Five things we’ve learnt during the first five years in business

It’s five years since my business partner Jo and I launched our Yorkshire-based content marketing agency Engage Comms. ‘So what?’ I hear you cry. Well, with most start-ups failing in the first two years and many struggling to make ends meet by five years in, it’s a milestone worth shouting about. After five years of slogging our guts out to build an award-winning agency delivering high quality, ‘future fit’ work that delivers tangible return on investment for clients in a wide range of sectors from property to professional services, I feel qualified to share some wisdom with other would-be business owners. Which brings me to the first (and most self-indulgent) of my five learnings from the first five years…

  1. Congratulate yourself

The thing about running your own business is that you’re your own boss. No-one tells you what to do, it’s all down to you. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But as your own boss you can also be your own biggest critic. While you may take the time to tell clients how amazing they are, and staff what a great job they’re doing, you often forget to congratulate yourself. If you’re not careful, there’s a danger of getting into a negative mindset: “We’re not doing as well as we hoped”, “no-one wants to buy our services”, “what if we can’t deliver what we’ve promised?”, “we’ve got to keep our clients happy at all costs”.

What you’ve got to remember is that the first five years in business is so tough that just keeping your head above water is a victory – and anything above that is a major triumph worth celebrating. If you don’t congratulate yourself, no-one else will. If you don’t enter awards, you don’t stand a chance of winning. If you don’t take the time to tell the world about the great work you’re doing, no-one will know about it. And then there’s office cake and nice lunches out. These are the perks that keep you going and their value shouldn’t be over-looked. As your inner boss would say to you if he/she existed; “you’re worth it”.

  1. Stick to your guns

Much as we have learnt to congratulate ourselves and celebrate our successes, no matter how small, there have been many times over the last five years when we’ve seriously questioned whether what we’ve got to offer is actually ‘right’.

Sticking to your guns on your beliefs and guiding principles can be really tough if you don’t think the market is ready for it. But entrepreneurialism isn’t about selling exactly what people want to buy. It’s about selling them something they didn’t even know they needed and demonstrating its value through quality and impact. For us, this has meant having to be very challenging and sometimes saying ‘no’ to clients that don’t ‘get it’, which isn’t easy. But it’s paid off and we now feel that after five years of trying to educate clients on why our approach works, they’re coming to us and sticking with us because they know it does…

  1. Play a long game

… which brings me neatly on to my next point. In business in 2017, there are no ‘quick wins’. Those who chase after a quick buck either end up irreparably damaging their reputation or paying the price in some other way. If you intend to set up a business to quickly grow it and sell it within the first five years, you’re probably going to be disappointed. However ingenious your idea or ‘best in class’ your product/service, it takes time to build trust, credibility and brand equity. If you play a ‘long game’ right from the beginning by setting realistic milestones, you’ll be able to focus on quality, and not quantity, ending up with a business which is worth so much more both in terms of financial value and personal satisfaction…

  1. Focus on job satisfaction over income

…And this is the biggest lesson of all. If you just want a decent salary, a company car, a nice pension scheme etc, go and work for someone else. Amongst the many challenges, there is one huge benefit to running your own business and that is ultimate job satisfaction. This is why the first three points above are so important. If you’re not enjoying it, doing what you believe in, and in it for the long haul, there really is no point because you’ll miss out on the biggest and best outcome.

  1. ‘Disrupt’ yourself – and others

The best thing about running your own small business is the ability to be completely agile. When you’re working within a larger organisation, you can quickly become frustrated when your ideas are not listened to/acted upon, or when change takes forever to implement because of internal politics. When you run your own business, you can quickly adapt to the changing marketplace, clients changing needs, new technologies, and your own desired ways of working. But taking advantage of the opportunity to constantly evolve and stay ahead of the curve can be tiring and it’s easy to slip into the same old routine, doing things the way ‘you’ve always done them’.

When we first set up Engage Comms, we were determined to throw the traditional PR/marketing agency model out of the window. But sometimes it’s tempting to go back to what you know, especially if clients are more comfortable with it. You have to keep ‘disrupting’ yourself by taking a step back from the day-to-day and asking how you could do things differently/better – after all, there’s no-one stopping you but yourself. By forcing ourselves to always ‘work smarter, not harder’, we’ve been able to demonstrate the benefits of different ways of working to clients and help them get out of their comfort zones too.

Engage Comms DirectorsI was determined to stick to just five points in line with the fifth birthday theme (and so as not to bore anyone too much!) but, if you’re still reading, there is a sixth thing that I’ve learnt which runs throughout all the others: Find the right partner and the right team. Many people say that the best thing about running your own business is the independence and ‘power’ that comes with being the ‘top dog’ and they warn against going into business in partnership with someone else. Well, they’re wrong. I could have set up as a freelancer and done my own thing but my main motivation for biting the bullet and setting up Engage Comms was that I had found the right person to do it with. Business partnerships can be tricky and often don’t work if you’re too similar, or too different, or too close, or too distant. It’s a very fine balance but when you find the right person you just ‘know’. However different your approaches are to things, the key is to share the same vision and focus on a shared long term outcome, then play to your strengths and support each other to be the best you can be. Being a partnership also helps you create more of a team spirit when you start to grow the business and work with partners/recruit new team members. It’s easy to embed a teamwork ethos when you’re setting the right example.

We’re now planning for the next five years and beyond and with even greater challenges ahead, we couldn’t be more excited! Watch this space…

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