Small business is damn hard. here are my hard won lessons from my first 10 years running a small business.
Small business is hard. Damn hard. If you told people the truth about how hard it can be at times, they a) wouldn’t believe you and b) would think that they would be able to do it better and easier than you while looking immaculate.
It’s a lot like parenting.
No one tells you about the exhaustion, the confusion, the second guessing, the moments when you lose the plot and cover your daughter’s teddy bear in food dye (… or is that just me?)
Every successful small business is built on a mountain of epic fails. If you are not failing, you are not learning. And if you are not failing then I suspect you may be telling porkies about not failing. Nobody in small business has a 100% easy ride!
Queen of Epic Fails
I am the Queen of Epic Fails. My pratfalls are the stuff of legend amongst my friends. As is my ability to pick myself up, dust myself off, stick a parrot on my shoulder and limp off into the next adventure.
So in the interests of providing a few laughs at my ability to epically fail, here are some of my better ones …, and what I learned along the way.
Heart Harmony was originally founded as a business and personal coaching practice. I had the background and experience as a coach/mentor after 20 years at senior levels in HR but my timing sucked – I was about 10 years ahead of the coaching trend in Australia. That meant I not only had to market my business, I had to educate the market about what coaching was.
I also had limited understanding of modern marketing techniques – so I relied on curling 3-fold brochures designed in Word and printed on my home printer.
I had a micro-budget website. Unfortunately, my website was all about me and not really about my clients. And did I mention the website was ugly?
I went to every networking event going in Brisbane. If there was a group with a few people at it, you could usually find me with my fist full of self-designed Vistaprint cards. At least I picked up some nice Tupperware while eating cheese cubes on toothpicks.
And how did my early days of marketing work for me?
I failed spectacularly!
Within 12 months my redundancy payout and savings had disappeared and it was time to head back to a j-o-b to replenish my capital and lick my wounds.
Small Business Tip 1: In the words of Winno Marsh – You need to be a better marketer of what you do, than a doer of what you do.
Small Business Tip 2: Appearances matter. Homemade marketing materials work well if you are a craft business selling items at a weekend market. They simply don’t cut it in a professional business. Professional marketing materials pay for themselves.
Side Hustle 1
I headed back into corporate world for a 6-month contract back in HR. During that time I decided that if I wanted to become an entrepreneur, I needed to learn more about modern marketing.
I started studying at night while working all day. I read everything I could about copywriting, small business marketing, SEO and web-development.
When my HR contract ended, I leaped back into my coaching business with renewed enthusiasm.
Another round of failure
The problem was that I had learned some essential marketing skills, but I was still ahead of the market in terms of trying to sell coaching when people didn’t know what coaching was or did.
After a few more months of burning money, I took another HR contract role.
Small Business Tip 3: Unless you have the budget of Apple, don’t enter a business where you have to educate the market. Pick a business where the market already has some knowledge of what it is that your industry offers. Find your business sweet spot and market to that audience.
Small Business Tip 4: There is no shame in side-hustles to keep income coming through the door.
Small Business Tip 5: If your business model is flawed, no amount of marketing will make it work.
Heading in the right direction (… for once)
This time the HR contract lasted 18 months, while I honed my copywriting skills at nights and on weekends (while juggling being a single mum and raising my two young girls without any financial support from my ex).
By this stage, I started to pick up freelance copywriting work with a local copywriting agency, and was able to turn out great copy during the evenings after my girls had gone to bed.
I knew the time had come to jump back into my business when instead of saying to my HR contract CEO, “I want to go part-time” I found the words coming out of my mouth were “I want to resign.” Freud would have been proud!
The copywriting agency put me on their books as a full time contractor and for 6 months everything was rosy.
They were my biggest client with over 90% of my business coming from them. Then the agency suddenly went quiet as they finished their major contract and I found myself with a teeny tiny income.
I went from comfortably paying the bills to living on instant noodles, as there were no HR contracts available on the market to fill in the gaps.
Small Business Tip 6: Never let one client be your dominant source of income or leads. Always diversify your client base.
And … Pivot
It was time for my business to pivot.
Heart Harmony became a copywriting agency specialising in SEO copywriting rather than just a coaching business, and I took my own advice and put my business into words.
Our first baby
I created our first e-product – the Instant HR Policies and Procedures manual designed to help small businesses solve their HR problems while also creating an income stream for our business.
I worked night and day for a week to create the HR Manual – only grabbing sleep in tiny snatches while the kids pushed Vegimite toast under the door to sustain me.
On the day of the launch, I emailed my massive email list of 300(!) people and waited.
15 minutes after my email broadcast … Ping. My first sale to Sheldon – one of my long-term clients and still a dear friend.
15 minutes later. Ping. Another sale to our local accountant.
Sales continued regularly throughout that week. It wasn’t enough to retire on, but it was enough to buy Christmas presents for my girls and trade in our instant noodles for regular groceries.
I then put everything I had learned into creating SEO copy about my business, and leveraged everything I wrote using article distribution sites to share my articles around the net.
I was everywhere on the net and I landed blue-chip clients that poured massive amounts of money through the business.
For a few years everything was smooth sailing.
I became complacent and didn’t extend my learning. I just did what I had learned to do – and did it well.
And then Google struck!
The SEO strategies I had been using were right at the time, and were suddenly no longer right. In fact, they were now as toxic as being stuck next to the creepy boss with halitosis as the Christmas party.
My traffic from Google tanked overnight.
I slowly slid down the rankings, which meant the phones became quieter and quieter until most days they barely rang.
Sales of my e-book dropped which meant my income also dropped and my kids and I were back to instant noodles (did I mention how much I detest instant noodles?)
Small Business Tip 7: When you are succeeding is the time you need to crank up your learning and not rest on your laurels.
Small Business Tip 8: With anything on the internet, what was once OK can change in an instant and take your business down with it. Always have a plan B.
When a Corporate Psychopath Calls
In my desperation for increasing cash flow, I cast around for solutions and took on a big public speaking colleague that my gut was telling me to be careful of. He was great at flattery and manipulation but had questionable ethics. And he needed his project done yesterday.
He quickly ran up a $40,000 debt to our business while monopolising all of our time for many months. He also racked up debt to my main printing and web suppliers – dear friends who were doing me a favour to help this client of mine.
He always had a plausible answer about where the money was, and we all trusted him.
He then disappeared – refusing to pay even though the services had already been provided for his events and he had been a huge success.
I was gutted.
Because I trusted him I had not insisted on formal contracts, and nor had my friends. We tried to recover the debt but we had no legal leg to stand on.
He got away scot-free, leaving us to wear the costs. Unfortunately, my business friendships did not survive the mess.
I curled up in shame and embarrassment and spiralled into deep depression. My father financially helped the business until I healed and came out the other side.
Small Business Tip 9: Always have your legals in place no matter what. If you lose a client because you insist on legals, they are a client worth losing.
Small Business Tip 10: Always always always trust your gut.
Small Business Tip 11: Never let a client’s urgency override your regular business practices.
Small Business Tip 12: Sometimes you will trust the wrong people. It is called being human. Forgive yourself.
Starting over (… again)
I eventually emotionally healed, and business once again picked up, but it took a massive personal toll on my father and my family. My father passed away soon after.
I came to a decision.
Heart Harmony morphed into Heart Harmony Communications – still focussed on web-copy and copywriting but combining mentoring and a few extra bits into the mix.
I decided that never again would I sell, promote or help a large corporate or business owner that was only in it for the money, or who cut ethical corners.
I decided that I would only work with salt of the earth, honest and decent small business owners and start-ups.
I decided that I would use every skill and talent I had to help small business owners succeed.
I decided to help the little guys win for a change, to help the sort of person who was like I was in the early days – trying to market their business but not sure how.
People in their shirtsleeves at the dinner table at night after a day of being on the tools, trying to work out how to grow their business.
People who genuinely wanted to make a difference to their customers and in doing so also make a difference to their own lives.
And where am I now?
I am still unpicking the Googlegeddon damage and rebuilding my rankings online.
I now constantly test and measure to see what is working, and adjust my course depending on the results.
I spend more time learning new things than I have ever done in my life (you CAN teach an old dog new tricks), and I always implement at least one thing from everything I learn, as I know that the money is in the implementation and not the learning.
I am super generous with my information and share epic content on my blog. I believe in sharing what I know and providing solutions for my small business owners of all budgets.
And yes, every now and again I will still pick up a small side hustle if needed to get extra funds for the next level of business growth (… and each time I do, I am reminded in stark detail why I prefer to be an entrepreneur and run a small business).
From a business standpoint do I have it nailed?
No. Not even close.
If you think you have it all nailed and all together, that’s complacency talking. That’s the time to look deeper into your business.
Look, I know my business model still isn’t quite right, and I am sure there will be more pivots in my future. But I also know that my small business clients are reaping the rewards of my hard-won experience.
They are successful because of all my epic failures. They succeed because of what I learned. They get results because of the years when my results were less than stellar.
And yes, I still offer business coaching and mentoring along with my copywriting – although now I can help businesses avoid a few more pitfalls simply because I fell in all of them myself first.