Twenty years ago, I officially registered my business, opened a business checking account and started my company. I had all the passion and enthusiasm many new entrepreneurs have, but like most, I didn't have a clue what lay ahead.
I clearly remember how many people told me my business was a huge mistake. The idea I had, to work with small businesses on their advertising, would never succeed, these naysayers opined.
But I didn't listen. Instead, I gave up the secure day job I had and chose to follow my passion. I worked 'round the clock out of my humble basement-home office, and despite being incredibly green and naive about what it takes to run a business, I made it work.
Today, we have 20 employees and have outgrown our current space. In many ways, my business feels like a new startup again. We are in the process of building a brand new office, and I’m more energized and excited about our future than ever.
Over the years, I've gotten to experience firsthand many mistakes as well as successes in not only my own business but the hundreds of small businesses we've worked with. Here are some of the most valuable lessons acquired on this journey -- comprising 20 years in 20 tips.
1. Be better tomorrow than you are today.
This is a hard standard to live up to. It takes hard work, and it’s not always even possible. Nevertheless, we continually try to outdo ourselves with each project we take on. There is nothing we do today that will be good enough tomorrow. There is no pinnacle to attain, and as such there's no boundary or limit we place on our success.
2. Never be afraid to hire those who are smarter than you.
You can’t possibly be an expert on all things. So, build a team of people who complement your own skill set. That’s how you build a company of giants. Surround yourself with those who share the passion and vision of where you want to go, and who want to help you get there.
3. Never be complacent in your success.
With every award we’ve won or accolade we’ve earned, we savor the moment, while still knowing that we need to do better tomorrow. You need to be always actively engaged in the future planning of your business.
4. Don’t let your ego get in the way.
You hate it when clients don’t trust your expertise. Don’t do the same thing to those professionals you hire as your employees, or vendors. Let them do their thing.
5. It’s a business first, a love affair second.
Early on, I made the mistake of thinking that as long I was doing what I loved, that was enough. I thought that that love alone was a big part of my compensation. But after starting a family, I quickly learned that it was not. I also learned that you can be passionate and still be compensated fairly.
6. Follow your passions, and the work follows.
I found out early on how passionate I am about branding. I studied all I could about it. I knew how critical it would be for our success, to become an expert on it. I wrote several books and a lot of articles, and brands did in fact become the backbone of our success. Find your own passion, and follow it through.
7. Your work is part of your marketing expense.
The extra effort you put into your work is part of your advertising expense. You recoup that investment on the next job. And the next. And the next after that. As the level of the work gets better, it becomes more sought after, and your pricing reflects that demand.
8. Surround yourself with those you admire.
Build a team of people whom you admire and can grow personally from. Remove from your circle those who attempt to bring you down, or tell you that you can’t do something or continue to blame their own failures on external circumstances.
9. Ninety-five percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.
Don’t let the pursuit of total perfection stop the forward progress of your goals. Many people get hung up on having something that’s absolutely perfect, and thus, no forward progress is attained as they wait to achieve “perfection.”
10. Contracts are your best friends.
Be professional at every step of the way, and use contracts for every job. Too many misunderstandings can occur without contracts. Get something written up, not only to protect your interests, but to insulate you from liability.
11. Educate yourself, to excel.
It’s important to continue educating yourself on your industry. Read books, attend trade shows and seminars and soak up as much as you can. There's always more to learn.
12. Be as passionate about the success of your clients as you are about your own.
When you take a genuine interest in your clients' success, they notice and appreciate it. While awards and accolades are nice, at the end of the day, all that matters is how your work translates into success for your clients. If you truly believe that their success is the most important part of your job, you’ll share in their growth, as well.
13. You can’t do it all yourself.
Realize that’s it very difficult to do it all yourself. Share the load with your employees, vendors and partners -- and don't micromanage them in the process.
14. Share what you know.
Write, blog and publish as much content as you can. Share your knowledge with others, and try to educate your customers -- rather than just sell them things.
15. Think about your business globally, not just locally.
As of today, our in-state revenue is about 20 percent of our total; and the other 80 percent of revenue comes from sources spread over the rest of the country and worldwide. If someone had told me 20 years ago that we’d be selling advertising services to clients in the UK, I might have thought they were insane. There’s more business out there than just in your backyard -- especially when what you provide is something clients can’t get locally.
16. Invest in your image and marketing.
It’s likely that over the last 20 years, we’ve invested over $500,000 worth of time in our own marketing initiatives. We’re focused on improving our marketing, our website and our marketing materials. We continue to invest heavily in content marketing, as well. Make sure your business looks the part, as well -- because there's always someone out there trying to outdo what you've done.
17. Plan for an exit.
At some point, plan for an exit strategy. While you may never execute that exact exit strategy, it’s important to have one in place. You never know what the future holds. Plan for a day when you may need to leave your business or hand it off to someone else. Design your business so that it can run in your absence; otherwise, it will hold little value to a potential buyer.
18. Say you’re sorry or that you screwed up.
This applies to both clients and employees. Own up to your mistakes. There’s no school that I know of that teaches you how to be a great boss. You’ll make mistakes frequently -- but it’s important to learn from them and apply the lessons, moving forward. Employees don't expect you to be infallible -- they expect you to be human. It's how you deal with mistakes that's what is most important to them.
19. Always look ahead and around the corner.
We never rest on our laurels, no matter how smoothly things are running or how busy we are. We’re always planning for what may lie ahead. So many businesses stop their progress and marvel at their success, forgetting that it takes effort to stay on top.
20. Build a positive culture in the workplace.
Employees, and potential employees, place a high value on company culture. Build an environment that encourages creativity and fosters teamwork. Our work is serious, but we have a good time with one other. We employ more than just a beer keg and Pizza Thursdays to make it fun to work here: We’re all pursuing excellence, and each person believes deeply in our mission and what we stand for.