When it comes to being a business owner, a lot of people read articles that only highlight the positive outcome of a master success story. Facebook, Google, and AirBNB are all among the ‘unicorns’ who succeeded so well — and so fast. They are the companies that made it out of their first, second, and third year in business thriving.
But what about the companies, and the people behind them, who are killing it on a lesser scale? What about the companies that you haven’t heard of — who are making a difference within their industry and beyond? That’s what I want to talk about, because that’s where I feel we fit in.
Over the last three years of being a business owner, I’ve learned a lot (okay, SO MUCH — let’s be real), and hit a few roadblocks; I’ve taken those difficult instances and chalked them up as ‘learning lessons.’ Because if we don’t learn from our failures we’ll never get better. I also don’t like to call them ‘failures’ I like to call them ‘areas of opportunity.’ Words matter, after all, and moving away from the word ‘failure’ helps keep a positive outlook in even the most bleak situations.
But if you’re a small business trying to grow, what can you do to help yourself? Here I’ve shared my takes from the trenches — this is what we did when the going got tough, in order to set ourselves apart and grow to six full-time people over the course of three years.
Meet With Anyone and Everyone
In the beginning, I would meet with as many people as possible. I started working mornings, nights, and weekends to build up my business — all while I was still working full-time at my marketing job. That job was for a local dermatologist and we had Friday afternoons off. Those Friday afternoons, for me, were always dedicated to two and only two things:
Cold calling around the community
Meetings with clients or prospective clients
It’s true: Cold calling was THE WORST. But I did it. I would try to make it a little less ‘sales-y’ when I would come knocking on their door by bringing something with me that I could drop off. For example, once I brought the owner a little Chinese take-out box that had chocolates in it, and on the top it had a business card. On one side of the business card it read, “What’s sweeter than having someone do your marketing for you?” On the other side it had my contact information.
My boyfriend, now husband, drove me around to these drop-offs, and stuck by me for moral support. The outcome of this work, hard as it was, wasn’t exactly what I’d planned. I never got any clients out of it — but someone did introduce me to a networking group that I got a TON of clients from.
And that brings me to my next point.
Join A Networking Leads Group
Yes, these exist. And if you don’t know about them, or have written them off, stay with me here. In the beginning, I went each week (yes, they’re weekly) and met with as many people in that group as I could. I was 25 when I started my company, and being a young female I felt like I needed to gain a lot of trust. And so that’s what I did.
Each week we were asked to stand up and talk about something about your business: victories, how you helped someone succeed, lessons that you’ve learned, and even tips. The purpose was to educate the people in the group so they could think of you when they were out in the field, and I took advantage of that opportunity. After a few sessions of speaking, I was firmly in the front-of-mind for this group. Whenever they heard someone needed marketing help, they’d think of me and refer them my way!
Joining this group, which was a spinoff of a BNI group (check them out — they’re nation-wide) helped me leave my full-time job. That’s the kind of difference these referrals made!
Ask For Reviews
When you’re just getting started, reviews on Google are pivotal — make sure you ask your customers for them on a monthly basis (or however often you deal with clients). For businesses like cleaners, car tinters or AC companies, you should ask for reviews even more often.
I emailed people after their work was complete or after they’d been with us for a while, asking them for a ‘rave review.’ I would then add the link to the email, so that all they needed to do was sign into their Gmail account, click on the link, and leave us a review straight there. This is something I practice to this day; reviews are absolutely key.
Plus, reviews helps with your Google Maps listings — which is also your GMB (Google My Business) listing, too. Not sure what I’m talking about? If you don’t have one, that’s your homework for today. Click here to go to that page and set it up.
You Can’t Do It All, Stop Trying To Do Everything
Classic entrepreneur problem: trying to do it all. I’ve definitely been there.
I tried to do it all, and found that it never worked; I always ended up doing it at the expense of my health and happiness. If you’re familiar with Arianna Huffington’s book, Thrive, she talks about this exact problem. When she was trying to do it all, she passed out on her desk from exhaustion, landed on her face, and woke up in a pool of blood. Yes, that’s a real story!
Women especially are unrealistically expected to be superwomen by society — but we have to cut ourselves some slack from time to time! Learn how to outsource. Even better? Learn how to automate. Here are a couple of programs that I LIVE by, that have helped me navigate and delegate my day-to-day tasks:
This application allows your programs to work together. For example, when I add a new client to our Freshbooks accounting software (which is another excellent application), I have Zapier send out a ‘zap’ to add this new client to our time tracking software, add them to our project management software, add a new folder for them in our client drive and add a task that reminds us to set up a meeting to kick off the project with this client as well as to assign and delegate a strategy for us to start implementing. This literally saves about 20-30 minutes each time we get a new client. That’s a win in my book!
I mentioned this earlier, but it’s such a lifesaver, it bears repeating. In the beginning, I was recording payments on a spreadsheet and sending out a Word doc in PDF form to all my clients. I didn’t accept credit cards, and it was HORRIBLE to send out invoices. Horrible. All of this took so long, and it was hard for me to keep track of everything. Freshbooks is highly affordable and has a great recurring invoice option. They’re also now implementing proposal software, so you can have a client accept the proposal AND e-sign it. This program starts around $40-50 per month with their new plans.
Speaking of e-signing, I’ve been with DocuSign from the beginning. I used to have people print out their agreements and sign them, and then I would scan them back in, and the next time I saw them I’d give them a copy with my signature. Talk about a hassle! This program makes it so much easier. You can add templates (which I highly recommend — this alone saves me loads of time) and you can add client info by drag and dropping. It’s around $10 – $40 per month, depending on the plan you choose.
This time-tracking software is fabulous. If you’re not having your employees or yourself track time, you don’t know what you’re missing — and frankly, what you’re spending. Where is your time going? When you run reports on this program, you’ll be shocked to learn where you’re really spending your time. It’s also amazing to see what your employees are up to. Where are their hours going? This is essential to ensure you’re billing correctly, and not losing money in the process. This was a BIG learning lesson for me. I found that we were giving more than we were taking with some of our clients. We had to look at it as a team, and reevaluate how we handled clients and tasks. This program is free for up to 5 users.
This is our task-manager of choice. It enables multiple users and tasks that can recur, making it easy to remember everything. This program is free for up to 15 users.
I am a huge proponent of G Suite. We use their Gmail, Google Docs, and all of the rest of their items. I love using this over just a Word Doc, because it enables multiple people to edit at once and comment within the doc. This program is $10 per user if you want to snag unlimited storage.
Surround Yourself With Good People
I don’t mean just your family who supports you; I mean coaches and mentors. Notice how I added an ‘s’ to the end of those?
In the beginning, as I said, I would meet with anyone and everyone. At the end of these conversations, if I felt they could help me long-term, I’d ask if they’d be open to mentoring me, or meeting once a month or so.
Here’s an example of how it worked for me:
I went to coffee with a marketing agency owner. He had been in business for 15 years, and I was introduced to him from a networking group I belonged to. The person who introduced us said, “Not sure if he can help you, but he’s a great guy and I figured maybe you could meet up and see what comes of it.” I said okay, and sent an email.
We were talking about our businesses, and at the end of the conversation he said, “How can I help you?” Without really needing to think about it, I said, “I need a mentor.” He then asked me what that meant, and we were off to the races. He agreed to meet with me as I needed, and we’ve been meeting for over a year now. His guidance has been invaluable! I’ve been able to brain dump all of my questions, and he’s able to answer them — because most of the time, he’s had that same question himself. He’s enabled me to bypass speed bumps and issues I wouldn’t have known how to handle otherwise.
But he’s not my only mentor. Like I mentioned above, these should be plural. I also have a business coach, a sales coach, and a life coach — and I’m always looking for more.
These stories, lessons and tips are exactly what we’re doing now and what we have been doing — with a little bit of tweaking. I hope these helped give you confidence, helped steer you in the right direction, or helped you overcome an obstacle. You don’t have to be a giant like Facebook to be a successful business; you just have to be able to grow and learn. These tips will get you started — the rest is up to you.