6 surprising lessons learned after 6 months in business

It was a sunny August day in Chicago when Nadine and I first sat down to get the wheels rolling on our marketing business. As we sipped coffee and brainstormed service offerings, we were faced with an open road, endless possibilities, and one looming question:

What the hell are we doing?

Before starting Keyword Marketing, Nadine and I worked together at a financial services firm in Chicago. I was an associate fresh out of college and she was an experienced marketing director.

We worked together like PB&J work together; effortlessly and - I’ll say it - deliciously.

We eventually parted ways when I moved to the Twin Cities, but kept in touch often. What we uncovered through our conversations was a mutual desire to do something different with our careers, re-discover our creative selves, and help business owners in our communities thrive. It was here that the seed for Keyword was planted and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is no secret that we live in an exciting, magical time where starting a business is both accessible and affordable.

If you are thinking about making or recently made the leap into business ownership, here are six lessons we learned from our first six months running a service-based business:

1. Start with what you know

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it was an important lesson to learn in order to effectively get the wheels rolling. We spent so much time trying to fit services into boxes we thought our customers might need (SEO! Design! Web development!), despite not knowing much about the services proposed or knowing if it is was what our customers wanted.

Instead, we started testing what we knew: Building marketing plans, conducting market research, writing, and managing social media.

By starting with what you know, you relieve the pressure to master something you think you should be good at and instead, free yourself up to focus on testing the services you already know how to do well.

2. Use a compass rather than a map

Srini Rao, creator of the Unmistakable Creative podcast, talks about the concept of using a compass rather than a map as your guide, because life evolves in ways you can’t predict.

The same concept applies in business. If you’re tied to one direction, you will miss out on opportunities that you never saw coming; opportunities that could transform your business and your life.

Everything from our name to our service offerings evolved - and continue to evolve - dramatically. What started with boxes of services we didn’t know anything about turned into a spectrum of services that we do really well, and what we provide today will change based on what we learn tomorrow.

"If we use a map for long enough, we lose sight of the fact the entire journey was based on a plan someone else had for us."
-Srini Rao

As Keyword continues to take shape, we are working hard to keep our eyes, minds, and hearts open to the ebb and flow that the business experiences.

If you’re feeling the effects of constant change as you launch your business, try letting go of the rigidity of your path and watch the beauty that unfolds when you’re open to opportunities just outside your view.

3. Keep it real with your business partner(s)

Building a business with a partner is a blast. You have someone to geek out with, learn the ropes with, and celebrate moments with. A business partner also keeps you accountable, inspired, and moving forward.

But building a business is no walk in the park, contrary to how desirable self-employment looks on your Instagram feed.

One of the most fundamental lessons we learned this year was to always keep the lines of communication open. If you’re feeling frustrated, if expectations aren’t being met, or if you’re going through something that impacts your work, talk about it. Embrace uncomfortable conversations, because it’s in the uncomfortable where you find growth.

The most amazing thing I discovered when working through issues with Nadine was that I went from a place of defeat to a place of "maybe"

And a place of “maybe” is one of the most inspiring places to be.

4. Don’t wait until everything is in place to get started

When we brought on our first client, we were still figuring out a name for the business. We had no web presence, no clear offering, no logo, and truly, no clue what the hell we were doing.

And yet, we had one client! And then we had two, three, four...

We did this simply by putting ourselves out there; by telling friends, family, our networks, and strangers at coffee shops what we were doing. We hand-wrote business cards to give to anyone who would listen. We were enthusiastic and relentless in our pursuit.

And it worked.

Your network is powerful. People will generally be thrilled to support and recommend you, especially if they know you and your previous work. Don’t wait until your offerings are wrapped in a bow to ask for help, a referral, or an introduction from your network.

Take the time to plan, but do not wait until all of your ducks are in a row to get started.

Traditional education teaches us how to create business plans, run projections, and execute marketing tactics. But what you don’t often learn is that all of this changes as your business molds. And when you are knee-deep in planning and projections, you miss one critical step: Execution.

In a service-based business, you may not even know what you need until you have a few projects under your belt. Better to get started and evolve as you go than to create a neatly packaged product that is not what you or your customers needed in the first place.

Your biggest business failure will be to never start at all.

5. Keep tabs on your most valuable asset: Your time

When we first started Keyword, tracking time was an afterthought; something we were advised to do but didn’t take very seriously. As a result, we underestimated project times, missed the mark on pricing, and spent countless hours doing unpaid work.

Your time is precious and the most valuable asset you have in a service-based business.

Though not all of your activities will fall under the scope of billable hours, by not tracking your time, you risk underestimating project times, blowing deadlines for clients, and wasting precious time.

We use Toggl to keep track of time, but many free tools exist today that will do the trick. Some of the items we track include:

  • The brainstorm process (a step in the writing process that is easy to miss)
  • The drafting and revision process
  • Research for blog post or article topics
  • Formatting
  • Gathering analytics
  • Time spent writing and responding to client emails

That said, keep in mind that billing by the hour may not be the best approach for what you’re offering. Explore project-based, retainer-based, or percentage-based pricing to find out the most beneficial approach for both you and your clients.

If you’re unsure how to price your services - and the struggle is real if you’re trying to do it for the first time - I highly recommend investing in Ash Ambirge’s Sentences & Money course

Ash reminds us that as writers, designers, VAs, creatives, or whatever profession you might be in, we all bring something unique to the table. Our time, experience, and services are valuable and she encourages us to avoid falling into the trap of pricing ourselves like a commodity.

As she so eloquently puts it, "We don't want to look like assholes with paper bags on top of our heads.”

Have confidence in your work, know that your time is valuable, and don’t be afraid to price yourself accordingly.

And finally…

6. Understand that you are not your work

Your business is important, but you are not your business. You are a human with hobbies and loved ones and big and small dreams.

You will make mistakes. You will piss people off. You will lose clients. You won’t have it all figured out. And that's okay.

At the end of the day, your worth in this world is not equated to how much money your business brings in, how many books you write, or the length of your client list.

Take the pressure off, go do the best work you can today, and leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy the parts of your life that fall outside your scope of work.

Keyword Marketing inspires creators, builders, and self-starters to bring their company to life. We help businesses develop their identity, share their personality with the world, and connect with their customers through education, coaching and workshops, and personalized consulting.

Originally posted on LinkedIn