10 surprising things I learned from the first year of running a business

Like many people in 2020, I decided that I wanted to do something different. Why not blow up your life? That dumpster fire of a year seemed like the perfect time. I left my comms role at a coding bootcamp in London to start the business I’d always dreamed of: a boutique content agency creating beautiful copy for a select number of clients all around the world.

It all started with a Maxwell mood board

I wanted to keep it simple. I didn’t want to raise funding or build a team. I just wanted to give myself a year to take on different content projects and see what came back. Having dealt with issues around Lyme disease since 2017, I wanted more control over my schedule to attend various appointments and more time to work on the things that mean the most to me.

So I spent January 2021 on the website and admin. The following month, I launched with this post (it’s cute reading it now).

As this first year winds down, I’m in a 21-day hotel quarantine in Hong Kong, with lots of time to reflect on the year at a glance:

  • 30 clients in 11 cities across Europe, America and Asia
  • ≈£60K total billings (before tax) with≈£20K profit
  • 4.9 out of 5 stars for service.

But what about everything the numbers don’t show?

What I told myself a year ago:

These are the three things I would still tell anyone else thinking of starting a business.

  • You don’t have to have all the answers before you get going. I’ve worked with enough startups to have acutely felt the power of customer development (The Lean Startup) or the lack thereof, and I had to remind myself that it was okay not to know how things would play out.
  • You’re going to spend a lot of time with your customers, so choose a target audience that you enjoy serving. I was lucky enough to work with Rob Fitzpatrick back in the day and so much of his excellent advice was the best real-world MBA. He said that once and I always remembered it.
  • Start a business that makes sense to you. A lot of founders brag about having a team of XX size and that they’ve raised XX in funding. But sometimes despite that, the fundamental building blocks of their business don’t make sense. In the startup world, the Chads of the world often bark that if you don’t HUSTLE! GROW! DOMINATE! Then you are FAILING! It’s noise to block out as you figure out what you want.

What I didn’t know a year ago:

1. Your idea of market demand is just a theory until you test it.

A year ago, I was nervous that no one would need copywriting services. A lot of people told me I was wrong, and I thought they were just being nice. I was really surprised by the level of demand— all the work has come organically from word of mouth.

It turns out that every marketing team, everywhere, needs great copy. In less than a year, I’ve gotten to work with so many different clients around the world. This diversity has felt more ‘right’ to me than working in a homogenous environment.

2. The solitude (“loneliness” on the bad days) is real.

“The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.”

— Carrie Bradshaw

I underestimated how much my inner extrovert would miss working on team projects and collaborating with people I saw every day. But it’s more than that. When you’re an employee, you’re operating within parameters that someone else sets: here is the schedule, the task, how you get promoted.

When you’re self-employed, it can feel like you’re operating in a void. You have to create the context for yourself and figure out which metrics are the most meaningful to you. You’re your own boss. And nobody wants to work for an asshole, but at the same time, the hardest person to manage is yourself.

3. The best investors come in many different forms.

Having worked for a variety of startups and launched ventures myself, I knew that if I ever started a business again, I wanted it to be customer-funded. You never forget your first client, and mine was the PR firm of a mentor, Georgia. The projects she gave me were her unofficial investment into my business.

Peer-to-peer mentorship can be so powerful too. My friend Mallory was running a similar business and encouraged me to take the leap, turning my idea into a brand and a beautiful website. She and I also started fortnightly accountability sessions over Zoom, and it felt like some kind of mutual emotional investment.

There are also people like Allison and Evgeny who made what felt like countless introductions, and I appreciated it so much. While it wasn’t an official ‘investment’ in the traditional sense, when they opened their networks, it was in many ways even more meaningful.

4. A workspace that fits can take a while to find.

In search of work friends, I joined a coworking space. While it was good to get out of the house, I felt weird interrupting people in the middle of the day when they were working. So I didn’t.

Day 1 at the coworking space

There’s a difference between sharing emotional space with teammates and sharing a physical space with strangers. I went looking for the former but found the latter.

I’ve always looked up to the filmmaking team Shark Pig in LA and love the idea of teaming up with creative buddies to share a “colourful, eclectic, fun” office space in the future. The Shark Pig collective is my dream workspace but I know it might take a while to stumble into that kind of setup.

5. To-do lists are not goals.

The whole point of having clients is to serve them. But much like an inbox shouldn’t be a to-do list, a Trello board isn’t a vision. I kept my goals very open-ended this year and so I’ve been doing a broad variety of projects.

It’s a practice (which I haven’t mastered) to step back and ask: does this fit into the bigger picture that I want to create, or am I making an extremely random collage out of other people’s desires and priorities?

In June, Mallory and I wanted help setting quarterly goals, so we began working with the incredible business coach Joanna Howes.

People often think of a coach as an advisor but I see it as having a security guard for your soul. A coach helps you set the goals you need to set, not the ones you want to set.

One of the best things about this year has been having the time to connect with inspiring women from all walks of life, largely through my blog. I recently met Georgina JS, who helps female entrepreneurs with the exact issues I’ve been facing. It reminded me that even when you feel completely alone, someone else has faced something similar to what you’re facing.

6. Cash gridlock is annoying AF.

I usually agreed on projects over email (except with clients with whom I had a retainer agreement). It didn’t happen often but if a client pulled out, it left me in what felt like gridlock, when it was too late to do any more BD for the month and yet stuck without the funds I’d planned to receive. Also, 1 in 6 business invoices are paid late.

Next year, I plan to become like a restaurant that requires a credit card to confirm the booking and start using more formal project agreements using Dubsado or Agree.com. I might also redesign the sales process now that I know what it looks like.

7. The fastest way to become a better writer is to write a lot.

In an in-house content role, you’re doing a lot of writing but you’re doing a lot of meetings and admin and stuff around writing too. This year, I’ve been able to just write, on the topics I’m personally interested in too. It’s been funny to notice how much your brain connects the dots into stronger habits the more times you repeat something.

It me

I’ve also loved doing more editing. Even though I haven’t updated the website yet, I’ve loved working with some aspiring authors to help them refine their drafts and book proposals. One author recently got picked up by a HUGE publisher! (It’s their news to share, not mine, but I can’t wait until they do.)

8. Being professionally challenged leaves less room for overthinking.

Last year, if something annoyed me, I might stew on it. Then talk about it. Then stew some more. But now, I try to park it where I can. Maybe when you’re under-challenged at work, you start attracting drama: things that aren’t a big deal become massive as it gives your mind something to unpack. But if you’re challenged to capacity, your brain doesn’t have the energy to engage with stuff that really doesn’t matter in the long term.

9. Money is a tool to take you where you want to go.

It can take two to three years for a startup to reach profitability, so I am really happy with what I think is a solid start, even though I know it’s important not to get so caught up in the metrics that you lose track of the bigger picture. I’ve learned this year that there’s a big difference between making a quick buck and creating something of lasting value.

Also, personally speaking, I could make all the money in the world but it wouldn’t mean as much to me as feeling healthy and energetic. No matter how much some projects pay, if they’re run in a deeply toxic way, they’re not worth the stress. Similarly, I’ve done a couple of pro bono projects that have helped me to remember why I started the business in the first place. As Tim O’Reilly put it: “Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations.”

Photo by Stas Kulesh on Unsplash

10. The only person you’re trying to prove something to is yourself.

I always wanted to write and work with companies I believed in, bring in a decent income and be able to work from anywhere. I had disagreements with so many people when I was younger over whether it was too idealistic. It’s only with hindsight that I can see how working in other’s startups was the ideal training ground to do exactly this.

This year, I shared the highs and lows of the business with loved ones who were all supportive. But none of it ever matters to anyone else as much as it matters to you.

All in all, it’s been a big learning curve in managing myself. There are good days when I feel invincible and other days when I feel pathetic, but maybe it’s only in unchartered territories that we discover our truest selves. Looking back, what I can say for sure is that you really don’t know what’s possible until you give it your best shot.

Hello from Hong Kong hotel quarantine

I’m always happy to chat on email or Insta (thanks Mel for bringing me back on social!).

If you’re dealing with health issues, I highly recommend the amazing Daisy Ilchovska.

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Writing stories (www.adelebarlow.com) and helping companies tell theirs (www.copyand.co)

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Adele Barlow

Writing stories (www.adelebarlow.com) and helping companies tell theirs (www.copyand.co)

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