I am about to reach my three-year point as a full time entrepreneur. Three years ago around this time I was in the middle of the process of leaving the corporate world and entering the entrepreneurial world. February 1, 2010 was my first official day out on my own, as solo entrepreneur starting Simoons & Company.
These three years have been quite interesting, never a dull moment! They were not always easy, yet above all bringing a lot of fun. Recently I had lunch with a lady formerly from the corporate world who just started out as a solo entrepreneur. We discussed some of my learning points over the past years and this conversation made me realize that I learned a lot these past years. In fact these years have been a true learning roller coaster, not only from a professional perspective, but also more from a changing business perspective.
Let me try to summarize the top 7 lessons I learned during the past three years:
#1 Focus, focus, focus
Everywhere you will read about the need for focus and yet you will probably feel that you can’t afford focus. You want to be serving many customers and don’t want to say no; first the business needs to be running. But there is the catch-22: the business will only really start to develop when you focus. And the sooner you focus, the sooner you can afford it.
I saw my business only really develop when I made the decision to focus and stop some of the broader activities. Now my focus is clear and concise: “I am a business coach specialized in strategic alliances & partnerships; I guide entrepreneurs, business managers and alliance professionals to excellence in strategic alliances & partnerships.”
#2 Build your brand quickly
Brand recognition is key in building a business, but as an your brand will often be associated with the company you are working for. It was imperative that I worked my brand and people would stop knowing me as Peter Simoons from that large corporation. I think I did pretty well here, more and more feedback indicates the Peter Simoons and the Simoons & Company brands are strongly connected and associated with strategic alliances & partnerships.
#3 Trust is essential; following a process can be helpful too
When building your relations it is essential to follow your gut feeling and build upon trust. Without trust there will be no business. This is certainly different for a solo entrepreneur than it is as a large corporate. In large organizations you are personally to a lesser extend connected to the large corporate brand. Customers may buy the brand without directly buying [from] you. As a solo entrepreneur you are the brand. Customers will need to trust you and the brand before they buy.
The same applies to establishing alliances, but following a process can certainly be helpful too. Over the past years I have established a number of alliances to grow the business. The ones where I followed the process are successful, the ones where we purely trusted our good feelings and intentions have either faded away or I have had to cancel them, as there was over time a misunderstanding of the intentions.
#4 Office beats distraction and procrastination
For your own effectiveness and business sake it is good to have an office when you start, a location where you can close the door and focus on your work. At the kitchen table there is too much distraction around you and there are too many items in the house that can suddenly be oh so important. In the office there is no distraction, just you and your work. Focus!
#5 Dealing with large companies
I have been part of the large organizations myself and have been dealing with large organizations from that perspective. But it is different when you are out on your own. It is an experience where you are being pushed back and forth between pride and pain. You are proud of the fact that the large established brands are interested to do business with you the solo entrepreneur. On the other hand seeing your rates being squeezed by a purchasing department hurts. Payment terms of 60+ days may have been common in the days of working in a large corporate, now it really hurts.
The solution comes back to #1: the clearer your focus the clearer your niche and added value will be. As long as you have a clear added value the negotiation will be reasonable and I have learned that even though the first answer is “this is the way we do business over here” in the end there are always solutions to bring also the payment terms back to something reasonable.
#6 Delegate or be your own bottleneck
As a solo entrepreneur you are the company. So you will have to do product development, delivery, sales, accounting, business development, stay informed about developments in your niche. In fact you have to do every little thing that you take for granted as being taken care of in a large corporation.
Delegation is the answer, even though you are on your own you need to delegate by outsourcing or creating alliances. From day one I outsourced most of the accounting work. Nowadays I have delegated international travel planning and I am grateful to be working with an excellent assistant. Everyday though I am still learning what I can delegate and what I need to do myself. It drills back to the core: I have to focus on maintaining the relations and everything that is related to developing and delivering my services, beyond that I will delegate even more to free up more quality time for customers.
#7 Selling yourself is a different ballgame
In the large corporations I have been amongst others in business development and sales. Selling your employer’s brand and products is in general easier than selling yourself. Maybe it is our Calvinist upbringing in the Netherlands, but we were never taught to put ourselves in the spotlight. So selling that excellent business coach that can help you solve your alliance or partnership challenges and bring it to excellence, selling that fantastic brand by the name of Simoons & Company is not always easy. But you have no choice, to a certain extend you can outsource selling of standard products and services, but in the end the brand is you, the services are delivered by you, so time to get over that hurdle of modesty and start selling.
So far for my top 7 lessons of the past three years, if you are stepping out on your own I really hope they will be helpful to you. Please share it with your friends and contribute your own lessons and experiences in the conversation below.