Lessons learnt from 10 years in business

As we approach Faith PR’s 10th year in business, our MD Stefanie has summarised the most important 10 things she has learnt in business over the past decade.

Lesson #1 People are key to your success

I learnt early on that you don’t have a business if it stops when you’re not around. This was particularly difficult in the first six years when I was essentially a PR consultant and didn’t have a team around me who could carry on delivering when I wasn’t around. This was the reason that until recently, I felt I couldn’t have more than a week off work because I didn’t want to leave my clients stranded while I went on holiday.

I knew that if I wanted to grow the business, I couldn’t do everything on my own; I needed a team in place who could keep things going even if I wasn’t there.

Before I took on my first full-time employee, I tested the water with freelancers and made sure that the business has enough recurring revenue to support their salary. It’s much easier to ‘switch off’ a freelancer than make someone redundant if you lose a big contract!

As I grew the team, I also learnt the following important lessons:

  • Having employees as your number 1 cost of goods makes hiring and firing much more important and something you have to get good at managing or else you’ll fail
  • Never hire friends! You can replace an underperforming employee but have you ever tried replacing a friend-employee? The chances are when the business relationship is over, so will the friendship.

Lesson #2 People are also one of your biggest headaches!

Over the years I’ve learnt that it’s not only hard to find, hire and hold onto the best staff, but managing them can be extremely challenging! I’ve found that this is due to the fact that you are often faced with sorting out issues that are not always in your control.

The best thing to do is accept that your staff will leave at some point – you just don’t know when. No matter how close you are to them, or how well the role suits them, they will move on because people change and sometimes ‘life’ forces you to move on even if you could never have predicted it.

When they do leave, get upset but then move on. Turn their departure into a positive and recruit someone more experienced to move your business forward.

Lesson #3 Communication with your team is key

In line with the previous lesson, I’ve found that one of the best ways to a successful relationship with your team is to have open, honest and frequent communication, however big or small.

I make sure that I share the business’ performance and aims and ambitions on a quarterly basis. I’m very open and transparent about the numbers and how we make money – if my team don’t understand that, how can they add value?

Likewise, I’ve learnt it’s important to talk often and address the little things before they become too big an issue. Don’t wait until a performance appraisal – regular, more informal chats whether they’re over a coffee or in the car on the way to a client meeting can be more productive.

Lesson #4 Nail your accounting

As someone who has always been rubbish at maths, I’ve always shied away from anything to do with numbers, budgets and spreadsheets! But you can’t run a business successfully if you aren’t on top of your numbers.

So, I’ve learnt to make friends with spreadsheet and ensure I know our numbers inside out. I can’t plan or make important decisions affecting the business if I don’t know what our forecast is for the next quarter and beyond.

These are some of the top things I’ve learnt:

  • Understand profit & loss; your own and your clients’
  • Cash flow, or lack of it, will kill your business (we got close after having to find a substantial amount of our personal money to inject into the business four years ago when cash flow nearly broke us)
  • Remember sales are vanity; cash is sanity. Forget about how big your revenue number is or how many people you employ. Focus on how to read a cash flow statement and how much cash you actually get to keep!
  • Put in place systems and procedures that will support your growth and allow you to keep an overview of the company’s performance such as xero (this software has revolutionised our accounting!)
  • You can operate at a loss for several years but can only run out of cash once. Have a rainy day fund that has at least 2-3 months’ operating costs in it – or a line of credit.

Lesson #5 Act like the business you want to be not what you are

Think and act like a bigger company. Get the systems and processes into place early on that will support your growth.

Obviously PR can help with raising awareness of your business and contribute towards your reputation and how your want your business to be perceived.

I’ve always found that it helps to voice your ambitions out loud – it makes you more accountable which in turn, makes it more likely to happen.

Lesson #6 Don’t try to be all things to all people - stick to what you’re good at

When you’re setting up in business it can be tempting to say ‘yes’ to every job just to get some revenue in. But doing so can really backfire if you can’t deliver. Don’t say you can do everything when you really don’t have the team, process, or proven results for that service.

As Warren Buffet famously once said; “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”

So before you say yes to that piece of work that isn’t really your core specialism; is it really worth the pain, hassle, cost (if you need to outsource it to someone who can do it) and tarnished reputation if you can’t deliver?

Define which service you are really good at and then do it well. Customer loyalty comes from doing one thing extremely well for your clients. Know your worth and value and if people don’t recognise it walk away. In line with this, is another adage I live by; always under promise and over deliver.

Lesson #7 The power of networking

Networking is one of the most powerful and most critical tools available to help you grow your business. The beauty of it is, it can happen anywhere – whether it’s through local networks, industry specific groups or even online through social media. Everywhere you go is an opportunity to work on networking skills - so it’s important to always remain professional and represent your brand everywhere you are.

Find out what type of networking works for you. I found out early on that certain types of networking groups just don’t work for my business model (and that I’m not a fan of super early morning networking events!) so I don’t waste my time going to those.

Also be specific – I have certain ‘prospect criteria’ which helps me choose which networking opportunities to pursue.

The thing to remember with networking is that it doesn’t work overnight. Good networks take time to build – but once you have the right relationships, they will help sustain longevity and success. And while it’s important to connect with new people, it’s equally important to nurture and leverage your current network.

Lesson #8 Treat your clients like GOLD

The retention and growth of existing clients is easier and cheaper than acquiring new ones and should be your no. 1 priority. If you provide an amazing customer experience and make them look good, they will buy more services from you and stay on longer.

BUT - accept you will also lose clients, you can’t keep them forever, as strong as you think your business relationship is. I’ve lost brilliant clients over the years through things such as them selling the business, the Ukraine crisis (yes, really!), the arrival of a baby or a change of client contact.

Making your clients advocates of your business if your best new business strategy. I’ve found over the years that recommendations and referrals from existing clients are the strongest new business leads and will be far more likely to come off than a cold lead.

Lesson #9 Make decisions that mean you can sleep on a night

It can be hard running a business, no doubt about it. There are often big decisions to be made which can affect people’s careers and livelihoods. And while there is no easy way out for big problems, remember, there is always a way out and a decision to be made. Once you have made a decision, you can move on and deal with the next thing. If that decision turns out to be the wrong one, then make another decision to sort it out. By acting you will feel more in control.

One principle I always try to adhere to when making decisions is whether I can explain them. People may not always like the decisions you make but hopefully with insight and explanation, they can accept them.

Lastly, if you really are stuck, the one thing that should help you determine a course of action is whether your decision, whatever it may be, ultimately benefits the business?

Lesson #10 There are other things in life besides business

I think it’s a given fact that most of us spend too much time at work or thinking about it. This can create a very narrow and sometimes lonely world.

Over the years I’ve come to learn how important it is to get (and also give) support from family and friends along the way – it will make your career and life journey much more enriching.

It’s also essential to find a way to switch off and alleviate stress, or you will just burn out! And a burnt out, stressed leader is no use to any business. Ensure you take time out - even if it is just time out mentally. For me, it’s running. It helps either take my mind off work or think through problems and achieve clarity.

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