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10 Things I Learnt In My First Year Of Business

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When it comes to starting your own business, there are plenty of places to seek motivation. From books about mobilising your inner boss to the rise of the side hustle to the spiritual Instagram quotes that flood our feeds telling us to follow our dreams and reject the 9-5. Just do it, the Universe says. Think about the consequences later.

So, I did. I took the leap – and within two years, I’ve created a profitable agency with a strong client roster of both international big names and local independents. I have six staff, an office space in a trendy Manchester location and business is booming.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it wasn’t.

Social media has always been great at showcasing the finished product. But it doesn’t tell you about the journey – the worry about being able to pay staff salaries, the concern over securing new business and the thirst that keeps you up at night pondering what next.

Does everyone have the ability to be their own boss? Absolutely. But does success happen overnight? Of course it doesn’t.

Over ten years in the marketing industry – two of which I’ve run my own business – has taught me what works and what just doesn’t when it comes to starting a business.

So, to make sure you get off on the right foot – and don’t just follow your feed – I’ve shared some tips and anecdotes from my first year of business. Enjoy.

  1. Success does not, I repeat, *does not* happen overnight.

Be honest with me now – have you ever had a bad day at the office and pictured what life would be like working for yourself? No boss breathing down your neck, choosing how and when you work, having endless holidays… it all looks fantastic. And it is… once you get there. But, it takes time to get to that point.
When I started plans to launch my agency, I worked full time. After a year of juggling 60+ hours a week of my main job and my agency plans, I was finally able to take my agency Cedarwood Digital full time. After running my business hands on for the past two years, I’m only now finding I can step back somewhat and take time off. So, be realistic. Yes, everyone should consider launching their own ventures and being their own boss. But be realistic about what it will take to get there and how you can make it work.

  1. Step away from the screen and make real business connections 

It might sound strange for a digital marketing agent to reject screen time, but it’s the truth – real-life business encounters have been my most effective form of sales to date. Whilst many marketers spend time tweeting their way to client wins, I’ve found that networking at events is invaluable for generating leads. After I’ve run a course or spoken at a conference, I usually always find attendees either approaching me in person or adding me on LinkedIn to inquire about my services. There’s so much competition in the digital sphere, that I think sometimes B2B marketing messages can get lost in the void of content-marketing campaigns, lead-gen forms, social media posts…etc. When you speak at a conference, you immediately position yourself as an expert. And you immediately place yourself in front of a room of people who are interested in what you offer. Suddenly you’re not a faceless bot pitching for a sales lead via email. You’re a friendly face that can be relied on.

  1. Did you start your business to reject the 9-5? Great. Now don’t make your staff work it.
    Myself and my entire team of six are under the age of thirty, so I guess you could say we’re a “millennial business”. We’re young, and we have new ideas around how the working day should look. I started my business because I didn’t to be forced into another person’s constraining work routine. So, I didn’t want to be hypocritical and do the same to my staff. So, I introduced agile working; staff can work anytime, anywhere, as long as they complete what is required of them. This of course comes with it’s limitations and rules. Staff are required to be contactable between the hours of 10-2pm. And there are some workers who are more attuned to micromanagement that will not suit this agile working style. But the freedom has made our productivity soar. 
  1. Working from home sucks. There, I said it.

When I first started my business, I succumbed to the dream of working from home. It would be so easy, I thought. So relaxing. What I didn’t appreciate is that it would also be so unstimulating. Human beings are sociable animals – we crave interaction with other human beings, not only for communication, but ideas, inspiration, and strategy. After a few months of slogging it solo at home, I joined a group of fellow freelancers in a shared office, and the impact was incredible. Just being around people in the same industry, having conversations about the great work we do, had a huge impact on my productivity levels. So, save home time for home-things and invest in a co-working space to launch your start-up instead.

  1. Reputation is everything

Treat your clients well and they will return the favour. It’s a mantra I live by and I’m living proof of its spoils. In my first year of trading at Cedarwood Digital, all of the new business we took on was from client referrals. That’s all ten of our new business leads. And I’m very proud of that. Word travels fast, no matter how much you’re promoting yourself on LinkedIn. So, if you’re not treating your current client base right, your prospective client base will hear about it.

  1. Sometimes, you have to turn work down. And that’s okay.
    When I first launched my agency, I was bitten by the business bug. I wanted to take on as many new clients as possible, accelerate growth and scale up the team. But it wasn’t until I was at the final stage of a pitching process for a major client win that it hit me – that we’re just not ready for this yet. Taking on such a huge new client was going to put immense pressure on the team that I’d spent so long building up and I didn’t want to see them crumble under an unmanageable workload. I turned the client down and I don’t reject it one bit. Always prioritise quality over quantity and make sure you have the infrastructure in place to facilitate the workload. If not, then you may need to turn it down.
  2. Clients are like staff – if they’re too difficult to work with, then don’t work with them

I love my clients. And that’s because I have worked hard to create positive, healthy working relationships based on clear communication and manageable expectations. But, things have not always been that way. I’m sure we’ve all met that client that wants the world on a shoestring and isn’t afraid to shout you into submission. But the good thing about running your own agency is that you call the shots. If you’re pitching a client, but don’t think you could work with them – then don’t. 

  1. Always set expectations

So often the client-agency relationship breaks down because clear objectives and expectations haven’t been addressed. It’s such a basic step yet it so often gets overlooked. Don’t assume your client wants to improve their visibility overall, then find out at the next monthly meeting that actually they wanted to focus on a particular clothing product. Ask them what they want, directly. Never assume, always ask. 

  1. Don’t hire junior staff unless you’re willing to train them

In my experience, businesses often use junior staff as a cheap way to plug gaps in teams with little thought to the training and development of the individual. What usually happens is the junior staff member struggles due to the lack of support and the management that hired them gets frustrated because they really wanted a very experienced person, but they could only get a junior salary signed off by HR. So the lesson: hire junior staff – they’re great! – but only if you’re prepared to train them. Entry-level jobs are perfect for shaping employees and nurturing talent. At Cedarwood, my graduates independently manage campaigns with impressive budgets, deal with client queries effortlessly and support the business daily. Yes, they needed a couple of months of training at the start, but they’re assets to the business.

  1. Time off is just as important as time on

When you start your own business, it’s all hands-on deck. It’s an exciting time and the combination of excitement, drive and nervousness about failure can turbocharge your working hours. So much so, that it can be hard to switch off. But switch off you must. Whilst the last two and a half years have been extremely rewarding from a personal and a business perspective, I’ve also hardly taken any time off. Because taking time off means letting go of the reigns for a little bit, which can be daunting. But remember; no battery can function at 100% forever. You need time to recharge. Now, I make a conscience effort to engage in weekly yoga, make time for travel and simply allocate hours when I switch my phone into flight mode at the weekends to make sure I squeeze in some me time.

Amanda Walls is the Founder and Director of Cedarwood Digital, a digital marketing agency based in Manchester. Aside from offering client services in PPC, SEO and consulting, Amanda also works as a trainer for Google’s Digital Garage and has trained thousands of marketing professionals nationwide.