I ignored the first rule of starting a business—for a year.
In 2004, I quit an incredible job so I could follow my entrepreneurial dreams. I bought a book about how to be a freelance writer, created a website, a pricing structure and an ambitious list of my ideal clients.
But after three years as a solopreneur, I found myself feeling crazy and only just making ends meet. I earned enough to support myself—a dream come true for sure—but I was doing everything on my own and not always very well. I knew that the more clients I had, the more money I would make. But I could only take on as many clients as I could handle in my waking hours. I was limited by my own limitations.
Of course, it occurred to me that I could hire someone else and pay them part of my client fee. But I told myself I couldn’t spare the money. Or the time to train someone.
And to be embarrassingly honest, I didn’t believe anyone could write the assignments as well as I could.
(This, I now realize is the height of self-delusion, but it’s also a very common one.)
The hard truth is that I knew how to find and keep clients, but I did not know how to run a successful business. And there is a big difference.
To rescue my sanity and my suffering relationships (an overworked entrepreneur does not make a fun girlfriend), I took a full-time job again. For the next several years, I had the honor of serving as managing editor and then senior editor of SUCCESS magazine.
I kept my business going part-time while I learned from some of the most successful entrepreneurs, innovators and achievers in the world. Slowly, I realized that one of the most important missing ingredients in my business had been scalability.
Before working at SUCCESS, I had never even heard the term “scalable.” Now I know that creating a business model that is capable of growth (scalable) is essential to its success and to the business owner’s sanity, whether that business stays a solo operation or not.
This plan for growth means different things to different businesses. Essentially, as the amount of work grows, you must have a system or structure in place to accommodate that work. Otherwise, you’ll overload the existing resources—and by resources, I mean you.
If you’re sighing right now because you know the feeling of overwork, this is what I want you to pay attention to: It’s not too late to create a plan for growth.
Here are four steps to determine how much further you can go at this level of scalability before losing your innovative little mind:
- Write down the number of hours you’re spending on your client work each week. Then write down the number of hours you’re spending on administrative or other work related to running your business. Total them. If you don’t know these numbers, keep a log for a week.
- Ask yourself how much more you can handle. Be honest. Do you have another hour in your day or would adding more work require skipping a lunch break? Missing meals and losing sleep are not sustainable business practices.
- Analyze your marketing. Do you get clients from your website? From social media? From an online job site? How many and how fast do they come in?
- If you continue to acquire new business at the same rate, calculate how soon you will crash and burn. How much longer before your workload overtakes your ability to function as a healthy human?
In my case, I had met my breaking point a few years earlier, so I had to start with a completely new structure: a relaunch.
When Not to Listen to the Experts
After I left the world of the employed and relaunched my business, I created a new business plan, established an LLC, and committed to working under an entirely different structure—a scalable one.
Immediately I had several clients—a combination of people who had been working with me for years and new folks who found me through referrals. Within six months, my relaunched business had made more than I earned in my last year as a full-time solopreneur.
And I didn’t even have a website yet.
Every expert out there told me to get a website. And I ignored them. I set aside what is usually the first order of business and just ran my rapidly expanding operation.
We grew quickly for a number of reasons: Yes, my previous work at SUCCESS and the Emmy Award on my shelf played a part in that. You can’t discount your experience and skill level. But I also had learned how to create client relationships that inspired loyalty and those all-important referrals, as well as how to hire, delegate and outsource so I was my most productive and effective self.
I held off on creating an online presence for over a year.
Despite the advice of many startup experts, I didn’t brand myself online. I didn’t advertise or publish or work any SEO magic because I wasn’t ready for any more clients than I already had.
I spent the first year of my relaunch working on systems, processes, teams and goals that would help us prepare for future growth. And I’m so glad I did.
Could I have put up a website and figured out how to handle the new clients we got as a result? Sure. But I knew from experience that in the process I might also have worked myself to the point of burnout.
Instead, we scaled slowly and steadily. Our revenue has increased 20 percent each year in a way that hasn’t cost me (much) sanity.
Here’s the point: Just because someone tells you the first step to start a business is to put up a website or seek funding or write a book or whatever, doesn’t mean you should automatically follow that advice.
The first step is one that only you can determine because it’s based on your vision for your business.
Yes, ask for help. Read what the experts say. Research your options. And ask for help again.
But in the end, listen to your gut. Create the business you want, on your terms and in your time. You’ll reap far greater rewards than revenue.