Five years ago today, I said goodbye to my corporate job. I took the giant leap into entrepreneurship and launched my own firm. It was the scariest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done. Every year since, I’ve grown by at least 40% YoY, and 2020, despite all the changes and challenges, far exceeded my targets and expectations.
Today, a lot of people are examining where they are in their career and what they want the next ten to twenty years to look like. Do they like what they’re doing, where their career is headed, and who they’re working for? If they could make a change, what would they do? As they search for answers, the thought of launching something on their own is a tantalizing option. What would it be like to be their own boss and be in complete control of their destiny? The very idea of this sounds so exciting—and it is. It’s also terrifying because it’s all on you.
There’s a lot I could say about the ways in which fear and self-doubt spark our fight or flight response. And perhaps one day I’ll write about them, but today is a day of celebration, and I want to talk about what I learned over the past five years. What worked, and what didn’t work.
First, Learn From Great People
I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I wanted to launch my own firm. It was an idea that marinated in my head over many years. And I’m glad for that. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and a bit of a risk taker, but I also never went to business school and was keenly aware that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was important to invest in observing, learning, succeeding, failing, and partnering with others before going out on my own.
Undoubtedly, the best move I made in my corporate career was joining my last firm (check out my LinkedIn page to see where I worked). It was the first time I got a front row seat into how executives make big, pivotal business decisions. The company doubled in size in the six years I was there and I can’t think of one bad decision they made during that time. And that’s because they took great care in thinking through every move, but also had faith that if they made a mistake, they had the talent within the firm to weather any set back. They were smart, agile, communicative, collaborative, and creative—all things that I wanted to be. I’m so grateful to have learned with them and from them.
Ask a Lot of Questions
As I mentioned, I was fully aware that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Some people read a ton of books, and today, there are hundreds of fabulous podcasts to help learn the ins and outs of running your own business. But if you’re like me, you thrive on brainstorming and collaboration, and that requires people interaction.
I had contacts in banking, insurance, accounting, financial planning, legal, healthcare, small business tools, sales, marketing, and branding. I talked to all of them. Over coffee and lunch, I pitched my idea, asked them for advice, listened intentionally and intently, and took copious notes. They poked holes in many of my original ideas. They gave me insights into business challenges that I doubt I would have ever considered. They introduced me to other people who they felt would be beneficial to my business. And they did this willingly, unselfishly. They wanted me to succeed and they were happy to offer free advice (although I did pay for lunch).
Be a Bulldog When it Comes to Networking, Sales and Marketing
This is important—really, really important. The biggest differentiator I’ve seen in successful entrepreneurs is that they keep a constant foothold in essential channels for bringing in business. It’s really easy to get so bogged down in client service and delivery that you push aside business development and business promotion. After all, they’re hiring you for your expertise—right?
If you’re good at what you do, yet you don’t know how to build a constant, reliable pipeline of referrals and new inquiries, you won’t have long-term success. I’ve seen many small business owners start out with a few steady clients and referral sources and assume they will always be there and never change. That’s wishful thinking; negligent thinking. If you aren’t willing to be your own salesperson, then hire one, but whatever you do, make business development a top priority. Everything hinges on bringing in good business.
Don’t Be Afraid to Change
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed our service offerings and prices. Looking back, I can see that I priced my services low because I felt I needed to test the waters and earn credibility. But as I gained new clients (often referred by former clients) and they asked if I could do other things, I gained a clear picture of what people needed, and confidence when I delivered what they asked for.
My big switch happened when I started looking at what the major, nationally-recognized players were doing. That’s the sandbox I wanted to play in. What services did they offer? What did they charge? How did they package their offerings? Who did they attract? How many potential clients walked away, and why?
I became clear about who I saw as our ideal client, what we offered to them, and why we were the right firm for them to hire. I revised everything from my networking pitch to our website to our contracts. I expanded our offerings and increased our prices to reflect the higher level of service. And you know what? I brought in a ton more clients. Perfect, ideal clients. Clients from all over the US and a few beyond our borders. And our clients are still our biggest referral source. Last year, 24% of our new clients were referrals from former clients.
Spend Money to Make Money
When you’re a small business owner you look at every cent coming into and going out of your business. And you have to be careful that your expenses aren’t growing at a faster rate than your sales. But oftentimes, spending money on the right things will free up your time or give you the structure you need to grow your sales even faster.
For me, I hired an amazing resume writer (Liz Helton, check her out here). I’m a good writer, but Liz can run circles around me. While I help my clients figure out what they want to do, where they want to go, and how they’re going to get there, Liz is creating their content-rich resume and story-focused LinkedIn profile. She has freed up my day to focus more on networking, business development, and to take on more coaching clients. Because of her, we’ve grown exponentially and have expanded our services.
It’s also important to delegate anything you don’t do well, don’t want to do, or don’t have time to do. That’s why I have administrative support to pick up the ball any time we need help. She keeps us on track with monthly projects, social media, marketing, branding, and long-term initiatives. I also have a bookkeeper who helps manage my accounting and reports, and is a wiz with resolving QuickBooks issues.
You’ll Need Plenty of Stamina
Growing a business is hard work. Being your own boss does not mean shorter workdays and more time to sleep. In fact, I work more hours now than I ever did in my corporate job. Sure, I can opt to get my hair cut in the middle of the day, but I can’t call in sick and expect someone else to take over my appointments.
When it’s your own business, it’s on you to make things happen. What gets you through the spikes and dips? How do you see past your day-to-day and cut a clear path for one, two, three years out? You need a constant cocktail of consistency, adaptability, resiliency, endurance…and stamina. These are my motivation words. I think of them daily and they give me fuel when I’m faced with a challenge.
Remember to Celebrate
On the morning of February 18, 2016, my first day as my own boss, I woke up at 5:00am and scurried out the door to attend a business networking breakfast at 7:00am. In the car, I practiced my elevator pitch over and over for the entire 40-minute drive.
When I walked in the room, I was greeted by a couple of people I’d met a few months before and they graciously took me around the room to meet as many people as possible. “Hi, I’m Julia Holian. I’m a Career Strategist.” It felt so good!
And here I am today. Nothing’s changed, yet nothing’s stayed the same. My business is thriving. I love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I’m going to seize this moment to celebrate! Carpe Diem!