Six important lessons I’ve learned from my first year in business

There’s almost nothing like the learning curve you go through when you start your first business (except maybe having your first baby!). We asked one business owner to share her most important lessons.

One year ago, HR consultant Michelle Gyimah started her business Equality Pays. Today she reflects on some of the valuable, hard-earned lessons that she’s learned in the past 12 months.

Six lessons I’ve learned from my first year in business

I think that the title should probably be ‘What haven’t I learnt in my first year in business?!’ All joking aside, I’ve learnt so much that when I think back to how little I knew a year ago it just makes my head spin.

I celebrated my first year in business in late June 2015. I took voluntary redundancy the year before while on maternity leave from a very comfortable civil service job. It was scary. But it was the right time for me as I’d be thinking about it for about three years.

So what have I learnt? Enough to write a book, but I promise I won’t do that. I’ll stick with my important lessons instead – here are the top six.

1) Patience is a virtue

This is probably the world’s most annoying saying (especially when you want something now), but it really is true. No matter how good your new business product/service is, it is highly unlikely that you will be inundated with calls and orders from day one.

I stupidly believed that as soon as I pressed ‘publish’ on my website (which was so hideous) the world would be calling and e-mailing me. Wrong. It took me nine months to get my first client. Yes, nine months. Not because my service isn’t any good, but because I’m a newbie. I had no credibility and no evidence to prove that what I said on my website was true.

Despite my vast knowledge in my business area, I had to start again. I had to build up my reputation from the ground up. I did this by blogging, tweeting, posting on LinkedIn, engaging in business groups, helping others and networking.

It’s painstaking work, especially in the beginning when you think that you are talking to an empty room. Over and over again. But the reality is, people are listening to what you have to say, they’re just waiting for the right time to get in touch and buy from you.

And that’s what happened to me. My first client, signed up for my e-newsletter and sent me a message saying that she really enjoyed reading my Facebook posts. That made me smile. Three or four months later, she bought a service off me. My first sale! Nine months after I started. I was ecstatic!

So when you’re feeling rubbish, because it feels like its taking so long, remember, people will buy from you when they either need to or want to. In the meantime, keep talking to them because you never know when that will be.

2) Have a financial safety net

This is so important! It takes time for a business to start earning money, most don’t earn anything in the first year. That is stressful enough without having worry about not having enough money to keep the business going and pay all your regular bills.

I was in a fortunate position, I had redundancy money to fall back on. I was nervous about using it and towards month 11 when it had almost gone I was having a real panic about things. But in reality, it had been a HUGE help to me. It took the pressure off me and my family, because in those months where I wasn’t earning, I had money to pay the bills and keep the business going.

So my advice would be to either get saving before you give up your job or try to source a low cost loan/credit card to help fund your business. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but there are also lots of pots of money for start-ups, including ones specifically for women. It’s worth doing some research and investigating all your options to see what you can get.

3) Pat yourself on the back

When your mind is bogged down with worry and day to day business stress, it can be really easy to forget your achievements. But I promise you, there will be lots.

From being in business I have learnt how to use Twitter, set up a website, write blogs, sort a business PayPal account, do my own marketing, write e-books, organise and develop e-courses, run webinars and organise consultancy agreements. That is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea.

It’s so easy to forget to see these achievements and milestones, but that is exactly what they are. Put it this way, if I’d not learnt how to do those things, my business would not be as advanced as it is today. So pat yourself on the back and celebrate those achievements.

4) Get your partner on board

If I had to pick one overall tip, this would be it. Being a business owner can be a lonely and sometimes soul-destroying venture. You are in a position where you are responsible for EVERYTHING, and frankly that is a lot of pressure to bear.

I won’t lie, I’ve spent countless hours crying, feeling miserable, feeling exhausted, burnt out and in the frame of mind thinking I’ve made the worst decision ever. But my partner has been brilliant.

When I’ve been wracked with self-doubt or anything of the other rubbish feelings mentioned earlier, he’d remind me of all I’ve achieved. And tell me that building a business takes time, so to keep at it and it’ll happen. There were loads of times, where I didn’t believe him, but now I do.

If he had not been there to give me those pep talks and hugs when I needed them, I probably would have gone out and got a job now. That is why you need your partner fully on board, to pick you up and sustain you when the going gets tough and you can’t see how it’ll work out.

5) Sort childcare

This is one pretty obvious for those of you with children. Especially young ones. It’s impossible to get anything done with them around. My partner works flexibly so he is home a lot to look after my little one, but then I was also snatching nap times and after bedtime to do work. I was heading for burn-out.

I resisted putting my son in nursery purely because of cost. I wasn’t earning a regular income and I’m not entitled to any benefits. It felt like it was not an option for me. But then I realised, I was trying to run a business working 1.5 days a week, so that I could also have a good amount of family time whilst working.

In the end, I had to take to the plunge and put my son in nursery for two days a week and my partner has him one day a week. And do you know what happened? I stopped being anxious all the time because I had more time to network, make products and connect with more potential clients. Which in turn has meant more income.

So, if you can figure out a way to pay for childcare, do it! Look up childminders, nannies, swapping childcare with friends, family members, Whatever it takes, make it happen!

6) Self-care is a must

I’d never heard the term self-care until about eight months ago and at the time I just kept thinking ‘I haven’t got time for it’. But it is so so important, because otherwise you will head for burn out. Running your own business can be all consuming, you’re in charge of everything and in some ways it’s like your baby. But we all need to take breaks.

I was terrible at doing this in the early days, but I’m now much better. So what does it mean? It is basically about you looking after yourself physically, mentally and if you want spiritually.

We all need time away from our daily job and business owners are no different. My partner reminded me the other day that I should book holidays. At first I resisted because I was like ‘no, but I don’t get paid for them and I don’t deserve them’.

Now I think, ‘Yes I do deserve/need/want a holiday.’ Also, I find that my best ideas come when I’m away from my desk, completely relaxed and not thinking about work. I jot these great ideas down in Evernote!

So do whatever makes you feel good and helps you to re-charge your batteries. That could be a regular massage, getting your hair done, hiking, walking, family time, catching up with friends, going to gigs, singing, painting, yoga. The list is endless. (You can read tips on making time for yourself here.)

These are my lessons – what are yours?

So they were my most important lessons that I’ve learnt during my first year in business. I have lots more, but these were primary for me and I think that if you were to talk to other business owners, there’d be some synergy.

Owning and running your own business is a huge rollercoaster of emotions and challenges, but ultimately, I wouldn’t change it for the world. So go out there and do it – and start learning some of your own!

Need HR tips (without the jargon)? Visit Michelle’s website and sign up for her free HR checklist