7 Lessons From the First Year of Business

I tend to get a little sentimental this time of year. Sure, there's the Fourth of July, which many people across the US celebrate. I, too, am deeply grateful for all of the people who made (and make) our freedom possible. But I also moved into my first solo apartment on a sunny Independence Day weekend in 2003. And last year, I officially launched this business on July 1. So, the beginning of July has many layers of significance for me. Freedom takes on many forms.

Naturally, I've been reflecting a lot on this first year of Signify, which was created to help small nonprofits and social enterprises get noticed and grow through effective marketing and communications. It's been my desire to help cause-focused organizations like these succeed because they are making positive impact on the world. They are the types of businesses I support personally, and now I'm able to support them professionally as well.

So, here are seven lessons that I've learned over the past 12 months. I think you might find them helpful as well, whether you're just starting your organization or need some additional perspective as a seasoned business owner.

 7 Lessons From the First Year of Business

1. You must start, and remain, flexible.

One of the hallmarks of tech companies, which continually sets them apart from other businesses, is that they're pretty nimble because their feedback loops are small. Meaning, they put something out there, which isn't necessarily perfect, then they gather feedback, make improvements, and relaunch. They live in this mode.

However, most businesses tend to try and perfect their product or service prior to launch, gather feedback slowly, and then might make some adjustments over time, and eventually relaunch. It's usually at a snail's pace, especially for nonprofits. But if you haven't noticed, your phone's Facebook App is updated every two weeks! They don't wait for major fixes, they test and tweak along the way.

I get it. You don't want to be a tech company. Neither do I. But I think there are some valuable lessons here. Less than six months into Signify, I hired a business coach for a short-term project. I would've actually hired her earlier, but I had to meet certain qualifications to work with her.

One of the first things she told me was rethink my mission slightly. She was afraid I'd narrowed my niche a little too far to be profitable. And it was a good point. So, before I even had a website, I made the shift. It was a relatively small step, but it did make a difference, and has brought in some fantastic additional leads and clients that I might not have had the privilege to work with otherwise. 

Startups tend to bend toward flexibility because almost everything is a learning process. My story above is probably not unlike one of your own. However, startups later become big girl or big boy businesses, and with experience, they tend to slow down in adulthood. I could see myself doing the same because I might feel that I have things "figured out." But the lesson for you and me is keep the mindset of the youngster. Organizations that stay agile are more connected to their audience, willing to learn, and lesson the pains of having to make large changes after heading down the wrong path for too long.

2. Even solopreneurs don't work completely alone.

When you're just starting out, the thought of hiring people, event to do small tasks, seems like an absolute luxury, doesn't it? And today's technology makes it easier than ever to learn things out of your depth, like using Canva to design graphics when you aren't a designer. 

So, most of us cobble everything together, using bandages and duct tape to run our business. We declare it good enough for now, and when we _____(insert milestone), we'll hire someone else to improve it. 

However, the ability to scale your business often means relying on others, and we all started our business to eventually scale, if only by a little bit. My website is built in Squarespace, which prides itself on putting the capability to design a website in the hands of the everyman. And, as a project, I actually designed a simple website for a client in early 2016 using Squarespace. So, I knew my way around it. 

But I also knew there were better things to spend my time on, like working on paid projects and writing my site. And I wanted it to look better than anything I could do myself. So, this was the first thing I hired out. Yes, it was scary because it was a big expense for me, but I've been really happy with it, and again, it allowed me to do tasks that actually paid me rather than spending my time designing a site, and taking much longer than a pro. (Thanks, Madison and Dusty!)

I've also hired an account because I'm world-class terrible with numbers. And I spend a lot of time asking and listening in Facebook groups to learn from others as well. None of us can do everything. It's just not possible. My clients are often looking for the unicorns that can do it all (and I don't blame them), but the truth is, they don't exist. So, be humble enough to learn from others or ask someone else to do the work. You'll relieve a lot of stress when you cross this line.

3. Relationships are everything.

You've already realized this, but sometimes listening to "experts" can be a little misleading. For example, I was under the impression that I would build this business differently than I've built the rest of my career.

There are a lot of people online touting that if you just put great content on your blog and promote it on social media, your email list will just steadily build and those people will become clients. It seems so easy, and guys, I fell for it. #goodmarketing

I have no doubt that this is the case for some people. It has, however, not be the case for me. Instead, I spent years freelancing while I had a full-time job, volunteering, giving free advice, and building long-term relationships. These are the amazing people who have become my clients

When I first started talking about my business, they were excited for me. They asked how they could be a part of it, and were thrilled to have more of my dedicated time—and, low and behold, they were happy to pay me! For the first three months, they sustained Signify. I thought it was incredibly wonderful, but it wouldn't last. I needed to do what those experts said instead. So, I did, and while I've made some great new relationships and a few potential leads, it hasn't been everything those experts said, at least so far.

Six months. Nine months. Now twelve months. My business is still running because of people I know first-hand and referrals. Helping people is an amazing thing. Helping friends is even better. With the exception of two jobs, one of which was at a restaurant, every job I've ever had has come through a personal relationship. So, for me, this new endeavor shouldn't be any different.

Think about who you know. Be good to your friends. Try to be helpful. It will come back around!

And do yourself a favor, and get a mentor if you don't already have one. These relationships have been invaluable for me.

4. To some extent, organization determines your success.

This may seem like an odd inclusion, but getting organized has come up several times over the past year. I'm a pretty organized person by nature. It's just part of my personality. And I can't work in a messy environment, whether that's on my physical desktop or my computer's desktop. However, it's also something I often end up discussing with clients.

I've heard stories of people losing leads because they weren't organized enough to find the right documents to send to these potential clients. They simply took too long, and the lead moved on. And I've known clients who weren't very productive because they were unorganized. It stopped them from making much progress, whether they were gathering sales or donations.

I also worked on a fundraiser that started out fairly disorganized. Employees left the organization, and files were everywhere, changing hands year-to-year, getting scattered throughout the organization along the way. I felt like Gretel chasing crumbs down the hallways. There were a number of things we did differently last year, and organization was one of them. They actually ended up grossing 400% over the previous year in donations! Yes, there were absolutely other big things involved in making last year different than previous years. Otherwise, this girl would be on her way to the millionaire's club. But the staff all noted that organization helped the process feel more smooth and professional. It showed to them, and to donors.

If organization doesn't naturally come to you, I urge you to find a system that works. It doesn't have to work for everyone, but it has to work for you. Your productivity will increase, your stress and that feeling of scrambling will decrease, and you'll look and feel more professional. And I think those are two keys to success.

5. Comparison really does kill.

Theodore Roosevelt said, "Comparison is the thief of joy," and Teddy was right. Recently a friend and I were talking about this subject. It's difficult to look on the internet and see emails, ads, and posts by people who are doing similar things—and thinking they're doing them better.

One of the proposals you have to continually make with your business, whether starting out or just seeking out a new client, is your position. You have to declare what makes you different, which helps build your case.

This is easier on some days than others, depending on your mood or how business has been going lately. But the thing my friend and I reiterated for each other, and what I want you to hear as well, is that what makes your organization different is you. The service or product may be the same or similar to someone else, but no one can take away your individuality. YOU are what you bring to the table. Be confident in that.

(But if you want a few ideas from nonprofits and social enterprises that you can tailor to make your own, take a peek here.)

6. Without strategy, your plans have no purpose.

I'm a huge proponent of strategy, but even I lose my way. (Like, a lot.) It's just so easy to see the To Do list building and get distracted by tasks. But if you never move from small tasks to actually accomplishing your goals, you're just going to spin your wheels. And that's the opposite of progress.

This is actually a series I'm planning to do soon because it's occupied my mind during June. I can't stop thinking about it . . . likely because of this season of reflection that I'm in. And I'm grateful for it. This is a prime time for learning.

To keep your business moving forward, you need a strategy. This may be a marketing strategy, refining your products or services, growth or expansion in general, bringing on additional help, etc. There are a thousand things this could include. You'll have to decide for you. For me, it means adding to my 1) client base for revenue and 2) email list so that I can continue being of help to others through my blog and Special Features, my monthly newsletter. That means I need to make all efforts concerning those two goals a priority, and figure out how to handle everything else. This will likely mean some outsourcing. Again, scary, but good. I'll keep you posted.

Consider your strategies. Are they working? What can you to do improve them?

7. Even in "failure," show yourself some grace.

I have a confession to make. And it's a hard one for me. 

I didn't meet all my goals this year.

A year ago, when I looked forward to this time, I thought I'd be in a different place. I thought I'd have some digital products, an online course, a larger list, more income, etc.

Some of this realization has been difficult for me. As a goal-oriented person, it really is a hard confession to make. You may look at it and think it's no big deal. You may even think that yes, of course, things look different after a year. We can't predict the future. And, if it were you saying these things, I'd say that you're absolutely right.

Sure, these things might not officially be labeled "failures," but they were for me.

It's always different when it comes to ourselves, yes? I've always been my toughest critic. 

During the last year, I've had to adjust goals, timelines, and so much more. Some of these have been incredibly difficult because consistency is the pulpit from which I preach. But I know there was a good reason I made each and every one of these changes. I didn't take them lightly. I had me in mind, and I had you in mind. 

I have to continually remember that I've also had some great successes. I've helped out friends with their projects, launched my website and online presence, improved my health, and sustained myself financially, to name a few.

On the days that I remember my failures, I also have to remember my wins. Not to do so is a disservice to myself and my clients. We've done some great things together. I have to show myself some grace. I'll use the past experiences to propel myself forward.

I encourage you to do the same because the world needs our work. No one else can do it.

Here's to year two! Wishing you abundance and joy as well.

If your organization is new, did any of these surprise you? If you're a seasoned business owner, what other advice would you give?

NOT-SO-SIDE-NOTE: a HUGE thank you to everyone who has supported me over the past 12 months. I have amazing family, friends, and clients. I'm more grateful than I can say! 



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 Here are seven lessons that I've learned, and I think you might find them helpful as well, whether you're just starting your organization or need some additional perspective as a seasoned business owner.

 Kristi Porter, founder at www.signify.solutions

I'm Kristi Porter, and I started Signify to provide writing, consulting and strategy services to nonprofits and for-profit organizations with a social mission, primarily through copywriting, marketing and business communications. I believe that cause-focused organizations like yours are the future of business. You're proof that companies can both make money and do good. And I'm here to help you get noticed and grow. When you succeed, we all win.