When I first co-founded a management consulting firm and started my business back in 2007, I was shitting myself. How was I going to win clients? Replicate my 6-figure corporate salary? How would this whole thing work?
Even though I wasn’t stepping into a whole new industry, the leap felt risky and massive.
My business back then had nothing to do with the webosphere. Sure, we invested in a web site, but it was simple and completely static without blog at all – in fact I don’t think I even knew what a blog was.
Even though times have changed pretty dramatically when it comes to how I run my business these days, I feel like looking back can really help you move forward. Even though today my business – and I’m betting probably yours too – has much more to do with the web, I thought it’d be kinda fun and hopefully useful to share some of my experiences from that first year in business.
And yep, as the title of this post suggests, we bought in just over $300k that first year.
I see many people sharing how they made almost nothing their first year of business – and getting lots of support from their readers (and maybe even some 6-figure backlash) celebrating them for opening up and admitting that they made so little. And I sincerely agree; good on them for sharing their journey so openly. I admire and am inspired by them too.
But at the same time those stories made me hesitate to share my own first year journey… because I didn’t struggle that way. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of struggle, and many times I was worried about revenue and cash flow and all that, but we brought in multiple 6 figures early. Somehow… and I know this is my own shit to deal with here… I felt a little ashamed to share because I don’t want to be taken as big noting myself. That first year was fucking hard – and the revenue is just one small part of the experience.
Ok, now that’s off my chest, read on to discover what my very first year in business looked like.
That first year there were very few 20 hour weeks for me. I was working on my PhD as well as starting a business and life was hectic. I worked my ass off. Seriously, if I’d done the maths at the time I probably would’ve discovered I was earning less than $40 an hour.
As well as client work and setting up business structures and systems, I threw myself into business development. Think: strategising, coordinating, writing and submitting 60+ page proposals and panel submissions, and me standing in copy centers waiting for bound hard copies A LOT. I regularly worked until 7pm on weeknights and at least a few hours most weekends.
At the time I was doing heaps of pole dancing for fitness – and having something active that had nothing at all to do with work that I loved to do 3 or 4 times a week definitely helped me stay sane.
Key Lesson: No matter how much there is to do, don’t spend all your time working. Your wellbeing will thank you.
A lot of the big proposals I worked on had to be submitted by hand (how old school does that sound!) and presented exactly as per their seriously stringent guidelines in every way – fonts, spacing, number of pages and content, even whether the proposal should be bound or in a 3-ring folder. I had to find ways to stand out from the crowd in other ways. Hear me when I say: really thinking through the client’s needs and then packaging up and showcasing our expertise accordingly was key.
Key Lesson: Packaging your expertise the right way will help you stand out from the crowd.
There’s SO MUCH to do when you’re starting a business. Even though we started by trying to cover as many bases as possible, we quickly realised we were gonna get better traction focusing on only a couple of lead generation techniques that suited our strengths and market.
Specifically we focused on:
- Getting on as many preferred supplier panels as possible (we figured by doing this we were starting to build assets for the business),
- Responding to all relevant requests for quotes (sometimes just so we’d get our name out there and in front of people), and
- Re-signing current clients (we figured this would be easier than always going after new clients).
When we opened up shop, we had one client. By the end of the first year we’d worked with a total of 6, maybe 7 clients. That’s it. And we re-signed most of them, some 2 or 3 times.
In the first year, we managed to get on 6 panels, which may not sound like a lot but was honestly a mammoth task. This meant we had access to requests for quotes that never made it to public tender or regular media outlets. Having access to these opportunities – literally even just seeing and knowing what was happening for our potential clients – helped A LOT.
Whenever I met with potential clients, I’d ask as many questions as I could, and I’d happily do whatever I could to help clients get clear on the vision they had for their business – whether that meant me sharing recommendations and IP, pointing them in the direction of resources, drawing diagrams or providing other advice. I did this for a few reasons:
- I was usually excited by the project and couldn’t help myself,
- It made my job of putting together proposals and quotes MUCH easier,
- It built goodwill, and
- It helped potential clients get a taste of what it’d be like to work with me.
We’d be thinking about re-signing clients almost as soon as we won the work. Not in any sleazy pretend-there’s-more-work-here-than-there-really-is way, but rather going into things committed to doing the best work we could for the client.
We bet on that goodwill and momentum paying off somehow. And it usually did.
Also, I’m convinced building weekly 1:1 review sessions and project wrap up sessions with clients into all projects really helped here. At those meetings I’d present my consulting and coaching records, including my key results and recommendations for the week, so I could keep clients engaged, accountable, and clear on all the awesome work we were doing.
Key Lesson: Focus on just a few overarching lead generation strategies that play to your strengths.
Key Lesson: Build in opportunities for clients to recognize progress, results and the benefits they experience from working with you.
When it came to pricing, the same kind of full on guidelines applied as other parts of the proposal process. Most potential clients had certain categories/ranges within which you could nominate consultants and coaches based on their experience and quals. So for example, back then the range for a principal coach/consultant might be between $1250 – $3500 a day.
I decided early on that I was going to have big balls and always quote towards the higher end of the range. This was something my biz partner and I debated a lot – and gave me a chance to really consider and solidify my personal position on premium pricing strategy for coaches and consultants.
But… that doesn’t mean that once we were accepted onto the panel of providers I wouldn’t low ball our prices on certain quotes in a panicked attempt to win work. These days – as you know! – I’m against this kind of discounting for lots of reasons. But I definitely learnt this the hard way. On reflection I can see this came very much out of fear, insecurity and doubt, instead of any solid business strategy.
Key Lesson: There’s no point waiting for permission to charge premium pricing. If you want it you have to claim it.
Working for free
That first year I never explicitly worked for free for clients – but I definitely found myself putting in a bunch of unaccounted for hours on both business development and client work (especially client management, which sometimes seemed never-fucking-ending).
I wanted my work to be really high caliber – because I figured (and still believe) the quality of your work and how you make people feel is your ultimate calling card – and quite often that meant putting in extra hours. Because of this, 2 things happened: 1) I developed a solid rep for doing high quality work (yay!), 2) I was constantly over extending myself and exhausted (boo!). (By my second year in business it dawned on me that this thing was a marathon, not a sprint, but it took me until year 3 and a serious health challenge to make proper changes on that front.)
Key Lesson: Build in client management time and quote projects at at least 1.5 X’s what you think it’ll take to complete the work at the outset – especially if you don’t have a bunch of experience with similar offers. That way you’ll have some breathing room. This goes for forecasting resources and scheduling as well.
In that first year, we kept things pretty lean because we were always worried client work could dry up (read: earning 6 figures doesn’t make you immune from those fears!). My business partner and I contributed $10,000 of our own money so we knew we had coin in the bank for any expenses that came along.
We whacked together some totally dodge looking business cards, “designed” (and I’ve never used that word more loosely) by me. As soon as we realised our business cards were part of our branding – we hired a profesh designer to do a better job, along with a logo, brand colours and simple website. All up I think it cost us about $2000.
We also invested $1000 in a monster printer/scanner thing, which at the time felt hugely expensive, but was totally worth it. It saved us a bunch of time and printing costs when it came to getting all those massive proposals together and workshop materials printed.
Perhaps our biggest investment was insurance, especially $10MIL worth of professional indemnity insurance. It alone cost us around $5000, but without it we weren’t eligible to bid for some of the bigger contracts we wanted to go for. I know it sounds totally boring but this was a great investment and returned at least 10X in our first year.
That first year we also invested in branded Christmas cards for us to send out to clients. I went for it, even though the smallest print run we could get was 100 cards. We really only needed about 20. At $550 plus postage it was SO not worth it. I should have just added a handwritten note to some regular cards.
Key Lesson: Invest and go pro where it counts.
Something I hated doing (but forced myself to do anyway) was attending networking events – especially ones hosted by the profesh associations we were members of. Honestly, 99% of the time, they were shit boring and I personally didn’t see any particular direct return on the investment in terms of winning new clients that way… but I do think that being seen at those events was important when it came to actively participating in the industry and continuing my education. And I reckon attending those events helped clients see us as experts in our field.
Seriously, the idea of introducing myself to someone I didn’t know at these events made me want to die, so instead I hung out with people I knew (usually people I’d already worked with and liked). Occasionally they’d introduce me to other people they knew. Occasionally I’d introduce them to people I knew. This approach still had me feeling nervous when I was parking the car and readying myself to go inside, but was far less cringe worthy and no where near as bad in reality.
Key Lesson: Do what you can to get involved in your industry and continue your education in ways you like.
By the time we started the business I was already committed to being unashamedly myself. I’d already figured out that being me usually worked out pretty well and that in a mostly male dominated industry, where clients tended to expect dower men in dark grey suits, just being myself (which usually involves swearing, laughing, a sense of general wrongness, embarrassing myself, and keeping it real) made it much easier to stand out. (Also, I’m tall. In heels I can get to a dizzying 6’3”, which was taller than most of the guys. That probably helped too.)
Key Lesson: Your personality is just as important as your expertise for clients, so bring your whole self to the table.
To sum up
Here’s 15 factors (in alphabetical order) that I think were critical to bringing in $300k+ that first year in business:
- Asking lots of questions
- Becoming known for high quality work
- Being myself
- Being seen by clients (not even actually talking to them) at networking events
- Building goodwill with clients
- Creating high-value packages
- Focusing on getting on preferred supplier panels
- Focusing on solving problems for existing and potential clients
- Having mentors and role models
- Investing in a couple of big ROI things (like insurance)
- Offering a select range of services within a niche (we offered coaching, done-for-you consulting, workshop facilitation and training)
- Our premium pricing strategy
- Regularly connecting with clients and creating opportunities for clients to keep the results we were getting front of mind
- Submitting heaps (and heaps!) of proposals
- Regular meetings with my business partner where we worked ON, instead of IN the business
Did you notice almost all of these factors are transferable across most industries? If preferred supplier panels don’t apply to your industry or niche, read that instead as lead generation tactics that’d work well in your industry. For example, maybe for you that means blogging, or speaking to industry associations, or running Facebook ads, or something else entirely.
As you read this monster post, did you think ‘sure, that’s ok for her, but I wouldn’t be able to do that’? If you did, back up a second. I urge you to dig a little deeper and examine those beliefs. I have a feeling they’re likely unfounded.
Your entrepreneurial journey might look very similar or very different to mine. Maybe your business is entirely online. Perhaps you’re not dealing with corporates or government. Whatever it is, I believe that if we set our minds to something and take consistent action, almost anything is possible. You are limitless if you want to be.
Now it’s your turn: What’s the biggest lesson you learnt from your first year in business? I’d love you to share so we can all learn together.
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