Let’s face it. All of us at one point or another have dreamed of having our own business. We’ve built careers working for large, or small, companies, learned the ropes (pun intended), developed our skill sets and leadership capabilities, discovered and leveraged our strengths, and worked tirelessly driving value for our companies and their clients.
For some of us, that is enough. We like our jobs and we prefer stability—the paycheck every two weeks, the annual bonuses and benefits. We don’t need to take the leap. For others, we feel like something is missing. Every time we hear an entrepreneur passionately describing their path to success, we feel a tinge of regret, and think, “That could have been me.”
Three years ago, I was at a crossroads in my career. My job had been eliminated due to a merger, and I had to figure out what’s next. I looked at various job opportunities but couldn’t find one I liked as much as my former role. I had two criteria for the next phase of my career. 1) I wanted to do what I love—marketing strategy—for a company whose values and vision meshed with mine; 2) I wanted to prioritize time with my children, who were then 6 and 9, because for too long I had missed important talent shows and soccer games because of work commitments.
So, how did I decide to start my own agency? And why was it like walking a tightrope?
Takeaway #1: If you overanalyze, you’ll never take the first step.
I am one of those people who analyzes everything. In my marketing strategy firm, it’s a strength. I think methodically through pros and cons, opportunities and risks, and develop actionable strategies for my clients. In my personal life, it can be painful. A question about which hotel we should stay at on vacation turns into a competitive matrix of potential options, each with different price points and amenities.
When I started WIZ Advisors three years ago, I didn’t overthink it. It just happened. A former colleague called me out of the blue in need of my help. He had taken on a job as an interim CEO and needed a go-to-market strategy to present to his board of directors in 8 weeks. It sounded right up my alley, so I said “yes.” At the time, I didn’t plan to start a marketing agency. I didn’t have a company name, logo, website, tax ID number, suite of services—I hadn’t even calculated an hourly rate. But I had a client. And that is all you need to get started.
Takeaway #2: It’s you, and you alone, on that rope.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been both an individual contributor and a team player. I prefer working on teams because I enjoy learning and debating with peers, brainstorming with smart people who challenge me, and reaching major milestones together. As a strategic partner, you get to do that through collaboration with your clients. However, behind the scenes, as a solopreneur, you are building a firm all by yourself.
Things come up on a daily basis that you never encounter as an employee. You need to figure out which licenses and permits are required to incorporate in your city and state. You need to develop a company brand—website, logo, business cards, marketing materials, etc. You need to generate content, social media company pages, capabilities and proposal decks—everything it takes to effectively market your services.
All I can say is “Thank you, God” for the internet. Unlike 20 years ago, there are now a plethora of websites with free—or at least, cheap—tools out there to help you do all aspects of marketing.
A few of my favorites include:
Whatever I didn’t know, I taught myself. I didn’t have a team of marketing managers or creative designers on hand to help me. It was just me, and me alone, on that rope.
Takeaway #3: Curveballs will come at you. If you stay calm and nimble, you will reach the other side.
Launching a new business is like walking a tightrope—there will always be unexpected challenges. On a tightrope, it may be a gust of wind that threatens your stability. In your first year as a business owner, curveballs become commonplace. You may launch with one engagement strategy (or product), only to change it several months later. It’s all about understanding your clients’ needs and evolving your strategy to meet them.
For example, I started with an engagement model that offered a suite of services on a monthly retainer basis to midsize B2B businesses, similar to a large-scale agency. However, I quickly learned that without an established brand and significant client base, that business model wasn’t realistic. So, I changed my model. I targeted smaller companies in the $10-$100MM range in my network and offered them project-based marketing services to start. My clients had the opportunity to gauge my work product before trusting me with more business.
Given this new model, I also had to alter my marketing efforts to build a pipeline instead of just relying on word-of-mouth referrals. I spent time and effort developing my brand in the marketplace and driving higher awareness. I formed lead-generation partnerships with other boutique firms who had complimentary services. Now, three years later, I have the retainer-based model that I wanted all along. However, it required me to start small, prove myself, and build a base of satisfied, repeat clients to reach that milestone.
Learning to be flexible and deal with change is probably my #1 tip for a new business owner. The first two years aren’t easy and things rarely go as expected. Did I at times feel like a tightrope walker in a windstorm? Absolutely. But it gave me valuable insight into what it takes to build a sustainable business—one step at a time.
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