What I wish I’d known on day one – business leaders share their wisdom
In an interview with Foundr magazine, billionaire British businessman Richard Branson explained what he thought every new start-up needed in order to succeed – “If you can ensure your business responds to a real need out there in the market place, your business can punch well above its weight.”
It’s a principle that can certainly be applied to his newest commercial venture Virgin Galactic – who doesn’t want to say they’ve been to space? – and has served him well ever since he first launched Virgin Records. Find your niche, make sure there’s a demand and then do your job well.
But it would be foolish to pretend that the path to success is not lined with obstacles; according to Forbes, 90 per cent of start-ups fail. There are multiple reasons why this sorry majority become derailed (Inc. magazine suggests everything from arrogance to sloppiness), meaning that one of the smartest things any new business can do is listen to those who have been there before them and hear their war stories.
For the benefit of every new business starting this week, this month or this year, we put one simple question to eight British enterprises and left them to mull it over.
We asked them: “What do you wish you’d known on day one?” This is what they told us…
Spend longer on your name and website
“Like many people I came from a traditional accountancy background,” says Mahin Khawaja, Director of Adroit Accountax, “and this is a profession that for years has done things in a certain way. Knowing the online world and how it would shape my company’s work would definitely have been an early advantage.” He says that he and his colleagues have had to learn quickly about new and emerging technologies, such as the cloud, and that it’s an area no new business should overlook. “We’re now up to speed, but a head start would surely have helped,” he says.
Don’t spread yourself too thin
“When I first launched my business my biggest fear was whether I’d be able to pay the mortgage,” says Lynn Scott, founder of Lynn Scott Coaching, “So I spent hours doing necessary but non revenue-generating admin at the expense of focusing on building a good client base.” After a while, she says, she invested in someone to do that for her. “It freed up my time and energy to do the things I love, that I’m great at – and that bring the money in.”
Think beyond the bank
Every new business needs start-up capital, which is great news for the banks who are usually only too happy to snare a new client. But High Street banks are not the only people lending money. “When we started I assumed that the most cost effective place to go for finance was the bank,” says Anne Cantelo, MD of Onyx Media and Communications. “I wish I had done more research as we could have saved thousands a year by using alternative finance. You can now get products where there are no hidden fees, the interest rates are comparable to the banks and they don’t demand personal guarantees.” Most small businesses, she says, never even contemplate this less-travelled route to financing.
Conquer social media
“When we launched in 2008 there were a million things to organise and social media was not an immediate priority,” says Neil Westwood, Managing Director of Magic Whiteboard Limited. “It took us about 18 months to properly get our head round it. Once we did, business rocketed as awareness grew, and we found ourselves kicking ourselves that we hadn’t tackled it earlier. If I was starting again from scratch, social media marketing would be our number one priority.”
Make the most of networking
It seems such a 1980s concept and conjures up images of bored, grey people doling out cheap business cards, but networking remains the lifeblood of multiple companies – and Reina D’costa, MD and founder of legal and business service consultancy Bizlaw UK, wishes she’d been quicker to catch on. “When I set up my business I really didn’t realise how important contacts and networking skills were,” she admits. “In fact, most of our clients have come from word of mouth referrals.” Rather than spending a lot of money on advertising, Reina quickly latched on to a more personal approach and connected with people she knew: this, she says, helped them become part of her database for relevant updates on LinkedIn. She also made the most of client testimonials, which helped position Reina as an expert, and by making sure old contacts never fizzled out, she managed to ensure clients remembered her as they moved through their careers. Today, she says, many of them refer their own new contacts to her business.
Don’t underprice yourself
When starting out, the temptation can be to offer a deal that undercuts your competitors so that people will try you out. While this can work, Tim De La Salle, MD of Fly Marketing, says there are drawbacks. “What I wish I’d known on day one is not to undervalue, and thus underprice myself or the skills of my team,” he says. “It sounds simple but it’s all too easy to try and compete on price, especially in a commodity market like web design, digital marketing or accounting.” Tim argues that a better idea might have been to “differentiate ourselves from the crowd.” Now that Fly have done so, he says, “we command higher fees which are commensurate with the value we deliver.”
Surround yourself with experts
“I knew I had the technical knowledge to make my R&D Tax Credits business a success and after a quiet start, the second six months saw it really take off,” says Simon Bulteel, who set up Cooden Tax Consulting in 2013. The problem was, he says, he was “spending too much time working in my business rather than on my business.” Finally, after about 12 months of floundering trying to do everything for himself, he started looking for people who specialised in areas of the business he didn’t really need to master. “Now I am working with a social media expert, I have joined a sales and marketing support group, I have someone managing my website and a call answering service. I’ve even decided to let someone else do the bookkeeping. These people specialise in their areas for a reason and they let you get on with working on your business,” he says.
Let clients know what makes you unique
“When I started,” says Janice B Gordon, aka The Problem Solver, “I thought about delivering a great service and I did, but as I know now in a competitive environment if you stand for nothing in particular you fall for anything.” Customers must be able to distinguish you from other service providers, Janice argues, adding that she has learnt that the more niche she became, the more success followed. “If you are able to pinpoint this at the start of your business,” she says, “your message is clear to your customers.”
Mike Peake is a journalist and has written for the Sunday Times, Harrods magazine, the Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest and Country Life.