Having reached an unbelievable landmark of 20 years in business (where has that time gone!) I have reflected on some of the lessons learnt throughout this time. It’s generally been an enjoyable ride, although not without its bumps. Even so, I have worked with some remarkable people, for some amazing clients and produced some outstanding work. I am very proud of what Surefoot Communications have achieved and if anything I have learnt along the way could be deemed sage advice for anyone else thinking of starting a business then all the better.
Things I’ve learnt:
Build your business around things you like doing
Design, print and creativity were things I knew I was good at, but did I really know how to run a business? I think I always felt that I could work my way through anything. If I didn’t understand something I could just look it up, practice it, learn it and move on. It’s fair to say I didn’t ever think I would have to spend as much time doing the things that support the things I like doing, but that’s OK. You learn to appreciate that they’re all parts of the same machine and in time, to understand how the business works is as important as knowing how to do the work.
I enjoy the Surefoot ‘business’ because business still involves creative thinking, finding solutions, making something look, sound and feel as good as it can be, and those things are what everyone at Surefoot loves doing.
You don’t have to become someone else to succeed
Pushing myself outside my comfort zone on a regular basis was a big part of growing Surefoot, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of being what customers and suppliers expect you to be. When you start a business you will know less than you think, but you are also likely to over-estimate what others expect from you. Be honest, open and forthright, and don’t be afraid to say ‘Can I come back to you on that?’. Pretending to know something when you really don’t is likely to catch you out sooner rather than later.
What I’ve learnt, is that people buy from people – especially in a creative industry. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a fancy marketing strategy so long as you truly care about doing good work and building relationships with people.
Most businesses are not an overnight success – and that’s okay.
If it feels like your business is growing at a snail’s pace, you’re not alone. I felt that way for most of the first couple of years. The truth is that most businesses fail and most of the businesses that do succeed don’t take off overnight. It may take years to make a substantial return on your time, effort and money. Unless you are spectacularly lucky or have an incredible product that grabs the world’s attention right away, most businesses fold within their first year.
If you believe enough in what you’re doing and keep pleasing those that you’re doing it for then success will follow.
Take risks, but calculate that risk first
It is OK to take risks. In fact, it’s great to take risks. However, these need to be calculated risks. Taking risks without assessing your options is short sighted and reckless, but calculated risks tend to lead to the biggest rewards.
No one cares as much about your business as you do
This may seem obvious but when you’re in the throes of turmoil and you have a project that’s going to mean working through the night, don’t expect all of those around you to just drop everything and muck in. You may be extremely lucky and have some wonderful staff, as I have, that will do everything they can to help. If you get that then don’t take it for granted. People don’t tend to stay long where they’re not appreciated. Neither your customers, suppliers, friends or family with all best intentions will care about your business as much as you do. Reconcile yourself with that and learn to manage it. Always be grateful for those that go above and beyond to help you succeed. Buy your staff pizza when working late. Send that supplier a bottle of wine for pulling out all of the stops for you. Drop a box of chocolates in to your customer for being flexible on delivery. Those small tokens will go a long way.
Hard work is as important as talent
The number-one lesson I’ve learned in my lifetime is that nothing beats hard work. Hard work is necessary if you want to succeed. This not only means working hard when things are going well but working harder when things are not. It means taking calculated risks and sticking to them, no matter how challenging they are.
Your talents, the bits that customers pay you for and are expected as a matter of course can only really be delivered with hard work. How wonderful it would be to just get paid for what you’re good at and leave the rest to someone else. As a designer that felt possible every day. As a business owner you will need to spin another five plates to ensure that job is delivered on time, to the highest quality and at the right cost. Spinning those plates is something you learn over time, but is still ultimately rewarding.
Perseverance is essential
Business growth is most likely not going to come quickly. And it’s important to know that! Only half of new businesses survive to the five-year mark. This isn’t simply because they’re terrible business ideas. Some might be fantastic business ideas with a ton of potential—that their founder just gave up on too quickly.
If you’re looking to start a successful business, it’s important to settle in for the long-haul. Of course, some people get lucky and their business blossoms very quickly, but that’s more the exception than the norm.
It is also as important to understand this even after 20 years of business. New business doesn’t tend to land on your doorstep. You may need to nurture a warm lead over many months before you get your opportunity to prove yourself. You will need to keep those contacts live that have moved roles, even if they don’t look like a natural source for new work. Running a business is very much a mixture of short-term focus and long-term planning.
Natural creativity doesn’t work just 9 to 5
Creative inspiration doesn’t typically come during a specific time each day. To succeed, you sometimes need to let the 9-5 mentality go, and allow yourself to work when you feel most inspired. Yes, this can lead to irregular working hours, but I also think it leads to better, less “forced” work. Generally, I aim to stick to the same working hours each day, but if I’m just not feeling inspired or motivated, I know that I need to take a break and come back to it later.
I also know that I need to eliminate the “guilt” that surrounds unmotivated feelings. Since I’m steering the whole ship, I can begin to feel guilty if I’m not inspired to work normal hours. The 9-5 mentality has been so hammered into my mind that it’s hard to accept that there are other ways (and times) of working. But when I let myself work when I’m ready, I know I produce the best work.
Everyone is making it up as they go along
I think it’s easy to see colleagues, customers and your peers and immediately think ‘They’ve really got their shit together!’. If 20 years in business has taught me anything it is that many haven’t and they’re effectively just making it up as they go along. I’m sure I’m doing a disservice to many out there who really do have it all covered, every day, but when you really get closer to other people’s roles you will generally tend to find that they’re learning on the job, as you are.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say this in a disparaging way. I think we all need to be open to learning something new every day and letting those from all walks of life improve our knowledge. I just think that we mustn’t do ourselves down for not knowing all of the answers, safe in the knowledge that no one does. To someone else, you may be the person who looks like they’ve got their shit together!
Don’t make any important decisions in anger
I’ve been lucky enough in business to not have faced many cliff edge decisions. A planned approach to business and even to each project can eradicate a majority of the unforeseen. But when those unexpected disasters do happen it can be very easy to jump to conclusions, play the blame game and look for fault. Your easy out may sometimes give short term gratification but ends up coming back to bite you later on.
You may be tempted to jump on your keyboard and send a less than courteous email to a client. You may be tempted to pick up the phone and scream at a supplier. These may feel, or even may be very justified.
STOP. Have patience. Take 5, take 10, take a walk. The problem is still going to be there in 10 minutes time. A hastily compiled email or ranting telephone call telling the recipient exactly how you feel is only likely to cause regret and embarrassment at a later stage. The cause of the issue and the solution are often much simpler than they first seem.
Learn from others
One thing I wish I had actioned many years ago would be to get a mentor. Learning from those who have been there and done it, especially in your specific area of business is invaluable. I have sought advice from many individuals over the past 20 years but never a valued confidant with unbiased views of your strengths and weaknesses.
The one thing I have done is read lots. I joined a business book club many years ago and it opened my eyes to a whole world of self-help, business planning and inspirational books. Classics such as ‘How to win friends and influence people’ by Dale Carnegie, ‘Start with why’ by Simon Sinek and ‘The one thing’ by Gary Keller have been fantastic reads. I page mark all of the books to allow me to go back to them regularly to find elements of guidance and inspiration. It is very easy to become insular and become caught up in your own world but meeting like-minded business owners and managers has been very useful. Read lots and read regularly.
Your staff are your biggest asset
I have been lucky to have had some great staff over the past 20 years, including the current crop (they’re reading this!). It is true to say that however hard I work, however smart I think I am and however fortunate I’ve been there’s not a moment that would have arrived that doesn’t stem back to my staff.
We would all rather be travelling the world, or lying on a beach, or loafing on the sofa than be at work. We should always remember that. Every member of staff should want to come to work. OK, not every day but the majority of the time. Make it fun, make it interesting and always remember that they can always go and work somewhere else.
Business never stops
In all honesty this is one thing I was never under the illusion wasn’t the case before I started Surefoot 20 years ago. My previous roles had never been strictly 9 – 5 but the difference now is not the working hours but the down time. Removing yourself mentally from the business at weekends, on holiday and when taking time off is something I can’t honestly say I’ve nailed. I admire those that can switch off properly and I am pretty sure many will tell me that it is my inability to let go that is the root cause.
In some ways I enjoy the responsibility, but it’s not something you can really choose to turn on and off. A stressful week will tend to mean a weekend of reflection. A great week will make that Saturday night out all the more enjoyable. I accept it, I embrace it and I concede that on this point I am a work in progress!
Take the good with the bad
Business, and I think that must mean every business, is full of the good and the less good times. I say that specifically because I try not to dwell on the ‘bad’ times. If you’re able to treat them as moments of learning then they quickly become something that becomes manageable. Life will inevitably throw us all a curveball now and then. Business is no different. All of the planning in the world cannot prepare you for a fire on a train in the Channel Tunnel that sent your exhibition banners up in smoke (yes that actually happened!). If the less good times ever outweigh the good then I may have to reconsider my outlook but until then C’est la Vie.
Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses
I’ve had some great times over the past 20 years of Surefoot. But rarely, if ever, did I celebrate those successes. More often than not, I let them pass without considering their significance or achievement.
When you don’t celebrate those successes then they tend to just pass you by. You create new goals to replace the old ones and the cycle continues. As I get older I’ve found that it’s important to stop every once in a while and reflect on the moments and achievements that have been important to me. If you don’t celebrate your successes, then you have a higher chance of burning out or being left with the question of “why am I doing all of this?”
Family comes first. Period.
This is my answer to ‘Why am I doing all of this?’. For me that’s my wife, two teenage girls, my parents, siblings and extended family. For each of us it may be different, but I believe there needs to be a focus. I have certainly been guilty of spending too many hours in the office over the past 20 years. You cannot control time. You cannot wind back the clock to go to a sports day you missed. Ask yourself two months later why you missed it and you won’t remember. Make time for the little things, because they’re the things that make you whole. Perspective.
‘Why’ is more important than ‘how’
I have read many business and self-help books over the past 20 years. There have been some fantastic books in that time, and also some shockers. ‘Start With Why’ by Simon SInek is one of the books that I try to refer back to whenever I can. This applies on so many levels. The ‘Why’ for your client (personal or professional), the ‘Why’ for the project and the ‘Why’ for you. If you really don’t understand why you are working on your current project, what it means to the client and what it is expected to achieve then you are more likely to fail however hard you work. Ask the question whenever you get the opportunity, even if it isn’t out loud. It will get you to the answer far quicker than the ‘what’ or ‘how’.
The customer is not always right, but is always deserving of respect
This is one of the most valuable lessons to be learnt, both as a business owner and as a person. You may have heard the adage that, “the customer is always right.” While this may not necessarily be true, it is true that each person is deserving of your respect and professionalism.
I have worked with hundreds of clients. Most of them have resulted in great relationships, some of which even turned into friendships. But of course, there were also some clients who were much harder to deal with. When a client (or anyone, ever) is rude or disrespectful, I think the best thing to do is to treat them with respect and professionalism. There is absolutely nothing positive that can come from trying to “prove that you’re right” to an angry client. Try to understand the issue from their perspective, let them know that you hear them, and then decide on a plan of action to either solve the problem or let them down gently and professionally.
Fight the urge to want to be “right.” Instead, aim to be helpful and respectful.
Listen to your customers. Do more of what they appreciate
This may sound simple, but it is amazing how easy it is to slip into a mode where you focus on the next stage of your plan and forget to listen. I was taught many years ago that a client meeting should always aim to have the 70/30 balance. Listen for 70% of the time, speak for 30% and even in that 30% try to fill that time with questions. If you ask the right questions you will find the real pain, and if you know what the pain is you will stand more change of doing what they actually want and need you to do.
Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong early on, it probably is.
The clue is in the heading. Sometimes it is easy to second guess yourself. To feel that this time it will be better. To see something as a sign of good things to come when really you were already seeking affirmation for something that didn’t feel right. Trust your instincts and don’t try to outsmart yourself.
Referrals are the best route to new business. Delight your customers, so they can’t help talking about you.
This has been key to the growth at Surefoot over the years. In all honesty we should probably have a better new business funnel than we have but so much of our growth can be put down to organic growth and referral. Concentrating on the here and now can certainly pay dividends, although I would never advocate ignoring new business development! A happy customer becomes a cheerleader for your business and hopefully becomes reliant on your high levels of service. Never take that business for granted.
Be genuine. Be valuable
Last but not least — and perhaps the most important lesson of all — is to be completely genuine and totally valuable. Even though pride may often try to hijack my best resolve, I’ve learnt that in business it’s so much more meaningful to admit when you’re wrong, be kind and genuine, and try to offer a ridiculous amount of value to the client.
To all of the wonderful clients, staff, suppliers, friends and family that have helped Surefoot along the way may I take this opportunity to thank you for your support. It’s been a blast, and I look forward to whatever the next 20 years brings!