Updated: Jan 7, 2020
On 16 October 2019, I pushed past a huge psychological milestone: 1000 days in business. I hadn’t actually realized I had hit that milestone – it was Charles Hsuan who told me I had while we were recording a podcast for his series “How I built this”. When LinkedIn told me I had officially been in business for three years, I realized maybe I needed to celebrate and reflect on still being here (something I am not entirely sure I believed would really be the case when I embarked on this journey).
1. “*uck this Sh!t, I’ll leave and start my own business” – it’s not quite as easy as it sounds
I am sure that many of us leave corporate with that exact phrase in mind. I certainly did. The anticipation of starting my own thing, having creative freedom, being able to work how I wanted, when I wanted, with whom I wanted – ah how idealistic I was (you can laugh with me as I am certainly chuckling at my naivety). The reality is registering a business is easy – but that doesn’t make it a business!
If you want your business to pay you the salary you earned as an employee (or more), making it through the first few years is hard work. 1000 days later I am very close to earning the salary I had when I left corporate – what I didn’t truly appreciate when I started out was that I would be pretty poor for the first 1000 days.
If you are about to leap out on your own, make sure you have a good financial nest egg to support you – I did and it’s what got me through to year 2. To be honest I wouldn’t have made the leap without that financial reserve.
2. Nurture and grow your network before you need it.
If you are thinking of changing careers, changing industries, starting your first business or any other major transition in your career, my best tip is to start networking now in the space into which you want to move.
Surround yourself with people who are doing the job you want to step into, who are working in the industry or country that you want to move into, that are building a business that appeals to you – these are people that you can learn from, that you can build loose connections with. Nurture and grow your network before you need it. Nurturing your network may not lead to anything now, but chances are when you invest in your network on a regular basis, you will have lubricated your relationships sufficiently that when you need an introduction or a referral, it will be an easy ask rather than an awkward conversation.
LinkedIn has been part of my networking strategy – as far as possible after every event that I attend, I try to connect with people on LinkedIn. Four years ago my network was small and consisted predominantly of people I worked with directly in the mining industry in South Africa. Today my LinkedIn network spans multiple industries, geographies, generations, professions, and includes connections from graduate students all the way to executives in some pretty interesting companies. After three years of being relatively active on LinkedIn, my online networking strategy has started to pay dividends with approximately 60% of my clients this year coming via LinkedIn, and about 50% of those being from outside of South Africa.
3. Cashflow is everything
It all became very real in Year 2. In business cash is king – we hear that all the time. It’s all very well sending out lots of invoices, but when clients are slow to pay it can kill a business. In year two according to my accounts receivable my business was flourishing – but my bank statements did not agree. There is absolutely nothing sexy about asking clients to pay up and for someone who almost never uses a credit card, watching my credit card reach its limit was about as nerve wracking as it gets. I learned very quickly how little money I need to survive, how there are a lot of things I want but don’t really need, and that negotiating terms is critical. After a period of struggling to get clients to pay on time, I changed my approach and now operate a coaching practice that works on upfront payments only.
4. Surround yourself with the people that you want to become
Ever heard the saying “You are the average of the company you keep”. For the first 6 months in business, I looked back and tried to leverage relationships that had served me in the past. I very quickly realized however that what held us to together previously, was no longer serving me.
My perspective and behaviours started to shift when I started surrounding myself with coaches, businesswomen, people that were doing what I wanted to be able to do, confident people that had made inspiring changes in their lives. If you want to be brave, hang out with people that you think are braver than you. If you want to start a business, start hanging out with people who have started businesses that interest you.
5. Focus on the future, not on the past
So often it’s easy to assume that the people who you worked with closely in a former role, will support you when you set up your new business. But here’s the truth: that is an unrealistic, and even unfair, expectation.
What made you valuable to your friends and colleagues in your previous role, is no longer what you offer, and what you offer in your business may be of no value to them. It doesn’t make them bad people – it just means they are not your ideal clients - that’s ok!
While it hurts at the time, in all honesty, it’s a good lesson to learn early in business so that you focus on looking forward and developing your ideal clients, rather than holding out hoping that old networks will support you. If your old networks support you that’s an added bonus.
6. What got you here is not what’s going to take you forward
Starting a business means that at least for a while you have to deliver on every single role that you took for granted as an employee – suddenly you are no longer just responsible for technical delivery, you are also the office manager, marketing manager, financial manager, events manager, data manager, logistics manager, financial manager, project manager, operations manager, sales manager… you get the idea.
What made me competent within the safety of an organization, did not make me good at starting a business. Thankfully I had the opportunity to build a lot of business acumen and work across the business in my career, but many don’t. If you are thinking of leaving the safety of employment to start your own business, take every opportunity to build your business acumen while you are still employed.
7. Let your business evolve
I started my business with the observation that young professionals in technical disciplines often struggle to transition from technical into strategic positions and my idea was to offer coaching to young professionals as this was a segment that has not traditionally been served by coaches. The more I talked to people, the more they confirmed for me that there was a need in the market for what I wanted to offer. But I didn’t really know if it would be able to gain traction in this market, and neither did anyone else.
The only way to find out was to try. In practice, the way in which I wanted to offer coaching to this market was prohibitively expensive. For a while, I struggled to allow my business to evolve because I was married to the idea that I had to serve young professionals – but the reality was that it just wasn’t gaining traction. Over the last three years, my offerings have matured, my ideal clients have changed, and the more senior and executive clients that I serve now, to some extent enable me to offset some of my revenue to providing lower-priced and sometimes pro bono support to the young professional market that I truly want to support.
Keep testing, trying and evolving as you gather information and as the needs of the market change.
8. Be your brand
Receiving a cease and desist letter from a major international coaching company, in the first six months of being in business, is probably the scariest (and the best) thing that has happened to me in my journey to date. This “David and Goliath” moment forced me to confront whether I wanted to keep doing business or not. There were a few hours where I was ready to through in the towel before I found my sense of humour and couldn’t stop laughing at the hilarity of a global company taking umbrage at my 6-month old, 1-person flailing business.
I definitely wanted to stay in business and consulted an attorney who helped me negotiate an extension of time to sort out the admin of changing my business name. Shortly thereafter Think Action Coaching ceased to exist and Briony Liber Coaching and Consulting came into being.
The benefit from all of this was that by using my name as my company name, I could no longer play it safe while hiding behind an anonymous business name. It forced me to get out in front and start being the brand of my business. I very quickly lost the sterile, anonymous corporate tone in my messaging, and brought my full personality to my business – I haven’t looked back. Within weeks I had new clients contacting me because they resonated with my career story, many of them saying they felt like I was talking directly to them in my marketing communications.
Being my brand doesn’t mean I divulge all my personal stuff – it just means I bring myself to my business – my curiosity, my sense of humour, my energy, my intensity and I allow myself to be vulnerable which in turn creates safety for my clients to reciprocate.
9. The 4-hour work what??
Who doesn’t like the idea of a 4-hour workweek? Tim Ferriss’s title is so catchy and as a result terribly misleading for those who take the title literally and make assumptions about what he is suggesting. I believe a lot of people are attracted to ditching their jobs and starting a business in the illusion that it will be way easier than formal employment.
When I first started out, I had this idealistic view that I would be able to work shorter hours, have more freedom to explore my interests, be more relaxed and take more time off. I was imagining the perks of having built a sustainable business that was 10 years into its stage of maturity rather than where I was on day 1.
Idealism has its place and sometimes idealism needs to be put in its place. The reality is starting a business is hard work. A lot of it is pure grind. At some point when I outsource or hire staff it will be less grind and more probably stress (because more people will be involved). One of my greatest lessons in the last 3 years has been to step away from the idealistic view that having my own business will be easier than being an employee.
10. Build on the fly
I meet so many people who are too scared to start putting their business out there until they have everything perfect – perfect knowledge, perfect tools, perfect premises, perfect experience – and as a result delay starting their business and more importantly delay earning an income. But there is no such thing as perfect and when opportunities arise, building on the fly is a critical part of the business.
About mid-way through my first year, I decided that I needed to increase my revenue as things were slow and trying to build my revenue one coaching client at a time was not resulting in much of an income. I had this whacky idea that I could launch a 12-workshop / 6-month series and run it as group coaching. I had some ideas around the content but before I had even one workshop fully developed, I had marketed the series, managed to get 16 women to sign up, and suddenly realized I need to deliver on my promises. I can’t count the number of times I almost cancelled and gave everyone their money back. Instead, I built the series on the fly and for the next six months delivered a workshop every two weeks and in between each workshop developed the content. Those workshops lead to word of mouth referrals in year two, and I am currently turning those workshops into online course material.
11. 1-person businesses are not sustainable, and neither are business that have no systems!
In 2019 I started doing sub-contracted coaching to Aurik Business Accelerator and very quickly learned to appreciate that one-person businesses are not sustainable. I was simultaneously trying to service my private clients, sub-contract to Aurik who were giving me more and more clients each month, and I was working on a contract for mining client. I suddenly started to feel like there wasn’t enough of me to go around. By working as a one-person business I was unintentionally capping my ability to generate revenue, and I was dropping balls with regards bringing in new business, let alone having time to think about where I wanted to go with my business.
At Aurik, they talk about the concept of an Asset of Value which, amongst other things, is premised on building a system of delivery that ensures your customers are serviced and get what you promised whether you are there or not. For a while, I was present less and less in my own business and I realized I needed to outsource some of my admin to keep things ticking over. That turned into a dismal failure because I knew what I wanted my virtual administrator to do, but I had nothing documented in processes. Unfortunately, she wasn’t great at reading my mind (was I expecting too much?) and too much was left to interpretation.
I am learning this year to build systems which in my fourth year of business are hopefully going to support me in delegating some of my work to a virtual administrator, help me in completing the development of my online course and enable me to grow my business into one that operates smoothly even when I decide to take a few days off to think, or dare I say it, take a holiday!
12. Get to know yourself really well
I have learned that I like to work independently. I have learned I love to coach people virtually but struggle to work in a virtual team. I have learned that if I have back to back coaching sessions for anything more than 2 days, I need to schedule the third day for work that I can do alone. I have learned I get cabin fever easily and can only work from home for a maximum of a day at a time. I have learned I am more creative when I am working in a stimulating space with some form of background noise, but can’t focus on delivering client work unless I am in a quiet space. I have learned that I am a relentless procrastinator and the only way around this is to work in chunks of time as opposed to trying to start and complete a task in one go.
I have learned that writing (blogs) is a critical part of helping me to reflect, learn and grow. The fact that people actually read my blogs, relate to what I say and, in some cases, have become clients because of something I have written, is a real bonus. I have learned that I need a lot of variety in my work, that I have magpie tendencies and that despite kicking and screaming every step of the way, I need structure and routine as it creates a sense safety. And in the same way, I need structure and routine, there are days where I need to be completely spontaneous and rage against the machine! So much of what I struggled with in corporate, has been sorted out by figuring out what works for me and building a way of working that supports this.
13. If it's legal and ethical and you need the work, then seriously consider it even if it’s not core to what you are offering
I remember meeting someone who built a successful business by pretty much taking on any work with the mindset that if it was legal, ethical and she needed the revenue, she should find a way to do the work. She said yes and then found a way to make it happen. It created a healthy cashflow for her and over time she refined her offerings once she could afford to do so.
I remembered her when I was offered the opportunity to do some work for a mining company that would require me to delve back into the profession I had walked away from. To be honest I felt like such a failure considering doing work that reminded me of my previous career. I was adamant that I should only be taking on coaching work and to use my previous skills would be giving in. My coach very bluntly showed me what I just wasn’t seeing: I needed the work, I was competent to do the work, it was being offered to me and it was legal and ethical. That work has provided me with a healthy cashflow that has enabled me to create all sorts of resources within my coaching business, not least of which is the CEO of My Career online course that I am currently creating.
I know there are many who would disagree with me, saying that by taking on too many divergent types of work, you run the risk of diluting your business brand and confusing the market. I don’t dispute that as I regularly get people saying “Oh I didn’t know you did that as well”.
14. Embrace the suck
I had never heard of the phrase “Embrace the suck” until I read it in Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. It’s a military term that essentially means get comfortable with adversity, wade into it, surrender to it and see it as an opportunity to build resilience and a mindset that cannot be beaten down when things get hard.
Things get very hard in the first 1000 days of any business. Hell, things get hard in pretty much any transition because what’s happening is you are way out of your comfort zone and what made you competent and able to do your work without any effort before the transition, is not what makes you competent for the transition. Transitions are uncomfortable, they make you vulnerable, they show up your insecurities are areas of weakness. But they are also where, if you allow it to happen, you get to know yourself, you get to learn and grow and grapple with new challenges.
Starting a business has really given me the opportunity to face up to pretty much all my insecurities and fears. But as someone said to me some time ago: Being fearless is not the absence of fear, but rather acknowledging the fear and doing it anyway.
“People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses” – Brene Brown
My first 1000 days in business have been a combination of fear, suck, anxiety, personal development, learning, vulnerability, some tears, a lot of growth, excitement, many celebrations, new relationships, increased confidence, barrels of laughter, creative freedom, and the sheer joy of being awake, alive, engaged and intentional in my career.
I would love to know what you learned in your first 1000 days in business and if you have any words of wisdom for the next 1000 days please share those too!
I love conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.
I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself. I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.
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