longer to do. I realized that I was wasting lots of time and mental energy for little in the way of results.
I also learned that if I can take a day off and not do any work, I feel much more refreshed and excited to get stuff done than if I just work “all the time”.
So I don't work on the couch at night anymore and I take at least one day a week off without doing any work. This has made a big difference for me when it comes to being more productive when I am actually working.
Being a business owner can be an isolating experience. You carry so much weight, responsibility, and stress, literally all the time. Yet, you don't have a co-working or manager to confide in. It can be lonely being a business owner.
To grow, both personally and your business, you need to be able to talk candidly with your peers. Your peers are other business owners. This is where a mastermind group comes into play. A mastermind group is a group of like-minded individuals who get together to discuss their opportunities and challenges, working as a group to help all of the individuals succeed. It's like having your own personal board of directors, except with people you enjoy being around.
Yes, you can join a meetup group or attend a business event or seminar, but this is not what I am talking about. A mastermind group is a close-knit group of peers where you can confide in them about your real business struggles without fear of judgment. Can you stand up at a meetup group and tell everyone you are 3 months away from going under if you don't get your business back in order? Can you tell people at a business event that you almost didn't make payroll last month because your rent just went up? No, I didn't think so.
Go find yourself a business mastermind group in your area, if you can't find one, then create your own. That's what I did, and I really enjoy having a group of like-minded individuals who understand the challenges I have and are committed to helping me overcome them.
Enjoy What You Have
I used to read or listen to at least 3 business books a month. I did this for about 7 years straight. I learned so much about business and credit a lot of my success with my desire to, “Always Be Learning”
But I also got obsessed with business success and constant growth. I would read how successful entrepreneurs would grow multi-million dollar startups in a year. Or how a small business grew into a national franchise chain. I was constantly in a state of restlessness, not happy where I am because I was always thinking about where I could be. I guess this mindset does play a role in business success, but after several years of constant hustle, I realized that's not what I want. I don't want to become a big marketing agency and I don't want lots of employees, I want a business I love, one that allows me the time to spend with my family and pursue other goals I have outside of business.
If you dig deeper into many business success stories, you'll see lots of personal sacrifices made to get where they are. Broken marriages, forgotten children, and ruined relationships. Opportunity cost demands that you give up something in order to get something else.
I realized that I like my life how it is. I'm not progressing as fast as I would like to, but I also get to spend a lot of time with my family, which is most important to me. I also get to spend time on other projects I love. I also don't have the stress of constantly thinking about what I could have, instead of enjoying what I already have.
I think most business successes, at least in my eyes, are the ones that took longer to get to where they were going but they did not have to make great sacrifices along the way to get there. I call it taking the minivan road to success.