Last month was my first anniversary of working a startup from ground up. A year since regular employment, surety of pay, health benefits and 401k contributions. Instead, putting all our focus into a business that was yet to exist, had no customers and no revenue. Gone was the sanctuary that our family had relied on for twenty plus years. My wife and I have two teenage sons with the eldest going to university next year. I must be mad.
This is not a Cinderella story of incredible business success. But we have made it this far and are ever the more energized to keep bootstrapping and tenaciously fighting to nurture and grow our fledgling business. I want to share three key learnings based on the past year’s experience in the hope it may help others who are thinking about starting off on their own.
You need your rock
Picture the scene, you’ve had a successful twenty-year career working up the corporate ladder to leadership positions in large industrial organizations, are compensated accordingly and are financially secure. You then tell your spouse you want to quit and startup a business, putting all of that at risk, and they tell you that’s exactly what you should do. A month, two months, six months later, as you rationalize your decision making for the hundredth time, did I do the right thing? have I needlessly put my family at risk? Created a financial burden? Am I the liability? Your partner is there, believing in you when you don’t believe in you.
Time and again in those dark moments, and there are dark moments, when you can feel like the whole world has left you behind, having somebody that believes in you, truly believes in what you are doing is simply a must. This may be a spouse, a relative or a good friend, we all need that emotional support, that believer, that rock to lean on when things invariably get tough. The first six months were tough, very tough, the business didn’t make any money, we could have folded, I could have got a job. Thanks to my wife I didn’t, and we made it through.
Partner for success
Our business is a professional consulting business, we are selling our skills and experience primarily into the electric utility space, which, by nature, is a conservative and slow-moving business. People don’t like new, it’s a tough nut to crack. When we started, we had everything ahead of us to stand up our business from strategy, structure, marketing, legal and finance the list goes on, a daunting task. I partnered up with former work colleague and we divided and conquered, supporting and questioning each other’s thoughts and ideas. We utilized each other’s strengths and shored up each other’s weaknesses to get the best outcome for the business. Further, we reached out to key players in the industry who were providing similar services to get their advice. We were asking our competitors.
Ultimately, we ended up creating a strategic alliance developing a symbiotic relationship with a key partner which has been one of our biggest successes to date and critical to survival in the first year. In hindsight, finding a business partner was a crucial step that each start up should seriously consider early on. Further, finding and asking your competitors, having open and candid conversations with them will at a minimum help you accelerate your knowledge and improve chances of success, and perhaps, it could lead to developing partnerships mutually beneficial to all.
Put first things first, don’t sweat the rest
My initial concerns in the first months turned out to be the wrong things to worry about, which were in part driven by common human behavior. I worried about how we would execute before we even had customers! As such, we weren’t as focused on, or effective at, finding the right customers or pitching the right services. It’s like a hunter worrying about how he will cook the fish before he’s caught it, you’ll starve to death first before you get food poisoning!
Psychologically, it’s a chicken and egg scenario. You must be confident prospecting and pitching in front of clients, even though, you may not feel competent yet, especially if you don’t have the information at hand to know you can execute. But what makes you confident? It is competence from superbly performing such work. This key insight can help overcome a significant hurdle for a small business which, in fact, still creates barriers for growth in established enterprises.
Put first things first, focus on what will get clients into your business (of whatever immediate success may be), don’t sweat the rest, this is a distraction, everything does not need to be perfect. For our business, all efforts needed to go into improving our prospecting, pitching and marketing skills building competence in this area, we had to subordinate the rest, it did not matter. We focused on social media campaigns around our service lines, creating high quality content blogs in our field of expertise. We were positioning our company as a forward leaning thought leader in our professional field, producing educational and useful content for our target audience. We diligently prepared for customer calls practicing our pitch, refining and debriefing after each call, then tweaked and pivoted where necessary.
In it for the long haul
It was, and still is, a lot of unpaid but vitally necessary work as we continue to pivot and refine as the market demands. Ultimately it paid off, customer one came in. If you’ve ever watched Discovery Channel’s Big Tuna, yes it was like that.
Our story is still in its infancy, and we are learning and adapting as we go. We have the battle scars from the first year, however, we’ve successfully made it through a critical phase for any startup. We have perhaps learned more this year than in the last several. Starting a business is as hard as it is exhilarating. I hope sharing our story and these insights will help others who are putting in the effort and taking that leap of faith. The last year has been a hell of a ride and we can’t wait to see what the future brings for AIM Power Consulting!
© 2019 Craig Nicholson all rights reserved.