Starting a business? 10 things I would say to myself 5 years ago

By: Carlos Oliveira on
13 minutes to read
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Next week sees Shaping Cloud reaching the grand old age of five. I still remember speaking to business owners during our early days and thinking that any business older than five years was truly established and mature and how it must all get really easy by then. The reality is that while it definitely isn’t easier it is very, very different to those early years of the business and I wanted to take some time to reflect on the last five years and give some advice to myself that I hope will also be useful for anyone thinking of starting their business or in the early phases of their adventure and I use the word adventure deliberately:

“An unusual and exciting or daring experience.”

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

1. Accept that for at least 2 years this will take over your life

I do believe that it takes a large dose of naivety to start your first business, you have to have a simplistic view of what running a business really means because if you knew at the start just how much hard work and time it takes to get that boulder moving then I think we would see far fewer business launching. Accept that evenings, weekends and holidays will all involve some element of work, accept that you won’t be able to switch off the way you could when in employment and accept that you will be working far harder for far less financial reward…but it does get better!

2. Keep adjusting until you find your market

You are starting your business, you have done your homework, assessed the market, researched your competitors you know you are onto a winning formula - now you can more or less throw that out of the window. I believe that in the vast majority of cases the world simply doesn’t work that way, in particular for your first business. Everyone says that to be a successful entrepreneur you have to stick to your beliefs and of course that is important but I think the more important quality is to constantly be looking at ways to tweak, re-position or flat out rework your business model. You are coming into a crowded and noisy place and it will take time to find your place and make your voice heard.

3. Network relentlessly especially in the early days

I see so much advice out there for small businesses and start-ups telling them to focus on their social profiles - how to get Twitter followers, how to drive traffic to your website, the power of LinkedIn. If you think that you can grow your business whilst sitting at a keyboard then I’m afraid you will most likely end up back in employment. The only way to win business in the early days is by getting out there and attending every possible event. Formal networking, trade shows, social get-togethers - anywhere where you will get an opportunity to speak to other people and tell them about your business. Having to explain to other people what your business does gives you some great real world feedback and is the best way to see what you need to think about adjusting. Patience is key, it will take a LOT of conversations and a LOT of events until you start to see some traction and begin to see rewards from the hard work but I would say that for the first 2 and half years of Shaping Cloud it was this network that sustained the company through direct work, leads and referrals and it continues to bring opportunities our way today.

4. Recruit sooner than you think you should

Hiring people is scary, it means this isn’t just about you any more. When it’s a solo affair, you can always mitigate a bad month or two by simply not taking money from the business but now you are bringing someone in who will need to be paid every month. Tax, NI, PAYE - all of a sudden it feels like a much more serious business, but if you are serious about growing a business then the simple fact is you will need people, lots of talented people who do things you cannot do or do things better than you can. The sooner you recruit, the sooner your business will begin to grow so take the jump as soon as you have a revenue stream that can support a wage, even if that stream is short term. Nothing in business is guaranteed and if you keep waiting for that “One” contract that will allow you to hire you could be waiting an awfully long time.

5. Empower, don’t delegate

So you’ve made the move and you’ve recruited your first members of staff - now you need to let them take ownership of their role and of their value to the business. Delegating a task simply means getting somebody to do something instead of you doing it, but ultimately the responsibility remains with you. This I feel is for many businesses something of a jumping off point - are you trying to build a scalable business that runs itself? Or are you wanting a lifestyle business where you will always be the focal point? I’ve met lots of business owners who enjoy the “hero” role, coming in to save a deal or a delivery by swooping in and taking back control of the role before then handing it back in a “that’s how you do it” manner. If that is what you enjoy doing then that’s perfectly fine but understand that you will never be able to grow beyond the glass jar you have built around your business.

6. Always listen to advice, don’t always take it

When you first start your business, you will be bombarded by advice (including things like this blog!). Always listen to the advice, especially when it is coming from people who have been there and done it, but understand that every business and every leader is unique, there is no set formula. Take the bits that will work for you and your business. One of the best things I did during the last 5 years was go on the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business programme which is a structured training programme that helps to give business leaders the skills they need to build a high-growth business. The content and the delivery of it were fantastic, but by far and away the most valuable aspect of the course was sharing time and conversations with the other 24 business leaders in the room. All the businesses were in completely different markets to Shaping Cloud but there were so many common truths and challenges between us all.

7. Don’t forget to invest in yourself

As your business grows you will start to look at staff training programmes. You’ll want to provide an environment where all of your team are empowered to take control of their careers and skill up in the areas that will deliver the most impact for your business. This is clearly a great thing to do but it is easy to forget about yourself in all of this and in reality it is you who still has the steepest learning curve ahead of you. When you are in employment your job is well-defined, with clear skill requirements and a clear path for how to move up the ladder. When you are leading a business your role is in a constant state of flux, you become a chameleon, always having to adapt to the landscape of your business and your team structure. It’s vital that you make time for yourself - reading books, watching TED talks, attending leadership events, going to the gym - whatever you find that works for you and allows you time to reflect and assess.

8. Think big, you will surprise yourself

Shaping Cloud moved into a 6 man office when it was just me, within a year the office was full, we then moved into a 2,000 sq ft office when there were just 6 of us - 3 years on and we are literally bursting at the seams and looking at taking on more space. I’ve always been positive about my business and about where I want to take it and you have to think big, set goals that seem scary and far off because that is the only way you will get there. Of course there have been stumbles along the way but keeping some Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) in the viewfinder helps you remember what you are working towards and it will surprise you just how quickly you can get there - and when you do, think bigger.

9. Follow your instincts

There have been so many times when I have done something, or even more importantly not done something, that I knew in my gut was a wrong move. It is easy to find yourself in analysis paralysis when you have a decision to make, you want to feel like you are doing everything based on the facts and the data presented. Don’t get me wrong, facts and data are absolutely vital when you make business decisions but equally important is what your instincts are telling you, so when facts and data don’t point to an obvious path then trust that feeling. It has taken me long time to get to a point where I am able to listen to and follow my instincts and I think it has contributed hugely to the growth we’ve seen in the business over the past 18 months.

10. Enjoy the challenge and stay positive

The previous 9 points probably paint a picture that running your business is nothing but constant strife and stress - which to some extent is true! However, it is also one of the most rewarding things that you can do in your life - watching Shaping Cloud grow into an established business, seeing the people that I hired at the start continuing to grow and develop into the leaders of our business and beginning to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that owning your business can give you are all more than paying off on the investment and sacrifices I had to make in those early years. I think one of the biggest things I’ve learnt about myself over the past 5 years is that I am a positive person, I’ve always kept believing in myself and in my business and I do think that is probably the single biggest asset you can have as a business owner. Accept that there is stress but never let that dominate your thinking, keep moving forward and focusing on all the great things that are in your business rather than letting the negative points bring you down.

About the Author

Founder of SPINR, Carlos has been advocating how the use of a SOA approach based around API's can provide the platform for true transformation in the Public Sector. Aside from SPINR he is also the Chair of the techUK Local Public Services Committe that aims to improve the engagment between the public sector and the IT industry.