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The first year of business - the highs, the lows and the learnings
24 Mar 2016
Tonight, David and I celebrate Humm Media turning one. With approximately 20% of new UK businesses failing in their first year (FSB), we’re pretty chuffed that we well and truly leapt over this first hurdle and continue to drive the business forward.
Having completed the first 365 days, it’s not surprising to know that a fifth of our small business counterparts are unable to make it to year one. Being a first time business owner has opened my eyes to the challenges of making an idea into a business reality. The ride which goes with this is filled with exhilarating highs and devastating lows. I know only too well that it takes sheer guts, resilience and determination to keep going.
Because of this, I thought I would share some of my learnings, as someone who had never considered the possibility of setting up and launching their own business, in the hope it may inspire and support others who look to do the same.
1. The leap is the biggest step to overcome
Not just taking the leap from secure employment where the buck falls with someone else to everything landing at your feet; but the mental leap in the months following the launch of the business.
One of the hardest things I found was the overwhelming feeling of loneliness. I’ve always loved working alone, and any psychometric test will tell you I’m a natural at lone working, yet this was a different level. This isn’t wasn’t about having a business mentor (which I had from day one and they are an incredible source of support) but being comfortable with myself; the only person to talk to sometimes for hours. The only person to say ‘Are you sure you should be doing it this way?’, ‘Does this article sound ok to you?’, ‘Ok stop now, time for lunch’. This was challenging and it took a while for my head to adjust and see this as not just ‘Emily working in an attic’ but a real business venture with plenty of opportunity.
Two things helped. The unwavering support or friends and family around me. My cheerleaders. Popping up with advice, hugs and even a brutal talking to when needed. It’s easy when setting up a business to shut the doors and become a work-focused recluse; yet making sure I was still socialising and balancing the work-life connection kept me grounded and able to easily chat about what was going on.
Time, was the other. Having always had my foot on the pedal, I needed to accept it would take time for my mind to adjust from employee to founder. For me it was three months. For others it might be days. It doesn’t mean you’re any less an entrepreneur if you need time to accept your new normal. Take that pressure off and relax. Do what you need to create that change in your mind. For me it was taking a little time off over Christmas, refocusing on what the vision for Humm was and starting properly again in January – New Year, new start.
2. Keep taking risks
Why change something that isn’t broken? Especially when you’re only six months into your new venture? Well, to use another cliché – if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Becoming a business owner is just the first of many risks you take as the business grows. My advice - get used to being a risk-taker, and get used to it fast. Calculated risks are what will drive you and your team forward. And if you make a mistake, well who cares. As long as you learn from it then failures should be celebrated. So step outside of your comfort zone regularly, confront risk together and it will make your stronger.
3. Stay true to your values
One of the most importance decisions I made in the first month of setting up Humm Media was to sit down and really get to grips with what the business stood for. Unsurprisingly it was very similar to my own personal values and created the basis for the Humm culture.
When David joined together we reviewed these and found that they still rang true for him. Now we each use these in all that we do at Humm. We identify prospective business based on our values. We make sure our marketing lives and breathes what we stand for. We’ve turned away opportunities because their culture does not align with ours. And when we eventually come to recruit our first employee we will make sure they too can fully get behind these four key beliefs:
Collaborative – working with people, not for people
Your culture and values are what give the business its sustainable competitive edge. Don’t underestimate the importance of taking half a day to help you create the backbone of your organisation.
4. Get the basics right first time
This is one of our most recent learnings, though one which I wish I knew from the beginning. Take time to get the business basics right. That’s the bank account, the invoicing and expenses system, the contracts, website, VAT registration, the accountant and all the other little bits and pieces that you ‘will do later’.
When it comes to your suppliers – bank, accountant, business advisor – make sure you really consider your options before selecting. Use your values and pick a supplier who thinks like you and understands (i.e. cares…) about your business. We changed accountant a few months in, and recently changed our bank, both times resulting in lengthy and painful issues arising. It was the right decision to change, however a little more consideration at the beginning and much time wasted would have been avoided.
Outsourcing is also something to become familiar with. Your time is precious – time is money after all – so don’t waste it trying to do something you have a) no interest in and b) don’t know how to do. Yes it might cost a little, but you gain your time back which is more important. So avoid trying to do it all (because unless you want to work 24/7 you can’t) and get some support.
5. A partner in crime goes a long way
Shortly after I had my three months epiphany, I realised that I want to grow Humm Media. And to do that I needed a strong leader by my side. I took a look at the type of work we were delivering and which areas I wanted Humm to be experts in and soon recognised I needed a skillset which complemented mine. There was only one person I knew who held the right skills which would mesh perfectly with me, my oldest friend and award-winning journalist and editor, David Woods.
Since David came on board in April, we’ve really been able to up our traction. Taking on more clients and putting in place firm growth plans for the coming years. Some people warned us about working together, we were even nervous that our friendship would be damaged along the way. So we made sure before he joined that we were in agreement around the best way to work together and keep our friendship alive. We set out an unwritten charter which included a weekly feedback session (Wine and Whinge), a higher telephone to email ratio so we actually speak to each other, not talking about work in social situations and a promise to stamp out any passive aggressiveness. We say it straight, there is no hidden message. And it works. Even when we’ve had disagreements (and boy there have been some big ones) we have been able to discuss them in a professional manner. I would argue our friendship is stronger now than it was before we worked together.
So ignore the naysayers, when the time is right pick the perfect Robin to your Batman based on what you believe. If it’s your best friend, brother, or romantic partner; go with it. Just set out the stall early and stick to it.